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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Ford's Focus: Cat Lemieux

The Courageous Cat Lemieux
“It’s only now that I’m daring to call myself an actor.”
by Barbara Ford
With Dad at three
When you have the pleasure of meeting Catherine (Cat) Lemieux, do not be fooled by her somewhat bashful, apologetic manner. This is one plucky and talented artist on the rise and well she deserves it.
An an only child born in NDG, the family moved to St. Lambert on Montreal’s South Shore when she was one but by the time she was six her parents separated. Lemieux and her mom found new digs in the same area, granting Lemieux more quality time with mom than she’d enjoyed previously as she was pretty tight with her dad, a great hulking man of 6'4" who ran a bailiff business. Coincidentally, a year after leaving her childhood home, Lemieux’s mother heard that the property was on the market  again and bought back the homestead and the two returned to the place Lemieux associated with happier times.

High school improv
Elementary school was uneventful in terms of acting. Without siblings, Lemieux was a loner by nature and the consistent fat jokes did nothing to change that, but high school was a different story. She attended College Charles-Lemoyne, a mixed private school, and got involved with the school’s participation in competitive improv games. “It became the lifeline to finding my social groove,” Lemieux declared. “Now the kids were laughing with me, not at me. I wasn’t the fat kid anymore, I was the funny kid.” Not only did it improve her social status but it was the origin of her interest in live performance, providing fertile ground for one of the most useful lessons- how to work a crowd. (cont'd)

Dome grad class, 1998

Directly following high school, Lemieux continued her education at Champlain College CEGEP, studying Creative Arts, but there were no more improv games. No problem … her schoolmates attending Collège Edouard-Montpetit smuggled her onto their improv team whenever their school competed. After graduating CEGEP, Lemieux applied to the Dawson Dome theatre program in 1996. She got her first paying gig with Repercussion’s Shakespeare-in-the-Park as she was finishing the program, landing parts in A Midsummer Night’s Dream the Summer of ’98, touring into the following Winter with an indoor production of Macbeth and teaching for the company.
Repercussion's Midsummer company
With a handful of recent Dome graduates (Elan Zafir, Andrew Ferrar a.k.a. the rising rap/hip-hop star Annakin Slayd, Larah Bross and Melanie St. Jacques) Lemieux formed the company Untimely Ripped, the name a commemorative quote from the Scottish play, their final Dome student project. “We were fresh out of school and didn’t know any better. We just wanted to create work for ourselves- get out there and be seen.” 
Their first play was the 1999 Fringe original Leaf in the Mailbox, an off-beat romantic comedy written by Zafir that won the People’s Choice award: a remount at Centaur’s Wildside Festival  the following Winter- not a bad start for a fledgling company. Soon after Lemieux played the BFF to a young woman obsessed with telephone dating (ah those long ago pre-computer dating days) in the Infinithéâtre  production of Lana Starchuck’s Call Me, directed by Donovan King, which won the MECCA that season for Best New Text.  
Through her mother’s teaching position at LaSalle College, Lemieux had the opportunity to go to Expo 2000, the Worlds Fair in Hanover (Germany), as a food service worker … heh, it’s one way to travel! The world, however, wasn’t that interested: business was slow, the paycheques even slower, and despite sharing a room with two French girls, it was a difficult and lonely time for her. “Being bilingual, I’m able to feel at home almost anywhere I go, but in Germany the language barrier was really hard for me.” When news of her grandmother’s illness reached her, it was a way out of her contract and Lemieux headed home six weeks early. 
Lemieux fondly reminisced about the rats, “as big as cats fighting in the back alley.” 
To celebrate her birthday in 2001, Lemieux went to New York for a weekend to visit Dome colleague Andrew Farrar and (no surprise) she loved it. By January 2002, she was paying $600 a month for half a bed in a roach and mice infested apartment … a good deal by New York standards. Lemieux fondly reminisced about the rats, “as big as cats fighting in the back alley.” 
Lemieux’s New York debut was a Spring 2002 production in a small theatre near Times Square. It was a remount of Untimely Ripped’s 2001 Montreal Fringe show Killing Jar Jar (as in Jar Jar Binks of Star Wars fame), written and directed by Farrar, whom Lemieux fondly refers to as “my brother from another mother”. He facilitated the NY gig and acted in it as well. Later that summer, she performed in a NY Fringe show called Binoculars, written by Larah Bross. It was a comedy about terrorism in which Lemieux played a journalist but the show was not well received. “It was too soon for a show like that after 9/11,” she explained.  
Like many expat actors trying to make a go of it in the Big Apple, Lemieux worked in the service industry to pay for her half of the bed. She was getting paid cash at The Coffee Pot in Hell’s Kitchen when they moved her to another outlet up the street as Manager and eventually transferred her to the Wall Street location as Assistant Manager. In Lemieux’s words the job sucked but through the grapevine she heard about a cashier position at the Tuscan Square in Rockefeller Centre and grabbed that. Two days later, she was catapulted to Catering Manager.
With Dad
By now Lemieux was pulling in a whopping $350 a week for major responsibilities like catering SNL creator Lorne Michaels’ son’s birthday party on the Rosie O’Donnell set, while attempting to launch a NY acting career. The mysterious disappearance of the restaurant manager and the general distrust of the staff who questioned Lemieux’s quick rise to catering fame made the work that was supposed to be supporting her acting career not only miserable but all-consuming. After living in Soho, Washington Heights and the ‘Cloisters’, Lemieux decided to once again take up residence in Montreal and by July 2003 she was back in her childhood home. 
Things were tough for Lemieux at home where she had to play the role of go-between for the parents she loved but who had difficulty co-existing under the same roof. Lemieux’s father, who had his own devils to contend with, succumbed to his ongoing heart condition and was put into hospital while cancer landed her mom on a different floor of the same institution during the same time period. Though undeniably difficult circumstances, Lemieux divided her time between caring for her family, working at Andrea Kenyon Casting (2003 to 2009), taking acting classes and finding gigs. Lemieux’s father passed away in 2009 but her mom survived the cancer although has health issues that persist today. 
7 Stories (with Eric Davis; photo credit: Cindy Lopez)
Lemieux met Chip Chuipka in 2003 and he suggested she drop by ASM Performing Arts to check out their classes. Her first experience there was in the annual 48-Hour Film Festival, which she loved and subsequently contributed to two more. To keep her acting muscles in shape she worked out with the ASM Soaps, improv exercises that are ongoing today. At the time, the group consisted of actors like Dean Fleming, Deena Aziz, Mike Payette, Eric Hausknost and Liz Valdez to name a few. 
Problem Child
(Suburban Motel)
photo credit: Laura D'Allessandro
Through meeting Payette at ASM, Lemieux heard about auditions for the Morris Panych play, 7 Stories, to be produced in the Spring of 2008 by Payette and Mathieu Perron’s three-year-old company, Tableau D’Hôte Theatre (TDT). In addition to playing one of the wacky neighbours in 7 Stories, Lemieux played other memorable roles in subsequent TDT productions including Judith Thompson’s Lion in the Streets (2008) and George F. Walker’s Suburban Motel (2009), both at Mainline Theatre. Lemieux’s professionalism and improv reflexes came in handy for a sold out performance of TDT’s Criminal Minds, (Suburban Motel series) when actress Shion-En Chan had to drop out and Lemieux was cast as her replacement. With only one rehearsal two hours before curtain, Lemieux stepped in to save the day … I mean the play. 
“Working with Mike [Payette] on these shows helped me with the healing process after letting go of Untimely Ripped”, said Lemieux. The positive critical acclaim must have been a soothing balm as well with The Gazette’s Pat Donnelly saying that Lemieux’s social worker in Suburban Motel’s Problem Child became, “progressively hilarious”. The Charlebois Post’s (CharPo) April 2011 list of five Montreal actors to watch wrote, “Simply she's a fave. Her work with Tableau D'Hôte has impressed and she pretty much stole the show - a hard thing to do when things are so wild - in Sexy Dirty Bloody Scary”. 
Problem Child
Lemieux also assisted Payette in his direction of the 2010 TDT production of A Line in the Sand starring Chuipka, Glenda Braganza and Mike Hughes for the Segal Centre Studio. She stated, “I was extremely proud of that play. I thought Mike was a genius for casting Glenda as he did. I learned a lot from that experience. I like the process of directing; it’s very interesting to me.” I’m sure that was not the last we’ve seen of Lemieux the director.
Jesus Jello
(Photo credit: Andrei Kalamkarov)
Size isn’t everything, as some men never seem to tire of telling us, but in a vocation where appearance plays a huge role, size has very real repercussions. Not the typical ingénue, though her talents rival the most promising leading ladies, Lemieux admitted that she is fighting the good fight to break down the stereotypes associated with a large physique. She said, “I’m not on a crusade. Trying to change people’s perceptions isn’t my raison d’être. Mostly I’m just pushing myself to do more and be better.”
Consequently her roles cover a wide range, demonstrating her profound ability to fully embody a character. Though she has played the stereotypical plump, nurturing female, like the doting mother in the 2010 Fringe show Jesus Jello, she has moved beyond society’s limited and clichéd views to reveal the hearts of people like Ruthie, the imprisoned, guilt-ridden mom who stood by as her own boyfriend abused her daughter in Unfit for Bears: Beyond the Wall of Canada’s Prison for Women (Zeitgeist Theatre Collective 2011). She was the airhead sister in the world’s most dysfunctional family for TDT’s Dark Owl (2010), rolled with the punches as the Wheel-of-Fortune in the zany, cabaret world of Sexy Dirty Bloody Scary dictated how the scenes unfolded (Mainline Theatre 2011), and was a puppet master at the Segal Centre Studio in Scapegoat Carnivale’s The Heretics of Bohemia (2012).  
With Johanna Nutter
(photo credit: Joseph Ste-Marie)
Joanne Sarazen’s 2011 Fringe hit The Birth of Weza or Go F@#k Your Mother was one of Lemieux’s favourites.  “In one aspect this was a dream role for me because it was a romantic lead that wasn’t written specifically for a fat woman; size had nothing to do with the story. That’s a bit of a guiding light in my career, to play roles that normalize unconventional casting. And she certainly wasn’t the conventional romantic lead, where the girl gets the guy and they live happily ever after with 2.5 kids in a house with a white picket fence … she didn’t even want kids. I liked that about her.” Anna Fuerstenberg, reviewing for Rover Arts, commented, “The night however belonged to Catherine Lemieux who played a kind of Oprah educated working class healer who took the New Age babble beyond all frontiers and delivered a femme fatale for the ages. She was equally at home talking about balance in life and wearing a mask as a voiceless stripper. She owned that stage and roared through the material. (cont'd)
Lion in the Streets -  Charlie Hausknost, Sterling Mawhinney and Stefanie Buxton
(photo credit:  Cindy Lopez)
Without a doubt it was Sue in Lion in the Streets that presented Lemieux with one of her biggest career challenges. “There was a strip scene in the play that scared the you-know-what out of me.” To prepare for this and any role, Lemieux reads the script daily, a tip she picked up from Chuipka at ASM who said, “Read your words every day and stick to the text because it starts there.” If Lemieux identifies with the character in the first reading of a script, that’s her signal to continue and she begins to build the backstory, another key element for her. She looks at how the character grades themselves. Do they feel like a four but act like a nine? How much of the inner self do they reflect outwardly? Set and costumes also help her to transform and rehearsals reveal hints that she must decode to gain an all-access pass to her character. Lemieux struggled internally with this daring role but ultimately faced her fear and triumphed.
To date, Lemieux has had three agents. She started out with Roger Peace but sheepishly confessed she was responsible for screwing up that business relationship when she disappeared to Germany without informing him while he frantically tried to reach her for a Cirque du Soleil audition. Shawn Roberts, who Lemieux worked with at Andrea Kenyon Casting, opened his own agency out of a restaurant where he worked and signed Lemieux up as one of his clients.  Lemieux landed her Being Human TV gig through him but the venture was short-lived and Roberts folded up shop, alerting his clients through Facebook … the result of doing business in the social media age. 
On the set of White House Down -
it's tough being a hostage
In 2012, Lemieux asked Glenn Talent’s Chelsea McIsaac to be her agent. McIsaac, who’d already seen Lemieux in productions featuring other Glenn Talent clients, took her on. McIsaac landed Lemieux’s first principal role in the US feature film White House Down directed by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, Anonymous). “I was truly afraid doing this film, but not about my acting. In most of my scenes I play a frantic mother chasing after her children in the middle of chaos. My biggest worry wasn’t whether I’d remember my lines but whether I’d be able to keep up with those kids!” Keep up she did as her first speaking role in a film that was only supposed to be a couple of days of shooting was extended to a couple of weeks over a four-month period. 
Most of 2012 has been busy for Lemieux with another film role in The Young and Prodigious Spivet, written and directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie) due for 3D release in 2013. Her improv skills made a resounding reappearance when she co-hosted L’Après Fringe The 13th Hour, the madly popular nightly talk show that highlights festival activities. Lemieux, better known on the show as Cat Lemiaow, shared the stage with resident improv queen Kirsten Rasmussen (Kiki Razzle) and Karl P. Werleman (Filip Fairbanks). As an SNL fanatic growing up, dreaming of a career as a New York comedienne, Lemieux also made her first fearsome foray into stand-up comedy at a local open mic night this past year. (cont'd)
The 13th Hour

In the Spring of 2012, Roy Surette (Centaur’s Artistic Director), having seen some of Lemieux’s previous work, asked her to audition for Jean in David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People, the 2011 New York Broadway smash. “I hate auditioning,” said Lemieux. “It’s very stressful for me but I’ve learned that if my initial reaction is to run away screaming ‘no f_ _king way’, that’s my cue to take a second look. Usually it’s something I need to do, no matter how scary.” She landed the part and divulged that she is veering away from the Broadway Jean, expressing gratitude for the steadfast support from Surette as well as her colleagues in the production. Already an ACTRA member through her TV and film work, the Centaur gig has finally awarded Lemieux a membership with the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association. She shyly revealed, “It’s only now that I’m daring to call myself an actor.” 
Once the Centaur show is behind her, Lemieux is looking forward to a break: time to take stock and figure out her next move. She’s seriously considering taking another crack at stand-up comedy, which she describes as “the ultimate challenge and the scariest thing I’ve ever done, aside from that strip scene in Lion, but I can’t let things that scare me keep me from trying. It’s not really courage that gets me through”, she said, “mostly it’s naïveté.” She also confided that she’d like to learn more about production. Wherever she decides to focus her talents next, I’m sure we will be the lucky beneficiaries.
Catch Lemieux as the tough-talkin’ Boston Southie in Good People at Centaur from now until December 9th. For information and/or tickets call (514) 288 – 3161 or click here.

Read our review of Good People.


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