The Leading Man: A candid chat with Paul Gross
Published Saturday, January 30, 2010 7:01PM EST
Nobody could ever accuse Paul Gross of resting on his laurels. Whether it’s acting, writing, directing or producing on the stage and screen, he always seems to have a project on the go -- sometimes two or three at the same time.
“Due South,” “Slings and Arrows,” “Chasing Rainbows,” “Men with Brooms” and “Passchendaele” are just a handful of the movies and TV series that have made him one of the most recognizable names in Canadian showbiz.
And he’s particularly popular with women. Gross doesn’t deny his good looks, but he’s not comfortable being described as a sex symbol.
“I don’t know what that means,” he said, looking uncomfortable after being asked the question by W5’s Sandie Rinaldo. “I don’t know what you’re supposed to do with that.”
Sex symbol or not, Gross’s off-screen life is mostly off the radar. He shows up for big events like the Toronto Film Festival, but prefers to keep a low profile. No gossip, no scandal, no fodder for the tabloids. In a business littered with broken families, he and actress Martha Burns have been married for 21 years.
“I can’t point to myself as being the reason why we’ve remained together for so long,” said Gross. “But I think it’s really her strength. And it’s been a source of enormous strength to me, too.”
Another source of strength for Gross is his parents. His father, Bob Gross, was an officer in the Canadian army and that made for a nomadic childhood as the family moved from base to base in Canada, England and Germany.
But it was his grandfather, Michael Dunne, who inspired him to create Passchendaele, a $20-million epic based on the stories he heard from Dunne about the First World War.
“And ever since that time,” said Gross, “I’ve had this kind of abiding interest in the war, and then gradually, as I got older and started to write I thought, well, I should try and do something with this.”
Not only did Gross write the screenplay, he also produced, directed and played the lead role in the movie that won, among many other awards, the 2009 Pierre Berton award for history.
Despite his solid box-office record north of the border, Gross has never really cracked the unforgiving world of Hollywood.
“Every year for many, many years now I’ve been sent pilots, every pilot season from U.S. networks,” said Gross. “And I thought this year, ‘well, maybe I’ll actually have a look at it.’ And it was the nature of the part that drew me.”
The part was certainly intriguing -- Darryl Van Horne, a mysterious charmer who suddenly arrives in a sleepy New England town in the television drama, “Eastwick.” The series was inspired by John Updike’s classic novel, “The Witches of Eastwick,” which itself was turned into a movie in 1987 starring Jack Nicholson.
“Eastwick” seemed to have everything going for it -- sex, money and a whiff of evil.
But Gross spotted trouble right away with his character. The network behind the series, ABC, was reluctant to refer to Darryl Van Horne as the Devil.
“For my money I think it’s a completely insane way to go,” said Gross. “Because a show like that has a brand. People come to view it with certain expectations and when there isn’t any devilry and there’s very little witchcraft. And so, I’m thinking, ‘well, that’s not what I wanted,’ and they move on.”
And viewers did move on -- in droves. After scathing reviews and plummeting ratings, “Eastwick” was cancelled in November 2009. Its final episodes were broadcast in January.
Gross’s early analysis of “Eastwick’s” flaws prepared him for disappointment, so the cancellation didn’t come as a surprise. And he hasn’t given up on Hollywood. He has other projects in the works, but has no illusions about Tinseltown.
“Hollywood is a very strange place,” he said. “And it is mostly about the business. And people I’ve known who went down there, their personalities, their core, gets kind of distorted.”
You could never describe Gross as distorted. The words that come to mind when you meet him are more like “grounded,” “focused,” or “well-balanced.” And he seems to have a clear sense of the negative effects of working in show business.
“You can get untethered quickly in this job,” he said. “Particularly if you start to think that going to awards shows and going to kind of black tie events is what you’re doing. And it isn’t. Most of this is just really hard work.”
At the age of 50, there’s no indication that Gross is giving up on a lifetime of hard work. Among his new projects, he’s the executive producer of a new Canadian series called “Crash and Burn” and he’s starring in “Gunless,” a satirical western that’s due for release this spring.
If you pushed him to make one choice from his palette of talents -- acting, writing, directing and producing -- Gross said he’d probably choose writing. But he has another ambition which might surprise you, one that has nothing to do with theatre, television or the movies. He’d like to be a Formula One racing driver.
“Like most guys, I think I’d be very good at it,” he said and laughed. “Oddly, most men think they can be just as good as some of the guys who do it for a living. And I’m pretty sure I could be.”