Catching Up With…Mag Ruffman From ‘Road to Avonlea’
Photos by: Getty Images (left) and Daniel Hunter (right)
The 60-year-old star of Road to Avonlea talks fame, DIY projects and one particularly fortuitous journey to San Francisco.
The road to Avonlea was a unique one for Mag Ruffman.
At one point, while in her early 20s, the Richmond Hill, Ont. native attended the University of Toronto for physical education, although her interest in the subject quickly waned. “One day, I realized I didn’t want to be a phys ed teacher at all: I wanted to be an entertainer,” she says. “I didn’t feel like my fellow classmates were my tribe. Physical education was OK, but it wasn’t answering my nature to express myself and work with emotions.”
And so she halted her brief foray into physical health, propelled forward by a newfound sense of purpose—and $5,000 in prize money earned as the winner of a 1980 installment of the DuMaurier Search for the Stars. And it was that same penchant for performing—and a blossoming friendship with Anne of Green Gables writer-producer Kevin Sullivan—that later resulted in her most famous role to date.
In hindsight, considering her onscreen charm, quick wit and contagious smile, it’s hard to envision Ruffman holding down any job that didn’t require her to be in front of the camera. From actress to Tool Girl to teacher, she’s donned a variety of different hats over the years. “I’m an introvert, but I can act extroverted,” she laughs.
But it was on Road to Avonlea where Ruffman first made her mark.
Loosely based on a series of novels by acclaimed Anne of Green Gables author Lucy Maud Montgomery, the series initially followed the (mis)adventures of Sara Stanley (Sarah Polley)—a young Montréal heiress sent to live with relatives in the fictional town of Avonlea, P.E.I. in the early 1900s—before branching off to also focus on an array of secondary characters and their lives. The series, which enjoyed seven highly-successful seasons (1989-1996), has since become something of a national treasure.
Avonlea went on to receive 16 Emmy nominations and 18 Gemini nods over the course of its run. It even featured all-star guest appearances from the likes of Faye Dunaway, Eugene Levy, Stockard Channing and Christopher Lloyd, among others. And let’s not forget a pre-fame Ryan Gosling, who had a one-episode stint back in 1996.
But as Oliva King-Dale, Ruffman was the quirky beating heart at the centre of the series—an immediate fan-favourite whose character arch went from the socially-awkward younger sibling of the temperamental spinster Hetty King (played by the biting Jackie Burroughs) to strong-willed family woman.
After the series ended, Ruffman chose the path less travelled, rebranding herself as the Tool Girl in a series of DIY home improvement shows. And while Ruffman’s career trajectory has been anything but linear, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
We caught up with Ruffman to talk relationships, DIY projects and how she landed a major role on Road to Avonlea. Click to the next page for the full Q&A.
On starring in one of the biggest Canadian TV series of all time…
“For me, the experience was unbelievably sweet and inspiring. It was an overwhelming stroke of luck. I didn’t have any real training as an actor, and I didn’t know what I was doing. But the day-to-day experience of it all was so lovely. Having the kids around was really special because they were so bright and funny. Zachary Bennett would tell jokes for hours and Sarah Polley would ask the most interesting questions about spirituality—she was reading these really intense adult books at the time. (laughs) They were all so precocious in their own ways. Our shoots lasted about six months of the year, so I feel like they’re all family.”
On how she landed the role of Olivia King-Dale…
“I originally went to the University of Toronto to study physical education and, during that time, I got into musical theatre. I had a good skill set from birth—I was always able to sing and act out scenes. Physical education was OK, but it wasn’t answering my nature to express myself and work with emotions. It wasn’t until I got into musical theatre that I thought, ‘These are my people! They can play piano, they can sing and they’re funny!’ I’d worked with [Avonlea writer-producer] Kevin Sullivan a few times before and he called me in to audition for this role. It actually coincided with a time in my life when I’d decided to sell all my personal belongings and move to San Francisco because I wanted to study higher consciousness. I was born a seeker. I’ve always been fascinated by spirituality and God and magic, but I went to the audition first and then hopped on a plane to California. I just figured there were millions of women who could easily play Olivia and it wouldn’t be me. After I landed, I got settled in with friends and the first thing I did was buy bed sheets and an answering machine, so I owned only two things—well, three if you count the two sheets. (laughs) The first message on my answering machine was from the costume mistress from the set of Road to Avonlea saying I needed to stop by for measurements so they could start cutting a costume for me. I hadn’t even been told by my agent or anyone else that I’d gotten the part—so this was my first clue that I had to go home. (laughs) I had to buy back all the things that I’d sold—I mainly needed a computer again and my Sorrel boots.”
On her long-distance marriage during filming…
“I met my husband, Daniel Hunter, in San Francisco during one of my trips back to visit friends. He’s originally from Utah, but he was living in San Francisco working as a contractor at the time. It seems so random now, but Avonlea gave us a week off before we started filming because they weren’t quite finished building the village set, so I went back to California to visit. Daniel and I got married in Reno, three weeks after we’d met. Some couples are together for five or six years before they get married, but in our case we got married first and then we had the seven years of living apart where we had to get to know each other. It may be a bit backward to some people, but that’s how we did it. If you can get past the first two years of marriage, whether you’re living together or apart, you’ve got it made. We’ve been married since 1989, so we’re coming up on 28 years together!”
On what she enjoyed most about playing Olivia…
“Remember, I had no formal training as an actor so I had to feel my way into it. I didn’t make any intellectual choices when playing Olivia. What I liked the most was being able to feel my way into it and not having any preconceptions of how to play the role. I just used my actual feelings to create the character and her relationships. I liked that Olivia was so quirky and a little unpredictable. I loved her warmth and her awkwardness; her way of really believing in other people and not ever holding a grudge or being self-centred—I loved that she was so altruistic. For the most part, Olivia was just an admirable character and I probably could have played her with more depth and a bit of a darker side, but I didn’t know how. Remember, I was phys ed major.” (laughs)
On what makes Road to Avonlea such an enduring classic…
“Well, it’s the classic human penchant for going back to an idealized past when life was more simplistic. None of the characters had truly confusing choices to make—it was either moral or immoral. Back then you had very little stimulation outside of the sewing circle and town meetings, so people became very self-reliant and I think it’s fun to watch that. My 87-year-old dad used to watch the show and he’d always get teary. There was a lot of emotion in the stories—it had a lot of heart and people really respond to that. You got welcomed into the fold as a viewer.”
On becoming a DIY queen with her Tool Girl Toronto Star columns and home improvement series on the W Network…
“I’d always wanted to learn more about that stuff, ever since my camp days when I was 12. We had two women who were in charge of the camp and they were incredibly capable—they could build anything. One of them carved a spatula out of cedar while on a canoe trip because we’d forgotten to bring one. I had the rather awkward career trajectory of going from an actress on a really popular TV series to a building contractor. I’d noticed that most actresses don’t work much between ages 40 and 60, so I figured I was going to have a 20-year hiatus anyway so why not get into lifestyle television? I began to go along with my husband on all his jobs and learned as I went. But around 2006-2007, I was really burnt out on all that stuff. I didn’t want to find out the latest in plumbing fixtures anymore—I just stopped caring! That’s when my husband and I started our own video company [Ruffman Entertainment] and now we teach businesses and municipalities how to shoot and edit videos right on their smartphones. However, I did just take a course on how to write a one-woman show because I really miss performing. Teaching is fun, but performing is really powerful and I’m turning 60—so my 40 to 60 hiatus is up!”
On her favourite DIY project she’s ever made…
“Welding is my favourite thing to do, and this one time I made a really wonky trellis that I loved—it was all curvy and sinuous. I made it have feminine curves. (laughs) But my approach with all my shows is to leave the mistakes in so people wouldn’t get the idea that it always goes well—it’s just setting yourself up for self-recrimination. I wanted people to see me struggling. When you’re a real contractor in a real home, nothing ever goes well—it’s like figuring out a puzzle. To me, it’s just pure hubris—it’s unacceptable to show your audience the perfect unfolding a project because it makes people feel like shit. Careers in carpentry would all end on the first day if they thought you’re supposed to get it right in one try. I liked figuring things out on the fly and it’s quite hard doing things with your hands while talking. In neuroscience terms, the area of the brain we use for language and abstract thought is the same area we use when we’re putting together complex three-dimensional shapes. So you really can’t talk when you’re creating something with your hands and it’s why tradespeople get a bad rap because people think they’re dumb. When you’re talking to your plumber while they’re working on a complicated appliance he can only say ‘uh huh.’ They are focused. Half the mistakes on the show I made because I had to talk. (laughs) For awhile I got such nasty mail from both men and women saying things like ‘she’s too stupid to be on television’ and ‘she does nothing but screw up’ but all contractors screw up sometimes. But I eventually started getting letters from contractors thanking me for showing people that it doesn’t always go smoothly. So it worked out in the end.”
Road to Avonlea airs on Vision TV weekdays at 2 p.m. (EST). And ZoomerMedia’s very own Marilyn Lightstone, actor, artist, author, the voice of VisionTV and host of Nocturne on the New Classical 96.3fm, stars in both Anne of Green Gables and Road to Avonlea as Miss Muriel Stacey.