By Kevin Ritchie
It took nearly a decade for Sabrina Grdevich to learn how to be demure. It’s not surprising to here her admit this – in person she’s expressive with her arms, waving them around as she talks and rarely breaking eye contact. Grdevich, a former Ryerson theatre student is at the Toronto International Film Festival to promote Carl Bessai’s new film, Lola, in which she plays the title role. She studied acting from 1988 to 1990, performing in shows like Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good – about a group of convicts in an Australian penal colony who perform a play. All the men and women were cast in roles of both sexes. Grdevich smoked tobacco from a pipe and shot a riffle as Captain Tench and doubled as Mary Brennan, the shy leading lady.
“I had a tough time playing these women. I was very boisterous, loud and energetic,” she recalls. “It took me nine years to finally find that – the strength in being a sensitive woman, highly sensitive and unsure of where her life is heading. She’s unhappily married to a workhorse husband (Colm Feore) who frequently chastises her for not having a real job and insults her when she messes up the errands he sends her on. One day, she meets the streetwise Sandra (Joanna Going) who helps her realize her middle-class life is going nowhere. Lola winds up assuming Sandra’s identity and travels across the frost-covered British Columbia land-space in search of new experience.
“I kind of thought of Lola as being an only child. If they come from a split home or one where a parent has died, they tend to be more caregivers,” Grdevich says. “My roommate, that’s who I though of when I was doing Lola. She would clean the house, she would make a casserole for the next few days. She was a total caregiver and she’s done that since her mother left when she was 12 years old. She’s not trying to help herself, but in essence, who’s she really taking care of?”
Bessai’s cinema vérité shooting style compliments the low-key performances and his blue collar work ethic. His first film, Johnny, was well received by critics and is notable for being the first Canadian film to adhere to the Danish Dogme manifesto which requires handheld camera work and natural sound and lighting. He offered the title role in Lola to Grdevich after working with her on an actual blue collar – a training video for the Canadian Auto Workers. She’s lived in New York City but has worked in the midst of an emerging West Coast movement of urban films dubbed the “Pacific New Wave” that includes Bruce Sweeney’s Last Wedding and Gary Burns’ Waydowntown. With all eyes on the West, Grdevich hopes the artistic inspiration will rub off on Toronto, where many talented writers and directors sit on good ideas, but little money. “I’d love to see an artistic movement come out of [Toronto] other than bubble tea,” she says.
Grdevich also appears in Mile Zero, which will open the Vancouver International Film Festival. She won a Gemini, lived as a starving actress in Los Angeles and appeared in Steven Speilberg’s A.I. as a robot – not too shabby for an actress who never finished theater school. “As an actor, you’re always a student,” she says. “Why would I want to be a doctor of drama? I’d rather play that person than study for exams.”