Winning the praise of The New York Times isn’t an easy task, but brand-new mystery drama Gracepoint (Thursday nights on FOX at 9pm, Eastern and Pacific times; 8pm, Central time) has done just that. Canadian actress Alisen Down is one of the many reasons — along with her A-list cast members like Nick Nolte, Michael Peña, Jackie Weaver, Jessica Lucas, Anna Gunn, David Tennant, and Hollwood rising star Kevin Zegers — why Gracepoint is already critically-acclaimed must-watch TV, despite debuting just this month. We caught up with Toronto-based Down to find out more about Gracepoint, her career-defining role on the show, and her animal-filled life outside of cinema and television.
Tell us a bit about yourself. What should people know?
Well, I am first and foremost a mom. Everything I do or think is to hopefully better myself for the sake of my son. I want him to have a positive female role model to look up to. It feels like my entire existence has navigated me toward this journey with my husband, David Richmond-Peck, also an actor, and our little boy, Lucas. My world revolves around them. And I love what I do for a living! I have wanted to be an actor my entire life. I used to write little plays to perform in elementary school and, as soon as I was able, I was auditioning for every play I could in high school. I had no interest in anything else, so when I graduated high school, I went straight to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in LA and then over to England to the British American Dramatic Academy. I used to stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning just watching movies and studying plays. It’s in my blood. I honestly don’t know how to do anything else! I am currently expanding into documentary filmmaking, so I am doing as much research as possible into the African elephant and the struggles they are facing. The ivory trade is completely destroying their population. It is an extreme situation, and I desperately want to help. My dream is to go to Africa and bring worldwide attention to this absolutely horrific problem. Elephants are our spiritual counterparts, and they deserve to be protected as much as we humans do.
A fun fact: if you come to my house at night-time, I will almost always have my bird, Jack, on my shoulder. He comes out at night for his cuddles and cage cleaning and though he has the option of flying around, he always stays close to me. He’s my little sweetheart. I scour pet stores to find toys and perches to keep him entertained because having a bird is much like having a two year old — they need their toys and attention!
What do you think will make Gracepoint stand out from other investigative dramas?
I think it will be the characters. The absolute humanity of the show. Gracepoint is a small, close-knit town that is completely ripped apart by the tragic murder of a young boy. So how do these people cope? How do they face each other, friends, and neighbours, knowing everyone is a suspect? How do you go about living your “daily” life? Most people move to places like Gracepoint because things like this DON’T happen in small, idyllic towns. Gracepoint will be a gripping piece because we, the town’s inhabitants, are thrown into the very situation we live here to avoid. As much as it is “mystery” driven, it is a character-driven show. It’s what sets it apart from other mystery dramas. I think the audience will feel the tragedy as much as the characters because the writers have made it deeply personal. There’s absolutely nothing like it on television. Gracepoint will feel like their town as much as ours. And can I say Anna Gunn, David Tennant, Jackie Weaver, Jessica Lucas, Kevin Zegers, and Nick Nolte? TV doesn’t get any better!
Tell us a bit about your character, Kathy Eaton. She was originally written with the idea that an actress much older than you would take on the role, but your audition inspired producers to adapt Kathy so that you could play her instead. In what interesting and exciting ways has the revision of the character, and your taking on the role, affected the storyline?
Yes, it’s true — the producers wanted to hire a much older actress to play Kathy. My agents decided to throw me into the mix, knowing I would be too young but taking a chance anyway. I taped the audition in my dining room with my husband while our son was asleep. From the get-go, I felt a connection to Kathy. I just “got” her. So the audition wasn’t very hard because I really felt like I understood her. The producers responded but said (as we thought they would) that I was too young, so they asked me to put another character on tape. My husband and I didn’t have childcare that day so we drove two hours with our taping equipment to my sister-in-law’s house so my mother-in-law could watch our son while we taped my audition in the basement. A few days later, the producers, Anya Epstein and Daniel Futterman, called to say they still loved me for Kathy Eaton. It was the best audition they had seen for her, but I was too young and too pretty (which is never a bad thing to hear!). They wanted to discuss whether I would cut my hair and put a “shock” of grey in it to age me for the role. Of course, I said yes! Two days later I was on a plane to BC. Collaboratively, we were trying to make me look quite a bit older for Kathy but decided it would be too much of a stretch from my current age — so we aimed for early to mid-40s, which I believe we achieved successfully. It was a real compliment because normally the industry doesn’t go to that much effort to cast someone; they just cast the person who is the right age. They went to a lot of effort to make sure I fit the role physically, which shows how much faith they had in me as an actor. I will never forget — and am very grateful for — their belief in me.
You apparently have quite the number of pets at home. Please tell us more!
Ah, yes! We have our bird, Jack (we call him Jackie); our dog, Beau, who was my dog before I married my husband; and our two cats, Sampson and Sasha. A fortune teller was selling Sampson on the street, and he was so little and just so fragile that we took him instantly. Sasha and her brother were found by our vet in a bush shortly after they were born. They nursed them and fostered them and adopted them out. My husband was in the vet buying bird food for Jack and saw Sasha and took a picture. She is a Siamese, a breed I have a soft spot for, and so I couldn’t resist adding her to our family. Beau is the best dog in the world. It used to be just him and me. Then I got married, we had our son, added two cats, and a bird! He has been so accepting and gentle and loving. We are lucky! I think if we lived outside of the city we would add more animals — both David and I want horses and chickens — but we have our hands full for now!
More and more Canadian actors are staying in Canada as opposed to going to Hollywood full-time, particularly in Toronto. What is the allure of staying in Toronto to you, especially in 2014?
Well first of all, I LOVE Canada. No matter where I am in the world, I am always Canadian in my heart. Always. And Toronto is an amazing city. I love it here — I love the culture, the neighbourhoods, the opportunities, and the people. It is such an amazing city, and I honestly love my life here. In this day and age, an actor can live anywhere but have access to the same jobs as someone living in Hollywood. Through the taping process and Skype, we can now audition through our computers. More and more actors are living outside of Hollywood but flying in for meetings or callbacks. It’s a really exciting time to be an actor; we don’t have to live in LA anymore if we choose not to.
What’s your favourite restaurant and why?
There is a Thai place in the Beaches called Cha Da Thai. The owner makes everything from scratch and even ordered all her plates from specialty hotels in Thailand. She prides herself in taking the time to “polish” the details. And the food is out of this world! So flavourful, unique, and wonderful. I also love The Tulip, at Coxwell and Queen. It’s been there since 1929, and the breakfasts are amazing!
What’s always in your beauty bag?
Lip balm and sunscreen.
What style trends are you currently obsessed with?
Well, with my newly short hair, I am always on the lookout for things that are feminine and sexy. I also love simple, so I tend to gravitate towards something like a black pant with a navy jacket and high heels. And I’ll wear the same black pant with flats and a loose tank. I make sure I have makeup on (when I was 18, I had short hair and got mistaken for a boy) to finish the “feminine” look. I’ve never considered myself very stylish, but I am working on it!
Let’s get social for a mo’. How can people stay up-to-date with your busy life?
My husband is so much better at this than me, but I am working on it! Twitter is a great way to keep updated with me. I feel rude not responding to people, so you will almost always get a response if you tweet something to me!