By Luaine Lee
Tribune News Service
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Canadian comedian Meredith MacNeill was down to her last pair of slacks, her coat spliced with duct tape, when she landed the job of her life in her native Nova Scotia.
“I got this job as a writer-performer for a couple of weeks and on this show,
‘This Hour Has 22 Minutes,’ which was in Halifax, back in Canada. I was so thrilled to have a job,” she says.
MacNeill had already spent 12 years in England training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and performing in such prestigious plays as Shakespeare’s “Richard III” and “The Taming of the Shrew.”
She seemed destined for a career in the theater. But life got in her way.
“I was pregnant and knew I was probably going to be a single mother, so I lost everything and moved back home in my parents’ house, back in the fishing village,” she says.
“I went home with a suitcase, just for my daughter. And I had to start over at 36. But the most incredible thing came from it.”
That “incredible thing” turned out to be her joining three other women and forming “Baroness von Sketch Show,” which returns to IFC and IFC.com for its fourth season Oct. 30.
While she was performing in England, she’d landed a part in her first sketch comedy, “Man Stroke Woman.” “In the U.K. I noticed there were lots of female-fronted shows like Catherine Tate’s, Victoria Wood’s,” she says.
“In the states there was Amy Poehler, Tina Fey. And in Canada I wasn’t seeing the same thing. So I took the idea of ‘Man Stroke Woman’ — sketch comedy because I knew the model — and put the feminist voice behind that. And I started to write just the basic idea of what the show was.
“And I met the amazing Carolyn Taylor there, and I approached her and said, ‘I have an idea for a show.’ I literally just met her, and she was a writer on the show, and we barely knew each other. Then she said, ‘Great,’ and introduced me to Aurora Browne, Jennifer Whelan. They all worked together for, like, 20-plus years. And the four of us created the sketch show together.
When “Baroness” was picked up by Canadian television, MacNeill and her daughter (now 8) left her parents’ home and moved to Toronto.
“But I still don’t give up my Nova Scotia residence,” she says. “So whenever the show is down, which is only two months of the year, I go back to Nova Scotia,” she says.
“I grew up in Amherst, which is up against the massive Tantramar Marsh. For me, it was a really beautiful place. And in junior high I started running,” she recalls.
“I wasn’t the fastest runner, but I just loved it. I ran on this dirt road all by myself, and having that time alone was just my own, and that really changed me. I used to spend that time visualizing how I would succeed in life, how I would tackle a problem, how I would get out of my town and move on. Running on the marsh, visualizing that, really changed me. I’ve always gone back to that,” she nods.
She was not into competitive track, she says. “I was never really that good. I’m built like Chuck Norris — long body and short legs. I wasn’t fast, but I really enjoyed it.”
From the time she was 7, she also enjoyed performing. “There was two women in town that started a theater program called Beverly True and Betty Douglas, and I owe them everything,” she says.
“If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be doing this. They started a group for adults and one for children, and I joined the children’s group and stayed with them until I was in high school.”
They not only taught her theater, they bolstered her self-confidence. “They made me feel OK at it. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I’m going to be an actor.’ It was just, ‘I’m OK at this,’ and just kind of threw everything at that … I just didn’t know I would be good at anything else,” she shrugs.
Arsenio Hall set for return
Funny and warm Arsenio Hall will be back Oct. 29 in his new comedy special, “Arsenio Hall: Smart & Classy,” streaming on Netflix. It’s been four years since Hall hosted his last late-night talk show, but he hasn’t lost his comic edge. He tells me that where he grew up, it would have been so easy to fall into wayward ways.
“My grandmother said, ‘You’re in the ghetto, but don’t let the ghetto get in you,’” he recalls. “I enjoyed listening to pimps and players, numbers runners. They told stories about experiences and women, and this and that,” he remembers.
“Most had nice cars and nice suits. And you could easily be caught up and say, ‘I want to be like him.’ I didn’t want to go to college … it’s hard to see a college degree and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, or a picture on the cover of Time Magazine when the guy next to you in class is going up for life. And the guy prior to this won’t be here next year. He’ll hang himself in prison.
“These are all your boys. It’s hard to be the product of that environment and continue to dream or have somebody instill a dream in you because one of the problems is you’re there, and there is no dream to dream. Nobody’s told you what can be.”
Mirren to be ‘Great’ again
The versatile and gifted Helen Mirren is starring in HBO’s luxurious “Catherine the Great,” a four-part series about the powerful empress who ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796.
Although Catherine was really Prussian, Mirren is actually part Russian on her father’s side. Her grandfather was a member of the Russian Imperial Army. And “Catherine the Great” was partially filmed in St. Petersburg, Latvia and Lithuania.
“One of the things I like about acting is you don’t have to think what to say, it’s all written for you — which is kind of nice,” Mirren says. “I think also it fits in with my philosophy of life. The world you engage in as an actor is quite loose, quite liberal. It’s quite varied, it’s quite ‘funky’ for want of a better word. You get to mix with people with all kinds of different attitudes and races.
“It’s an inclusive profession. It’s more inclusive than most professions. And I love never quite knowing what I’m going to be doing next. A lot of people just couldn’t handle that and I think, in the end, that’s what separates actors from other people and musicians and writers and painters — that sense of insecurity.
“Insecurity is exciting to them and also terrifying. But I love the fact that I have no idea what I’ll be doing this time next year or where I’ll be, or which country I’ll be in.”