He’s Gross, but people love him!

Paul Gross is back in the saddle
Paul Gross is smiling.
He’s sitting on a sun-splashed hotel patio during the recent Toronto International Film Festival and lighting up one more smoke from his omnipresent pack of Players.
Fans of the 45-year-old star ó who is probably the most popular Canadian actor around today ó may wonder which of his many smiles Gross was sporting.
Was it the quizzical grin that smoothed over so many rough spots for Constable Benton Fraser on Due South?
Or was he favouring the cocky half-smirk that made Chris Cutter from Men With Brooms so cheekily endearing?
The answer is neither.
On this particular day, Gross beams with the quietly satisfied look of an actor who has two projects he’s proud of about to reach the public eye.
The first is Daniel MacIvor’s latest film, Wilby Wonderful, which opens in Toronto this Friday after having had its premiere last month during the film festival.
It’s a typically MacIvor-esque view of the human situation, in which he presents us with the inhabitants of a small island community on the East Coast as their lives seesaw from comedy to tragedy before our eyes.
Gross plays Buddy French, the local police officer, who is facing a variety of midlife crises: marital, career and ideological. There’s a strong streak of the loser in Buddy, which makes it an odd choice for everyone’s favorite winner, Gross, but the actor didn’t have a moment’s hesitation about playing the part.
“I got a script through my door and I sat down to read it in my kitchen. Got to the end, picked up the phone and said, `I’ll do it.'”
Interestingly enough, although Gross “had admired (MacIvor) for so many years as both a writer and performer, I had never met him. I’d never even spoken to him.”
And although it was the quality of the writing that first snagged the attention of Gross, it was the rest of the cast that had been assembled that clinched the deal, with performers like Rebecca Jenkins, Sandra Oh, James Allodi and Maury Chaykin all along for the ride.
“You’d have to be a fool not go with a cast like that,” laughs Gross, “it was absolutely the most delightful movie experience I’ve ever had.”
The film was largely shot at a decommissioned Canadian Forces station at Shelburne, N.S. and Gross describes it in a phrase as “Camp Wilby.”
“We slept in dorms and there was a huge kitchen where you could have cooked for a battalion. We had movie nights, ping-pong tournaments, go-karts, fireworks. In fact, the movie had to work around our social calendar.”
But according to Gross, even the work wound up having a playful air to it.
“MacIvor creates an amazing atmosphere for actors to work in. Far better than I’ve ever been able to do,” he confessed, referring to his own numerous stints as a director.
“We did a lot of talking about the scenes in advance, but when we actually came to work on them, it all fell together so easily. I can’t even remember him directing us on set, and that’s the greatest compliment I can offer a director.”
The last film Gross made before Wilby Wonderful was the box office winner, Men With Brooms, which he starred in, directed, co-authored and co-produced.
He practically leaps out of his chair with joy when asked what it felt like not to have all that on his shoulders this time around.
“Man, it was such a relief not to be pulling the wagon. Just to show up and be told what to wear, where to stand and not worry about whether the light was falling or if it was going to rain tomorrow. I just had to be myself. It was sublime.”
Men With Brooms was the most financially successful Canadian film of the past quarter century, but here is its creator, two years later, playing a role in someone else’s movie instead of helming another major project of his own. How come?
“Ah, that’s the genius of the Canadian system,” sighs Gross with a heavy layer of sarcasm, “it doesn’t like to reward success. We always have to start from Square One.”
And so, instead of a big-screen feature, his latest major effort is a 4-hour miniseries schedule to be broadcast on CBC on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.
It’s called H2O: The Last Prime Minister and Gross describes it as “a political thriller set in Ottawa.” After the Prime Minister drowns, his son takes over the reigns of government and finds the country facing an international conspiracy.
Gross plays the filial heir-apparent and can’t say enough about the work of director Charles BinamÈ. “It’s the first time I’ve written something that actually wound up looking like it did it in my head while I was creating it.”
He’s also bullish about the way CBC has handled the project. “I haven’t worked there in a long time, but their total support and unreserved enthusiasm for the project has been fantastic.”
And as if this month wasn’t already shaping up to be a big enough month for Gross, he receives one of the final proofs that he’s made it big in his native land: he gets the full Life And Times profile treatment from CBC on Thursday, Oct. 14 at 8 p.m.
“I can’t wait to see it,” quips Gross, “I’m dying to find out what I’m really like.”
And then he smiles again.