SKSM: Could you start with telling me a little bit about yourself? Who are you and what do you do?
Michelle Lieffertz: Oh my, that’s a big question! I’m a child of God, a woman, a creator, a daughter, a wife, a mother, a sister, a friend… which can probably all be summed up by saying I’m an Artist (Oh my goodness! It still thrills me that I get to say that!) – a Story Teller. Primarily, I am an actor – that is my professional training, and my deepest passion. But I’ve also fallen into designing costumes, and teaching/coaching acting students in dialects, voice work, scene study etc. My experience is largely in live theatre – I did my undergrad theatre training in Canada, and then my MFA acting training in the UK, where I lived and worked for 7 years. I’m privileged enough that I’ve been able to work exclusively in Theatre for over 20 years… WOW that’s exciting to say! I can hardly believe that! People say that I’m passionate, and I think that’s true: whatever I’m working on, whether it’s a costume design, or a role, or helping my daughters with their homework (or even making muffins!) I throw myself into the project 110% – I don’t really know how to do less! This can make things exhausting, but it also gives me a lot of joy for the most part!
Most recently, for the past four years, I’ve been working at my dream job: historical interpretation in Barkerville. For those who may not know what that means, it’s playing a person who actually lived, within their environment, and interacting with the public . And in my experience, Interpretation is the deepest, truest form of acting: unlike being in a play, you’re not limited to a set scenario with pre-determined lines. When you are Interpreting, you have to know the truth of your character and their world so fully that you can authentically ‘be’ that person in any given situation! And as an Interpretor, you are always always learning – researching, discovering, sharing: I absolutely love it. People ask what my goal is, what my dream role or show would be… and truthfully, I’m living that now! It’s amazing! I’m so INCREDIBLY blessed!
SKSM: When did you know you wanted to become an actress?
Michelle Lieffertz: Hmm! That’s an interesting question, actually – I don’t have a specific answer to that! – (though if you were asking my mother, she’d tell you that by the age of two it was already apparent to the family!) I was raised in a conservative, traditional family… and so ‘being an actor’ wasn’t really an option for vocation! I actually tried really hard to become a missionary – that’s what I thought I was meant for! – and kept ending up in theatre-related things; so then I thought maybe I should become a teacher – that’s still respectable – and then maybe I could teach drama and feed the artistic part of me in that way. So I started a teacher-training programme, but I only got through one term before I was drawn back to Theatre!
I’d say there are probably two galvanising moments in my career path, looking back: the first was when I was doing my Education degree, and Jeremy Tow had been brought in to direct a show; he asked me to audition, and I turned him down. This happened no less than 20 times over as many days (not joking!) until finally I agreed, just to get him to stop asking! – he cast me in a lead role, and after that I left the Education programme and began my actor training.
The second was when I was working at a theatre in Vancouver – which shall remain nameless – and got an audition in New York for a theatre school in England. I told the AD of the theatre, and he responded by saying ‘Wow – MFA training hey? You know, every now and then there are these people – they SHINE on stage, you just can’t take your eyes off them! You, Michelle, are not one of those people. But if you have to go to England to find that out, good for you.’ Which was crushing at the time, of course! But it made me realize that I had two options: to listen to other people’s opinions and give up, or to believe in myself and just go for it. I chose the latter! 🙂
SKSM: How did you become involved in The doctor’s case Dollar Baby film?
Michelle Lieffertz: Oh that’s a WONDERFUL story! Background information: during the 2017 year, we were privileged to take our daughters and travel for 10 months. In March of that year, we were in Belgium. While there, I was contacted by Stu Cawood, who was the Production Manager for the film, and asked if I would look through the script and give a breakdown of possible costume needs (I design costumes for Mr. Cawood in Barkerville). I did that… did I mention that I tend to go all-out when doing things? Ha ha ha! Instead of a list, which he was expecting, in order to convey what I meant, I kind of put together a preliminary costume design. James really liked it, and asked if I would be willing to come on board as Costume Designer for the film! I agreed. A couple of weeks later as I was working on that, Stu asked if I would give them a list of props and set dec, since that department suddenly had a vacancy. It was raining a lot in Belgium, so I said ‘sure’. Next thing I knew, (on April 1, in fact!) James contacted me, asking if I would consider becoming Production Designer for the film… which would mean not only taking on a job I’d never done before, but flying in to Victoria for the shoot dates!!! I actually thought it was an April Fool’s joke at first – when I realized he was serious, I was terrified. However after I tried to convince them I didn’t have the necessary skills and they STILL wanted me to do it, I talked to my husband – who has always been the biggest supporter of my creative endeavours – and he said ‘go for it!’
SKSM: What do you think it is about the story that attracts people so much?
Michelle Lieffertz: Apart from the fact that it is INCREDIBLY artfully and skilfully crafted as a mystery, I think it’s the fact that it’s an Underdog story. Dr. Watson is the side-kick, the friend, the guy-next-door, the quintessential wind beneath Sherlock Holmes’ wings… the one most of us can connect with. And in this story, he gets to shine… discovering it’s not what he imagines it would be like, but also gaining a greater understanding of what he is always watching Holmes do. I think for the reader, that makes it personal: it means it’s possible that each of us may also have our moment! (and the catharsis is perhaps a chance to consider whether we actually WOULD want it after all!)
SKSM: Did you have to audition for the part or was it written directly for you?
Michelle Lieffertz: Well THAT story follows on from the one about how I got involved in the first place! I told you that I flew in to Victoria for the filming… So on Easter Sunday I arrived, met with James in person, and it was then that I was offered me the role of Lady Rebecca Hull, as the actor originally playing it had become unavailable! So that was unexpected and very exciting!
SKSM: You worked with James Douglas on this film, how was that?
Michelle Lieffertz: (Smile). James and I have known each other for nearly 20 years! I’ve worked with him as an actor before, but never as a director… and he’d never worked with me as a designer. Making a film – especially a first film! – is a high-stress environment: I’d say the fact that we’re possibly even better friends now speaks volumes into our working relationship! – A wonderful thing about working with James as a Director is that he approaches his actors coming from the perspective of being an actor himself: first of all, he is open to questions and suggestions, and willing to trust his actors to bring their own creative ideas into the process. Watching the story deepen and grow as fellow cast members brought the truth of their individual characters to the work, and seeing James – and Len Pearl, who was co-directing with James, and also a wonderful influence on set – take that work and use it to weave the story together more deeply, was amazing. I would say he empowered his actors to dig into the depth and truth of each character’s relationships and situation.
SKSM: Was there any funny or special moment when they made the movie that you would like to tell me about?
Michelle Lieffertz: Oh SO many!!! How do I choose? – lots of them require a whole bunch of background story, and I already use so many words… okay, I found this hilarious, anyway: I’ve already told you that I was brought on board as Production Designer, and then also cast as Lady Hull… what that meant in practical terms is that as an actor, I needed to be in costume on set… and Lady Hull’s world is 1889. HOWEVER, as the Production Designer, I also needed to be on set to oversee all of the Production elements. So, many of the shoot days, I was in full corset, bustle, skirts, etc… and pulling furniture into the position I wanted it to be, digging through boxes of costume pieces to outfit a surprise extra, that kind of thing. It must have looked absolutely hysterical to see this Victorian woman bustling all over everywhere, ordering people about, etc! And we were shooting at a Victorian castle/mansion, so in a way, I felt like the Lady of the House!!!
Another humourous moment was with Michael Coleman, who played the young Dr. Watson: we were doing a last-minute costume fitting, and I was quick-stitching the waistband of his trousers to hold it in place so that I could secure it properly later. And I accidentally sewed it to his unders!!! He was literally sewn into his costume!
The other humerous-in-a-shake-your-head-sort-of-way moment for me was in the 2nd week of shooting: we were probably sleeping a maximum of 2-3 hours a night, because we could only film in the castle between 5.00 pm & 3.00 am, using the daytime to plan and prep for that evening’s filming. It was early afternoon, I was on my phone, in a car, being driven from one location to another, phone between my chin & shoulder; I hadn’t had time to eat at all yet. I had a notebook on my lap, pen in one hand, and in the other was a big block of cheese, which I was knawing on between bits of conversation with the Production Manager – not even sliced or anything, just teeth marks like a rat might make! And I remember looking at the cheese and thinking ‘THIS is what it’s like to make a film?!????’
SKSM: Do you still have any contact with the crew/cast from that time? If so with who?
Michelle Lieffertz: Absolutely I do! Most of the Production Team/Crew members – plus many of the cast -are, or have become, close friends. The intensity of working on a project like this bonds people, I think: we HAD to depend on each other totally… like one of those exercises where you fall backwards towards a group of people and trust their hands will catch you before you crash on the ground. We held each other up and held each other together making this film. That sort of thing makes you family.
SKSM: What are you working on nowadays?
Michelle Lieffertz: I’ve just finished my fourth season in Barkerville, working as an Historical Interpreter; I’m in the process of a costume design for a short film project in the New Year, as well as in discussions about a stage role next winter! But I’m also focusing on my family: my daughters are 15 and won’t be at home forever; and my mother has Alzheimer’s, so I spend as much time with her as I can.
SKSM: Are you a fan of Stephen King’s work?
Michelle Lieffertz: (I feel ashamed to answer this question!… but I am becoming one! I had actually never read a Stephen King story before working on this film: it took me three tries to get through the opening credits of Finding Nemo, so intense and potentially scary stories have never been my go-to!)
SKSM: What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
Michelle Lieffertz: Hmmmm…. I spent some time working with La Confraternidad Carcelaria in a prison in Colombia: I was privileged to work with the inmates to put together a presentation on Justice, and the Justice Minister at the time was an audience member! (that’s where I learned Spanish, and fell in love with the language, the culture, the people!) That often surprises people.
SKSM: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Is there anything you want to say to the fans that read this interview?
Michelle Lieffertz: Oh my! Now I’m supposed to come up with something profound and inspiring, aren’t I? Oh dear. – Thank you, first of all, for taking the time to read this! (I’m sure I’ve talked FAR too much: this is why they give me lines – then they can control how much I say!!). Being part of The Doctor’s Case Movie is truly a ‘more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts’ project: I am both humbled and honoured to be part of this team… and I hope that everyone who reads this is also given the opportunity to be part of something that feeds their passion! – a friend-of-my-heart from this film, who encouraged me to do what I’d never done before, told me ‘if you hang around with me for long enough, I’ll brainwash you into believing in yourself and knowing you can do anything’… may you all have a friend who does exactly that for you!
SKSM: Do you like to add anything else?
Michelle Lieffertz: I’m so glad to have met you, Oscar! Thank you for asking such insightful questions, and giving me a chance to share my experiences! It has been such a delight! I hope someone delights you today too!