Flipping the Script With Sara Canning
In a society that is currently fighting the good fight of equality, we are surrounded by teachings of feminism and going deeper into what it means to be a woman. In times like these we often find ourselves seeking out feminine role models who we can look to for inspiration. Sara Canning is the ideal role model. Intelligent, creative, determined and hardworking, it is easy to admire this duel actress-writer extraordinaire and I am forever grateful for the hour I was afforded to pick her brain.
You may recognize Sara from a number of television shows, from The Vampire Diaries to A Series of Unfortunate Events and from many movies inbetween. With a career that started in 2008, Sara has spent the last ten years forging a noteworthy path in the acting industry.
In our interview Sara shared with me how she went from acting to writing, quite literally flipping the script. As we dove into stories about her life, her career and her values, she shared exceptional advice for actors and writers alike.
Introducing Sara Canning
You wouldn’t know it by her lack of an Atlantic-Canadian accent, but the actress/writer was born and raised in Newfoundland until her family moved to Alberta when she was eleven. “I actually have an accent when I talk to my parents! I was recently in Newfoundland and [the accent] definitely exists,” she tells me, laughing. “It kind of comes and goes depending on whether I’m talking to someone from the East or West coast….or if I’ve had a couple of drinks.”
As a child, there were no friends or family in Sara’s life to guide her into the industry. She found herself there by way of her school theatre group and promptly fell in love. The experience gave her a new understanding of community and freed her in a way she never expected. “I was incredibly shy, so the fact that I auditioned at all amazes me. In the first play I did I was the only seventh grade student among all of the older kids who participated in it. They sort of took me under their wing and I just felt this real permission in it. It was amazing and so liberating. It was the beginning of what my life is now.”
Her time in theatre left a lasting mark. When Sara turned nineteen she made the decision to leave her home in Alberta and make the move to Vancouver where she would attend film school. “I made the move into film and television when I was nineteen while I was enrolled in a film program. Since then that’s the brunt of what I’ve been doing in the industry.”
Pen To Paper
It is clear to see by her work that Sara is a brilliant actor and soon we may be able to see just how equally brilliant she is as a writer. Fueled by creating new things and investing in different avenues in the industry, Sara has found herself writing more and more. While she is still acting, she has found herself drawn to writing and views it as the next path she will be taking.
“I’m in a place right now where I’m thinking to myself, Okay, I want more. I want to be telling my own stories as well. I’ve written a feature length script and I’m also working on a couple of other features and I think it’s a nice evolution for me from where I’ve been to where I’m at right now in terms of really wanting to make a mark with my creative voice. The path of writing seems very right for me.”
It’s an incredibly different experience to bring your own story and voice to the table rather than bringing yourself creatively into someone else’s story and Sara sees great merit to both sides. Having brought herself creatively into so many characters over the years, this path is a refreshing take on creative expression, though it is not entirely new to her. “I’ve always written. I’ve been writing in some way, shape or form since I was about ten years old. I feel like I’ve always kept journals, always written poetry, or written silly little skits for my cousins and I to perform at family gatherings.”
Writing gives Sara more than just a creative outlet, it gives her the ability to put her energy into multiple passions as to not get too caught up in acting. Waiting for the callback of an audition can be draining and nerve wracking. The fulfillment she gets from pursuing writing alleviates some of the pressure that comes along with an acting career. “It’s so helpful in my downtime to simply not be waiting around to hear if I’ve booked something I’ve auditioned for. I can think about it, but when I come home I’m also thinking, Okay I’ve got to get to work on what I’m writing. I think having any form of creative agency is so important, especially if you’re in an industry where most of the decisions are made by other people.”
You are able to make abundant independent decisions as a writer. The stories you choose to conceive are entirely yours and the path they take are brought into existence by your will and determination to uncover the whole story in your mind. “It’s incredible, there’s this entire world you create and it’s the most amazing puzzle. It’s amazing how the depths and layers will keep revealing themselves. You’ve got to stick with it to really find what these characters want to reveal to you. It can be challenging at times, but I love it.”
“My favorite thing about being an artist is that you have to remain curious. You have to continue thinking, Okay what do I want to do next? What’s really driving me now? What’s giving me pause now? I’ve been really in tune with that lately and it’s so helpful.”
Her upbringing in Newfoundland has impressed an ideal in the types of stories Sara wants to tell. Visiting her family there regularly throughout the years has confirmed in her greatly that her identity of being a Newfoundlander is a large part of who she is as a storyteller. As she grows and understands more about her family, identity and the push and pull of home, she can’t help but feel drawn to create stories that relate to these thoughts, feelings and experiences. “It factors pretty heavily into what I write. I want to explore what it feels like to be from a specific place. I grew up in a very small community, so I think about those things and about how it influences character and choices and motivation.”
Advice For The Budding Writer
The more I speak to successful actors the more I hear of them taking on creative projects outside of their typical day to day career paths. But what are the steps to take in order to jump from one creative avenue to the next? For Sara, the advice is strong yet simple. “The key is to actually do it. I would often find myself thinking about writing and then not actually writing.”
Of course, there is more advice to be offered in actually making the switch from thought to action. Many great writing books that Sara has indulged in have suggested keeping a notebook with you at all times and this advice eventually lead to a story for her. “I wrote a short film that I really want to make that is based on a conversation I had with my uncle. The conversation was one of those moments that just come out of nowhere. I was sitting at a table with him late at night and it felt like one of those moments where I thought, I really don’t want to break this spell right now, because he was really telling me something important about his life. I immediately ran to my room and wrote it all down after and not because I thought about making a short film out of it, I just wanted to remember it. It sort of turned itself into a story later on.”
Sara would tell anyone interested in writing to keep their eyes and ears open to anything around you that moves you; anything that feels unique to you in a day. Always continue the search for small moments of whimsy or pain or beauty and seek the story in everything. “I have all of these notes in my phone that describe little moments that I found funny or are about something I saw that I want to remember. I don’t always know what they’ll be for, but I think you just have to have a hunger for those moments in life as a writer.”
Sara has a most impressive list of IMDB credits. She has starred in hit television shows and popular films across the screens, not to mention the extensive list of guest star roles and television movies she has acted in. Her love of different genres shows in her list of work as she has played roles from drama to sci-fi to romantic comedy. “I don’t think I have a favorite genre because I really find the archeology of all genres so fascinating and fabulous. It’s a big part of what I love about the projects I’ve gotten to do.”
Not being attached to one type of genre or character has its benefits and Sara’s diverse resume hasn’t just fallen into her lap. She shared with me the conscious efforts she made on her own to ensure the path she was taking would always remain varied and challenging. “I’m very fortunate that I’ve never felt pigeon holed into any one type of character, but that hasn’t come without efforts on my part. I’ve actually made choices to make sure that doesn’t happen. I know that this is still a job and we all need to pay our bills, but whenever I’ve been in the position where a script comes my way and doesn’t make me feel something, I’ll say no.”
Her decision making in what she chooses to audition for extends beyond varied genres. It reaches levels of deep, personal values and of being a woman, what that means and how they are represented. “I’m very conscious of my choices as a female in this industry. I am not interested in playing women who fit in a nice tidy box, so I’ve put a lot of thought into the types of characters that I will say yes to auditioning for. I also don’t feel as though I’ve shied away from riskier choices either. What I mean by that is I’ve never been motivated by the bigger paychecks. I’ve done some series work that I just loved and deeply challenged me, and it is so incredible to have some stability as an actor, but that isn’t my only desire in my career. “
While she may not have a favorite genre, Sara shared with me her soft spot for independent films. “I think there’s a really beautiful spirit involved in making an indie film. Everyone has to be there for the exact same reasons and mainly that’s to get the project made. It brings together a lot of interesting, like-minded people. It’s a miracle that any film gets made, but especially a good independent film,” she laughs. “It’s like wow, this is a huge victory that this film exists!”
The independent films that she has had the pleasure to be a part of have taken measures to examine something about the human condition. Sara knows that television shows do this as well, but there is something so special to her about a person having a story to tell and using everything they can get their hands on to create it. “I get a real thrill from being a part of that kind of art project. I have a deep appreciation for people who want to make something for the sake of making it and want to just get it out into the world for people to see without an agenda behind it.”
Getting Into Character
Going from genre to genre like Sara would be enough to make anyone’s head spin when it comes to embodying these contrasting characters. Although it seems as if Sara has her character development mastered.
“I’m quite a nerdy actor,” she tells me, good-naturedly. “I definitely study genres. When I was in A Series of Unfortunate Events I watched a lot of thirties and forties noir films to help me learn more about who my character was. She almost fit within a satirical archetype of that genre and it was so helpful to study that. I also printed photos of women from photoshoots in that era that were very iconic and I used a lot of their body language in the character, so I’m very visceral in that way.”
She doesn’t stop there. Coupled with her visual aids and study methods, Sara takes it one step further by using some unique, hands on methods to try and become them. “I make playlists for every character. Of course, I think I bring myself to the character as well, but I tend to dive into things in way where it’s a mix of imagination and also very tangible, visceral references that help me shape them.”
Playlist on repeat and genre studying behind her, Sara then takes her character out for a walk, literally. “I go walk around the park and I find their physicality that way. It’s all acting school stuff, but it really works and it’s something I really held onto. It’s so nice because if you get to set and everything is underway, you may not get a lot of time with the director and other actors which makes it all the more crucial to set ourselves up with as much of a little home for our character as possible. It can be shocking to show up to set at times, especially if you’re on a larger production. It’s really important to build a world around yourself and have a sense of who this person really is and how they fit into your world. Even if it’s just to help your nervous system so it doesn’t feel like a heart attack,” she says and gives a laugh.
When I asked Sara what her favorite role has been so far, she had a hard time choosing just one. “I loved playing Mel in the television series, Remedy. She’s a surgeon and she was a real piece of work! I also loved playing Flora, the wife from the movie Eadweard and one of my more recent projects that premiered at VIFF for Level 16 where I played the headmistress. I have such a fondness for Level 16. I committed to playing the character seven years before we even made it. It’s a dystopian feminist thriller that takes place at a school for young girls. The headmistress was so mysterious and just wild to play. I think it’s a great film and hopefully will shake a lot of people up.”
A feminist herself, the energy that comes with Level 16 is very exciting and close to Sara’s heart. These values she pertains as a woman has clearly helped to shape her career and it’s paid off. The way that Sara delves into her characters to fully shape them as the layered, complex women they are gives viewers the chance to see women from many different angles. She is forever conscious of the impact that film and television can have on it’s audience and her drive to represent diverse women on the screen is admirable.
It is something that we all face in this life, whether it is within our careers, our peer groups or our romantic interests. I’m talking about rejection. It is no easy feat to overcome the sting of a “no” when you were desperately hoping for a “yes”. This can be especially true in the life of an actor, when you are so incredibly hungry for that part, but you just don’t book the job. As successful as she has been throughout her career, Sara has experienced rejection just like the rest of us and she is not without strong advice on how to face it.
“We all face tons of rejection! It can be hard when there’s a part that you really want and you don’t get it. I think it’s so important that we remind ourselves that we are enough. We truly can’t be in any kind of artistic endeavour without a huge amount of curiosity, so whenever I feel like I’m suddenly in a lull I think, Oh I need to get up and do something. I need to get up and write or play with this and explore a little more. That has been so important for me to remember.”
Sara believes that it is not only booking the role that brings you joy throughout your career, but it is also a long standing practice of being creative off of set and investing in the things you love whether you are working or not. She believes that you always need to be learning as an actor or a writer or in whatever you do. It is the biggest defence against stagnation and the vile world of comparison. “[Comparison] is so useless because it gets you nowhere. It’s a very bad cycle to get in. There is absolutely nothing useful in it because even if you tell yourself that you’re going to try to emulate this certain person and have their career, it’s not going to work. It’s just not. Everybody needs to be on their own journey with it.”
“I think the way to feel okay with it being your own journey is to ask yourself, What really stokes my fire about this? The reasons for doing what we do, need to be deeply personal and cannot be fuelled by anyone else. It’s so important to always be looking at what those reasons are. We need to either know ourselves really well or at least be willing to get to know ourselves better and figure out what really excites me or frustrates me or gets my blood boiling. If you’ve put in a day of any kind of work and you can say to yourself, Okay, this is why I did this today, it will give you such a sense of purpose.”
A friend shared a piece of valuable advice with Sara recently that she passed along to me. “Of course money motivates people in the industry, fame motivates some people and booking big gigs will motivate others. Those things may make you feel good for a little while, or maybe not, but what will always make you feel excellent is productivity.” This advice rings true for Sara and lines up with her values as an actor. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if someone is going to tell you that your work is the best thing they have ever read or seen, what matters is that you created something and you can be proud of that.
As an artist who so greatly believes in portraying women well on the screen, who is intelligent, kind and hardworking, Sara Canning is someone we can all look up to. In an industry that is constantly abuzz with the cacophony of other actors, Sara’s voice rings clear above them all. For all of you creative individuals, remember Sara’s advice to cultivate a true, pure love for your craft, to know yourself better and to never forget that you are enough.