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article imageTorri Higginson faces her mortality in CBC's 'This Life' Special

By A.R. Wilson     Oct 5, 2015 in Entertainment
Torri Higginson tells Digital Journal that playing a dying mom in the new CBC drama "This Life" was "intimidating," but the role made her a stronger person.
As a rule, people don't like to talk about their mortality. However, actor Torri Higginson hopes her new CBC drama series, This Life, is about to change that.
"I sort of have this dream that this is going to be a water cooler show, and that people are going to be talking about death, their experiences and their fears," Higginson says during a telephone interview from Montreal, where filming for the show's first season just wrapped.
The concept for This Life, which premieres Monday, Oct. 5, at 9 p.m., could be a tough sell. Higginson stars as Natalie Lawson, a fortysomething newspaper columnist and single mom who gets slammed with a terminal cancer diagnosis just as she is considering an Eat Pray Love phase in her life. Instead of embarking on a romantic journey of self-exploration, she must use the few months she has left to prepare her three teenage children, siblings and parents for life without her.
The character-driven show offers an unflinching look at cancer and the heartbreak of saying goodbye, but Higginson insists it's not a downer. "I have this very personal belief about having this dialogue about death, and that it should not be depressing," she says. "It's the one thing that everyone is going to do, and we don't engage in it, and it's such an important thing to engage in. I know it sounds pollyannaish, it sounds trite, but it is what makes you live, that reality.
"I read the script, and I just got chills. I thought it was wonderful to have this as a discussion but not be heavy-handed or sentimental. Just to look at it, the awkwardness of it, the ridiculousness of our humanity and the endearingness of it."
Thanks to Natalie's warmly dysfunctional family--which includes wild younger sister Maggie (Lauren Lee Smith), drifting younger brother Oliver (Kristopher Turner) and uptight older brother Matthew (Rick Roberts)--This Life is also buoyed by a surprising amount of levity. "I think that when we are faced with the real big issues of our life, people do what they have to do to survive," Higginson says. "A lot of time that's through humour."
Natalie's complex, realistic relationship with her three children is also a highlight. Higginson gushes about her experience working with young actors James Wotherspoon, Stephanie Janusauskas and Julia Scarlett Dan, who play her onscreen kids. "I don't have to act when I work with any of them," she says. "It's a gift. I just have to look at them and listen to them, and I'm right there."
(L to R) Stephanie Janusauskas  Torri Higginson  James Wotherspoon and Julia Scarlett Dan portray th...
(L to R) Stephanie Janusauskas, Torri Higginson, James Wotherspoon and Julia Scarlett Dan portray the Lawsons on the CBC drama 'This Life.'
With permission from CBC
The 10-episode series is an adaptation of the French-language drama Nouvelle adresse, which is currently airing its third season on Radio-Canada. To prepare for the role of Natalie, Higginson's first instinct was to watch episodes of the original show online, but regional restrictions prevented her from streaming it in her Los Angeles home. As it turns out, that was fortuitous. "I think if I had watched it, it would have intimidated me," she says. "It's already an intimidating character to take on, and I think it would have intimidated me further. It would have been hard for me not to focus on comparison."
As it was, the ghost of Macha Grenon's Gémeaux-winning performance as Natalie in the French-Canadian version followed Higginson around Montreal. "There was this 13-year-old boy in a store who overheard I was doing the show, and he came up to me and said, 'Oh, my gosh, you're not playing Natalie, are you?' she recounts. "He almost started crying, and he said, 'It's so beautiful, it's so beautiful.' So, it really touched the hearts of people here."
Although This Life features an anglophone cast, it was filmed with a francophone crew, which Ontario-born Higginson viewed as a welcome challenge and opportunity. "[French] is a beautiful language, and as a Canadian, I've always been ashamed that I don't speak it," she says.
At first, she asked the crew to speak to her only in French, but the demanding shooting schedule quickly derailed her ambitions. "That's impossible because you're doing 12 scenes, and I'm trying to focus on the character and trying to be in the right place emotionally," she says. "I wasn't able to switch my brain as often as I wanted to on the set."
But off the set, Higginson enjoyed delving into the language. "Just around town, people are so encouraging to help you," she says. "It's delightful.
"I've made a pact with the crew members that I will still practice every day, so if we get picked up next year, I don't just pick up in the same place."
Higginson, who is an alum of Stargate: Atlantis and recently renewed her sci-fi credentials with a guest stint on Space's Dark Matter, is now headed for Toronto to shoot a web series and appear in a play at Canadian Stage. She admits that she needs a change of pace. "It's been an emotionally exhausting last four months, and my skin got very, very thin," she says. "But both the characters I'm about to dive into are very different. They're both ethically quite compromised and very selfish, so I feel like they're going to be a good sort of shower to rinse Natalie off me for a little bit."
Even though filming This Life was draining, Higginson is grateful. "It is a remarkable gift to be asked to meditate on one's mortality," she says. "I'm tired, but I'm also spiritually stronger than I was four months ago."
'This Life' airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on CBC
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