Banff World Media Festival: Actress, writer, producer Emily Hampshire talks representation, new projects

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It may seem hard to fathom these days, but at one point actress Emily Hampshire was told she wasn’t funny.

This was in 2008 or so and Hampshire, who had been acting since she was a teenager, was still a few years away from landing the role of sardonic Stevie Budd in the Emmy-winning sitcom Schitt’s Creek.

“I was in L.A. and I wasn’t getting work there and I had worked all my life in Canada,” says Hampshire, in an interview with Postmedia at the Banff World Media Festival earlier this week. “My manager at the time said ‘You’re not getting auditions because casting directors don’t think you’re funny.’ I went to this acting class to fix the ‘not-funny’ in my sense of humour and I went up on stage and did my little thing and the acting teacher said ‘Have you seen Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman? You should watch that: she’s your kind of funny.’”

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It was a reference to Norman Lear’s two-season curio from the mid-1970s, a satirical soap opera starring Louise Lasser that attracted a strong cult following despite its short shelf life.

“As an aside – and only a crazy person would take it seriously for 10 years – she said, ‘They should remake that show with you in the lead,’ ” Hampshire says. “This was in 2008. So the first opportunity I had to pitch a show or an idea or a remake was with Norman Lear. That was my first pitch ever.”

As it turns out, the remake is in development with Hampshire set to play the titular role while also co-writing and executive-producing. It’s all part of the next phase in the Montreal native’s impressive career trajectory. After finding success not only with Schitt’s Creek but also with leads in high-profile series such as Syfy’s 12 Monkeys, MGM+’s creepy Stephen King adaptation Chapelwait and the supernatural thriller series The Rig for Amazon Prime, which will air a second season in January. Hampshire’s new interest in developing her own projects makes the Banff World Media Festival a perfect spot. Delegates from around the globe wheel and deal for four days. As with many performers in the Canadian film and TV industry, she has long been aware of the festival. But this was her first visit.

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“It always seemed like the adults’ table,” she says. “People are giving firm handshakes here and making deals, so I’ve always wanted to come here. Now I’m maybe adult enough to come. I’m working on my handshake and I actually have made some deals here.”

Hampshire also participated in the session Beyond the Frame: The Pink Paper’s Blueprint for 2SLGBTQ+ Representation as a panellist, joining General Hospital’s Cassandra James, Gay Agenda co-founder Michelle Mama, writer and actor Alexander Nunez and Pink Triangle Press executive director Dave Walberg for a discussion not only about cultivating environments where trans and non-binary individuals feel welcome on set but also how the industry can make progress in telling authentic queer stories.

It coincides with Pink Triangle Press’s release of The Pink Papers at the festival, a pioneering report that studies LBGTQ2S+ representation in Canadian film, television, gaming and streaming services. Hampshire came out as pansexual while shooting Schitt’s Creek.

“It’s something we have never had,” she says. “We’ve had GLAAD in the States, but I think it’s a really great idea. I had never read anything like that with the statistics and facts kind of stuff. It was really interesting to see what the barriers are in the way of representation and having more of it. With gay men, their representation is great now. That, to me, is real proof it works if we push it forward, we can change things… It’s always been front of mind for me because that’s my world. Everybody I know is trans, non-binary. I think that is just my life. But especially having people like that behind the camera and in the writers’ room to tell their stories we’ve realized is really important. Otherwise, we are getting people’s ideas of these tropes of what representation is.”

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As an actor, Hampshire played two very different characters when shooting Schitt’s Creek and 12 Monkeys simultaneously, an unusual experience and one she didn’t think she would ever top. Schitt’s Creek ended its run in 2020 after six seasons, while 12 Monkeys ran from 2015 to 2018.

“In 12 Monkeys, I had the greatest character ever,” she says. “It was time travel so I got to do every time period. And Schitt’s Creek was just like being in a camp with a family you actually like. So I felt like I couldn’t ever get anything that good. So I started thinking I’d have to just make my own thing and, in that process, I realized what I really love to do is create worlds. I watched (Schitt’s Creek star and co-creator) Dan Levy and Terry Matalas, the showrunner of 12 Monkeys, for four years, six years. Their hands were in everything: the size of the menus, the costumes and just creating these worlds. That, to me, is what I used to do as a kid and what I want to do now but I didn’t think I could.”

Future projects include working with actor Elliott Page’s Page Boy Productions in a reboot of the surreal CBC sitcom Twitch City, which began airing in the late 1990s. Hampshire has been hired to write the adaptation, set to star Page in the lead role of Curtis.

“Elliott Page has always wanted to play Curtis in it and his production company reached out to me, they had read a script of mine, and asked me if I would create the new shot,” she says. “It’s the greatest experience ever. It’s so fun to write for other actors. It’s like ‘I want to give them great stuff to do.’”

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