By Jacqueline Nunes
On a damp winter day, Michael Healey sits at his kitchen table, reliving his university years at Ryerson.
Healy’s been on the PR trail for the successful CBC drama This is Wonderland, on which he plays lawyer James Ryder.
But today, he’s thinking back to leaner times. He was supposed to have a monologue memorized for voice class.
His classmate Eric McCormack, of Will & Grace fame, dared him to improvise instead. “There were a couple of words he insisted that I use in it,” says Healey, “so I had to work these two ridiculous words into it.” When asked what the words were, Healey sits back for a moment. “Shoelaces and cheese,” he says. “And I did, and, it went great. I actually managed to make myself cry. It was ridiculous, and everything was fine until my voice coach asked me to do it again.”
When Healey entered Ryerson’s Theatre School in 1982, he had great aspirations of performing at the Stratford Festival as the Danish Prince.
“I thought I wanted to be 24 and (play) Hamlet,” he says. Instead, he spent eight years bartending and catering.
Then, between 1996 and 2002, he wrote three plays, won two Dora Mavor Moore awards (Toronto’s most notable theatre award), a Chalmers Award for best new play, and a Governor General’s Literary Award.
He’s since become the playwright-in-residence at the Tarragon Theatre and is currently working on a two-act comedy for the Mirvishes. When he’s not writing or performing in his own productions, 41-year-old Healey plays a psychotic lawyer on This is Wonderland.
“Ten years later, I’d finally figured out that if you produce your own work, you don’t have to sit around waiting for others to offer it to you,” Healey says. “You’ll get to play the parts that you want to play.”
This nugget of advice seems like gold, especially considering the success of Healey’s second play, The Drawer Boy. “My lottery ticket,” he says. “It was probably the easiest thing I’d ever written actually, when it comes right down to it. I’d stumbled onto such a good idea that it was kind of hard to screw up.” The play, Healey’s second, was produced by Theatre Passe Muraille in 1999. It won a handful of awards, and became one of the most produced plays in the United States. Time Magazine named it one of the best 10 plays that year.
In the wake of The Drawer Boy’s success, Healey got drastic. He woke up one day and fired all of his agents. He spent the next few years writing and producing plays, but writing wasn’t his only motivation for the firing spree.
“I was terrible at auditioning anyway,” Healey says, laughing. “I fired all those people because eventually they were all going to fire me. I’d auditioned for hundreds and hundreds, literally hundreds of television commercials between graduating in 1985 and 1993, and I never got a single commercial. I was terrible at it.”
Years later when Healey was approached to audition for This is Wonderland he said yes. Then, he called back and said no.
“Then my agent called back and told me to stop being so stupid,” he says. He found out later that the series’ creator, writer, and executive producer, George F. Walker, had created the part for him.
“I’ve since learned that I would have had to go and throw up in somebody’s shoes to blow the audition.”
Working on the landmark series about the lower criminal courts at Old City Hall has been a joy for Healey.
The complicated stories, extraordinary writing, and talented cast brought him back for a second season, excited to reprise the role of James Ryder.
“The character is fantastic and constantly evolving,” Healey says. “He’s quite messed up, and they have no interest in sorting him out and getting him calmed down, so he’ll have a kind of organized episode followed by an episode where he’s just a complete fucking mess again.”
And, if there’s a third season, Healey will be back. “I will play this part on Wonderland for as long as they let me. I love it so.”
He’ll also continue writing for theatre, because, at heart, Healey is a theatre artist. As for his Ryerson years, Healey remembers what was valuable to him.
“Use the time there to figure out what kind of artist you want to be, because there’s going to be a lot of lean years probably,” he says. “You might as well have a strong idea of what kind of work it is you wish you were getting
“It was really only when I focused on developing new work with other writers, and then on my own as a writer, that my career came in focus for me.”