By Sarah Boesveld
Natalie Lisinska never thought her first major television role would involve standing fully clothed in a shower, getting soaked with water, take after take.
She should have known better. Lisinska, who graduated from Ryerson’s theatre school in 2004, endured the sopping-wet experience while shooting a scene for At The Hotel, CBC’s new “comedy-suspense-thriller-musical-drama,” as Lisinska describes it.
The six-part miniseries, written and directed by Ken Finkleman, chronicles the crazy and morbid goings-on at the posh boutique hotel Chateau Rousseau. It made its debut last night in prime time.
Finkleman, best known for creating the acerbic shows The Newsroom and Broken Hearts, decided to set his latest project in a hotel in order to escape the mundane and familiar settings of a hospital or courthouse.
“A hotel doesn’t have the internal dramatic engine that other shows have. It’s more of a challenge to tell a short story,” says Finkleman, who decided not to act in this series as he has done in the past.
“In a hotel, you’re required to lay the groundwork from the middle to the end.” Lisinska plays Jenny, who is a new employee at the grand Chateau Rousseau, a setting inspired by Finkleman’s stay at Hollywood’s famed Chateau Marmont.
The show is viewed from the perspective of this wide-eyed, small-town chambermaid, and at first, she appears innocent and sane.
“You soon realize she’s sort of insane ?– but she hides her insanity well,” Lisinska says with a laugh, describing the general tone and premise of the series, in which each of the hotel’s guests and employees hide their own secrets and quirks.
Finkleman, known for his dark sense of humour, expressed a sharp interest in industry newcomer Lisinska, and was especially impressed with her impeccable comedic timing. “She can play anything,” Finkleman says. “She knew exactly how to play the comic stuff, and also to switch gears into the dramatic stuff.” Lisinska describes her experience working with Finkleman as intimidating, but rewarding.
“He is sort of a paradox in that he is completely open to artistic suggestions but he’s also uncompromising in his vision,” she says, adding that the experience was better than she could have imagined. “I feel like I’m forever spoiled after working with him. I could die now.”
The show, written in true Finkleman style, tackles issues of sex, politics, death and religion, while hosting a rotating cast of who’s who from Canadian cinema and theatre. “There were over 130 speaking roles,” says Finkleman, who hired local celebs such as Don McKellar, Rick Roberts and Maury Chakin to fill the roles of various hotel guests.
While Lisinska finds herself working in television at the moment, her extensive theatre experience at Ryerson has kept the stage close to her heart. She even speaks fondly of acting instructors, despite once having a garbage bin hurled at her head by Marianne MacIsaac while practicing a scene.
Of course, it was all in the name of instilling crucial acting techniques. “(MacIsaac) taught me: Don’t anticipate a reaction ever, whether it be a physical or emotional reaction,” Lisinska says. “You have to trust your instincts.” Lisinska hopes that the series draws viewers to the CBC, despite the network’s recent cutbacks and cancellation of shows such as This is Wonderland.
“It’s compulsive viewing. The first time I watched it, I wanted to watch them all. I was like ‘Let’s have a six-hour marathon!'”
In the future, Lisinska hopes to perform a one-woman show that she’s been working on for three years. For now, though, she has obtained representation in Los Angeles and will be heading down there for pilot season, while Finkleman himself starts writing a new pilot.
Still, Lisinska hopes that Canadian viewers will warm up to homegrown entertainment. “We really have to start watching our own stuff. We’re right next door to the biggest super-power in the world, and it’s frightening to see how easy it is to be enveloped in a culture that’s not ours.”
— With files from Barry Hertz