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.
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.”