You’ve watched him on screens big and small and, as Bruce Greenwood returns in a new medical drama, Nathalie Atkinson goes behind the stealth stardom of Canada’s most prolific leading man.
It’s been more than 30 years since Bruce Greenwood first swept through the hospital corridors of St. Elsewhere as a cocky young resident. Now he’s back on rounds starring in The Resident (Citytv), a new medical drama that explores the personal and professional lives of doctors working in a system corrupted by ego and money. This time, however, Greenwood plays the arrogant head of surgery and chief antagonist to idealistic young resident Matt Czuchry (The Good Wife, Gilmore Girls) and nurse Emily VanCamp (Revenge).
As Greenwood joked, “If there is a big star in the movie, chances are I am going to play the villain.” Although it’s true he’s often the charming rogue we love to hate (think Knots Landing or Ashley Judd’s treacherous husband in Double Jeopardy), Greenwood has also portrayed American presidents both fictional (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) and real (John F. Kennedy in Thirteen Days), beloved cult characters like Capt. Christopher Pike in J.J. Abrams’s acclaimed Star Trek reboot, prestige TV regulars in American Crime Story and Mad Men and more than held his own as former Kennedy-era U.S. defense secretary Robert McNamara opposite Meryl Streep in The Post.
If his rugged good looks seem familiar, it’s that the Canadian actor has graced these countless television and cinema screens since his first credit on The Beachcombers. Yet to the extent that there is a Canadian star system, our top thespian talent has always defied typecasting — even matinee idols who have leading-man charisma are chameleon character actors, often easily recognized but difficult to place. Throughout his career that has allowed Greenwood to move effortlessly between a range of distinct juicy parts, from the appealing hero on the run in cult conspiracy series Nowhere Man to singular supporting roles (acting alongside fellow St. Elsewhere alum Denzel Washington in several movies, for example, including Flight) to amiable or, more often, duplicitous.
Like other noted character actors who disappear into their roles — Michael Shannon, Ben Mendelsohn, J.K. Simmons, Don Cheadle and Brian Cranston come to mind — it’s the unforgettable work defined by skill and versatility that shines. Now, thanks in large part to the explosion of prestige TV, memorable character work is having a breakout moment and finally minting the actors themselves as a new kind of leading man.
Born in Quebec, raised in British Columbia and for the last 30 years based in Los Angeles, the Canadian actor is never far from home — he’s made many films with long-time friend and director Atom Egoyan and almost always has a homegrown indie project on the go, like Collin Friesen’s upcoming Sorry for Your Loss and Exposure, produced by fellow Canadian and co-star Leslie Hope. He sat down for a conversation in Toronto while on a press tour for The Resident.
NATHALIE ATKINSON: Before we get to The Resident’s Chastain Park Memorial Hospital, rewinding back to St. Eligius –
BRUCE GREENWOOD: That’s a major rewind!
NA: It is. Because St. Elsewhere and its sibling cop show Hill Street Blues changed the shape of television drama. Were you aware of their influence at the time?
BG: Oh, I was completely unaware of it. I was a rube from Vancouver with shoulder-length hair and all I wanted to do was go hang at the beach and play guitar. And I was barely aware when I went in for the audition that it was a hospital show. Barely! But the scripts were great, in spite of the fact that they let me have a mullet, which now seems like a terrible idea.
NA: We’ve seen those YouTube clips.
BG: Yep, yeah — sorry.
NA: I’m only three episodes into The Resident, but it seems deeply cynical, about capitalism affecting patient care for example. A show about the American health-care system yet a couple of Canadians star in it — Emily VanCamp [as Nic] and one of your co-stars is married to a Canadian.
BG: Wait, Manish [Dayal]’s wife is Canadian? I didn’t realize that!
NA: Have you experienced any of that cynicism yourself with the American system?
BG: I’m not uncynical about the Canadian health-care system either, having had lots of friends wait months and months and months to get issues addressed. It ain’t perfect by any stretch — we’ve thrown that baby out with the bathwater to a large degree. And in terms of the show being somewhat cynical about the contest between money and medicine, between care and commerce, that’s one of the windmills it really wants to tilt at. And sometimes does it successfully, often does it very broadly because there isn’t a lot of time to tell those stories in a detailed way with four or five concurrent stories happening in an episode. But we’re trying to do that.
NA: It’s not the most — shall we say — reassuring show.
BG: No, but that part of it that is not reassuring, that makes you worry about the fact that as a patient you’re going to be overlooked because they want to save money here or there, they’re trying to balance that with the altruism of the Conrad [Matt Czuchry] and Nic [Emily VanCamp] characters. Everybody I’ve ever met in health care has been somebody who I’ve felt sincerely wants to help me. But not every time have I been in the hospital for an operation on my knee or whatever have they said they can do it right away.
NA: Another of the things The Resident tackles is how social media has changed medicine. The show opens with selfies in the operating room. The doctors manipulate Rate Your Doctor apps, which seem like the worst possible twist on a profession already rife with hubris. To what extent has that same social media dimension altered Hollywood since you started?
BG: Oh, in innumerable and profound ways. Now, if you don’t have a Twitter following, you’re less hire-able. And I don’t — because I just can’t imagine being saddled every day with coming up with five different points of view on whatever is happening at the moment. I just don’t want to put myself through it. And self-promotion is a very … everybody seems to be really aware on a deep level of self-promotion and how best to effect it. And it’s just not something I know how to do, particularly.
NA: What do you do in your precious downtime then?
BG: Play guitar. And travel. As soon as this next project is over, I’m going to Peru and Ecuador and Machu Picchu and the Galapagos.
NA: And you play chess I hear?
BG: I do. I bring a chessboard everywhere.
NA: Who’s the best chess player on set you’ve ever played?
[answers without hesitation]
BG: Will Smith. [his I, Robot co-star]
NA: He beat you?
BG: Oh, he slapped me, just swatted me from one end of the board to the other. Although there was another guy, on a movie I did with Annette Bening [Being Julia, 2004]. We were in Budapest in this great big square, and everybody in Hungary plays chess, so I was playing with an extra. I had my board and he beat me. And he beat me again. He didn’t speak any English. And there’s a crowd that had gathered around watching this old guy play this actor — and he excused himself and walked through this crowd and went right to the director István Szabó and said something, then came back and sat down and we played again and he beat me. Again. And then again. Then it was time for me to go to work. I asked István the next day, ‘What did that guy say to you?’ [switches to Hungarian accent] “Oh, he was just ask if was okay continue to beat you.” So, I’ve met a lot of good chess players, but Will Smith is the most highly visible best one. I think Guy Ritchie beat me, too. [Swept Away, 2002]
NA: This could be a web series. Like Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.