Through early success and a brush with death, Jason Priestley has always looked to the next challenge.
Despite his early success as a heartthrob on Beverley Hills 90210, Jason Priestley has always looked to the next challenge.
Jason Priestley’s steak is getting cold. We’re in the dining room of the Scarborough Golf and Country Club in Toronto on a Friday evening in April. An episode of Priestley’s detective rom-com, Private Eyes, is shooting one floor up; there’s a fake pool of blood on the carpet. But the rest of the club is open for business, and Priestley has dashed downstairs for dinner. His slab of tender meat and his chewy Malbec wine sit untouched, though, because patrons – men and women – keep tapping him on the shoulder.
All the women say the same thing: “I grew up watching Beverly Hills, 90210. Brandon Walsh was my first crush. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to say hi.” (The high school drama known as 90210 was a world-wide phenomenon in the 1990s, and Brandon was its straight-laced-but-dreamy star.) Then they ask for a selfie, which Priestley always obliges, often tilting their phones to a better angle, which makes them smile more. They thank him and scurry off to their giggling friends.
The men talk at him about golf or cars – Priestley was also a professional race car driver from the early 1990s until 2002. They invite him to their charity tournaments, ask if that’s his Porsche outside. (It belongs to his Private Eyes character, Matt Shade, a former pro hockey player turned private investigator.)
But here’s the thing: in a dozen such encounters, no one asks Priestley about himself. They compliment him, tell him about themselves, snap their pics, and he’s so gracious about it, they feel they’ve connected. But they might as well be posing with a wax figure at Madame Tussauds.
Their lack of curiosity troubles human Priestley not a whit. “It’s totally enjoyable,” he says. “And it’s much easier.”
Priestley was 21 when 90210 broke. He’s 47 now, which means he’s been famous for more than half his life. As much as anyone on earth, he’s figured out how to do that well.
His secret: he wears his starriness lightly. He lets people bounce off it, so it doesn’t hollow him out. He’s learned not to give away too much. To understand Jason Priestley, you have to listen for what he doesn’t say.
The episode of Private Eyes he’s shooting tonight, “Getaway with Murder,” is twelfth in season 2. The will-they-or-won’t-they chemistry between Shade and his tough-cookie partner Angie (Cindy Sampson) continues to percolate. They are at a spa for a case: a former teammate of Shade’s thinks his husband is cheating on him. A storm rages outside (cue the lightning machine). Someone ends up dead. Private Eyes banters happily in the TV tradition of crime-solving couples like Hart to Hart, Moonlighting and Castle; this episode has a dash of Agatha Christie, too.
The cast “walks the beats” – planning for the camera where they’re going to stand, sit, cross the room. Instead of proper dialogue, they say, “Meow, meow, meow,” to keep their lines from going stale. The actor playing the corpse inhales deeply before each take so he isn’t caught breathing. Priestley (who also produces the show and occasionally directs) raises a question about the books on the desk – how many should be knocked over to highlight a key prop? – and then adjusts them for the camera angle.
“Jason’s definitely paternal on a set,” says Katrina Saville, who has written scripts for this and two other series Priestley sometimes directed, Saving Hope and Rookie Blue. “He makes sure we’re not running the crew into the ground. He takes care of people.” Though Private Eyes shoots 14 to 16 hours a day five days a week and Priestley is in nearly every scene, Saville has never seen him cranky.
“He knows his shit for sure,” she continues. “He has real story and character sense. He gives good notes, on top of being great with the actors and the camera.”
In the episode she wrote, a corpse goes missing at a wake, and wry comedy ensues. “But Jason made sure that we always remembered it’s somebody’s dead relative,” Saville says. “He’s great with the goofy moments but he likes to make sure that Shade never comes off like an idiot.”
Between takes, Sampson and Priestley banter like their characters – or racier versions thereof. “I’ve compiled a list of all the terrible things you’ve done to me,” Sampson taunts Priestley before sitting down with me.
“It’s a long list,” Priestley calls after us, grinning. His laugh (heh-heh-heh) is pleasingly filthy.
But seriously, says Sampson, “I’m so lucky to work with Jason. He has an immaculate work ethic and he’s completely at ease on a set. There’s no tension. He’s a jubilant person; he knows how to live.” She pauses. “It seems like maybe he kills small animals, I’m saying so many nice things about him. But they’re true.”
That immaculate work ethic has saved Priestley more than once. It’s impossible to overestimate what a huge cultural touchstone 90210 was, and how overwhelming that was for its young cast. Aaron Spelling, the TV magnate who created it, “knew how to catch lightning in a bottle, getting the right people together who could create a chemistry that would be so watchable that people couldn’t resist,” Priestley says. “He kept the stories simple and the clothes and settings aspirational. It was like crack for the American public.” Network publicists would set up appearances in malls for 500 fans, and 5,000 would show up. They’d trample the barriers, screaming. “I spent years saying, ‘Whoa, whoa, hold on,’” Priestley recalls. “The hysteria was constant.”
Priestley was 21 playing 16, which gave him an advantage maturity-wise. “But it also made it awkward,” he says. “Sixteen-year-old girls were like, ‘You’re my boyfriend!’ I was like, ‘Gotta go!’ Heh-heh-heh. Luke [Perry] and Ian [Ziering, his costars] and I were hyper-aware of the age discrepancy and how it would be viewed in the court system in California.”
I ask for details. He appears to answer. “I was a young man and believe me, I’m no saint,” he says. Subtly, he changes the subject. “The thing that worked in my favour, I had to show up at 6:30 every morning or 100 people would be left standing around. So that kept me relatively in line. When I wasn’t at work, I was at a track, driving race cars at 200-plus miles an hour. I painted myself into a corner so I couldn’t misbehave too badly.”
Still, I press, you must have some crazy memories. “Nobody’s totally innocent, and we shouldn’t pretend we are,” he says. But there he stops.
This is Priestley’s self-protection in action. He’s a fit, compact guy, still heart-throb handsome, all groomed stubble and enviable hair – though if you look closely, the left side of his face bears a faint stiffness from the 2002 racetrack accident that nearly killed him twice (more on that later). He sits squarely opposite you. His shoulders are open, his summer-sky eyes make constant contact. He is affability incarnate. But he never says anything he doesn’t mean to say.
Part of that is practice. Another part is innate – Priestley is in constant motion, but it’s forward motion. He’s not into introspection or self-analysis. “I think it’s good to keep your life moving forward,” he says. “I don’t spend any time looking in the rear-view mirror.”
His early years in North Vancouver “weren’t necessarily a happy time in my life,” Priestley admits. His mother, an actress, and his father, a representative for the company that made Naugahyde, split up while he was in grade school. His twin sister, Justine, went to live with their dad. He stayed with his mom. He won’t say why. “It’s just the classic 1970s kid story,” is all he offers. “I was a latchkey kid, key on a string around my neck. I came home by myself after school to an empty house. We all went through the same thing. It was the ‘I’m okay, you’re okay’ generation, but none of us were okay. It fucked us all.”
His parents didn’t think about the future – “They were total hippies,” Priestley says. “The future was for somebody else. They were just trying to get by day to day.”
Maybe that’s why Priestley thought about his own so much. “Even while 90210 was a global runaway train, I could see that it was a finite journey,” he says. “Something in me was going, ‘Holy crap, when this road ends, what are you going to do then?’ I don’t know how I knew that. I just knew it. I was worried, worried, worried all the time. I was haunted by the phrase, ‘The candle that burns twice as bright only burns half as long.’ I was like, ‘Oh God, it’s happening! Put it out!’”
He laughs but he means it. Having a monster hit at a young age can be your greatest blessing, but it can also be your biggest curse. “I always feared people would get tired of seeing this,” he says, waving a hand in front of his face. “Certainly at the rate they were seeing it back then. You couldn’t get away from my face. I thought, ‘I’m going to go into Leif Garrett land [a fellow teen mag cover boy] and never be heard from again.’ It was terrifying.”
Priestley started hounding Spelling to let him direct. “Back then, actors didn’t direct,” he says. “It was, ‘Hit your mark and bark.’ Here I was, a 23-year-old, asking Aaron to hand me the keys to his most prized possession. Thinking back now, he was out of his mind.” He lets loose another heh-heh-heh. “I basically wore him down.”
His first directing assignment wasn’t set at school or the Walsh House, either. It was a special, screwball comedy episode. In an amusement park. Guest-starring Burt Reynolds. “I had to do all these camera mounts on the big roller coaster at Magic Mountain. There were car chases,” Priestley says.
Miraculously, he pulled it off and went on to helm 14 more episodes.
When he left 90210 in 1999, Priestley continued directing, both in episodic television (Working the Engels, The Secret Life of the American Teenager) and in film, including a documentary with the Barenaked Ladies and the road movie Cas & Dylan, starring Richard Dreyfus and then-newcomer Tatiana Maslany. (Priestley delayed production for a week so Maslany could audition for a new sci-fi show called Orphan Black.)
“Every day was a party on the set with Jason,” Engels star Andrea Martin says. “He was energetic, knowledgable and a beacon of light for a comedian – he laughed at everything.”
The exposure 90210 gave him, “as great as it was, was also a trauma,” Priestley realizes now. “It’s a traumatic experience. I’ve seen people who, faced with adversity, revert back to the person they were during their initial trauma. I didn’t want to do that. I never want to fall back on the thing that was cute 10 years ago. It’s not cute anymore. I knew if I wanted to grow as an artist, I’d have to push myself.”
So when the series Call Me Fitz came along, he fought for it, returning multiple times to audition. He knew nothing would dispel the ghost of Brandon faster than playing a rip-snorting, sex-addled con man with mommy and daddy issues.
From the moment Priestley read the script, he thought, “I got this.” He’s a huge Rat Pack fan – not their sexism but their louche glamour. “They ran hard!” he says gleefully. “They’d stay up to 6 a.m., sleep for an hour, go back to work.” When Frank Sinatra played one last concert in his old ballroom before the Sands Casino was torn down, Priestley was there. “I’m that guy,” he says.
“Fitz was slightly more delusional than I am,” Priestley continues. “He actually believed he was part of the Rat Pack.” (Note that “slightly.”)
Priestley and his family – his wife, the makeup artist Naomi Lowde-Priestley, whom he married in 2005; their daughter, Ava, now 10; and their son, Dashiell, now eight – spent five happy summers shooting Call Me Fitz in the bucolic Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia. “Those were magical times,” Priestley says. “We rented a house, and my kids got really close to nature.”
On his way home from the set, he’d buy two four-pound lobsters from the guy who sold them on the side of the road. His kids would play with them: name them, turn them upside down and put them to sleep, take pictures with them. “Then when the water was boiling, I’d say, ‘Time to put them in the pot,’ and we’d eat them,” Priestley says, grinning. “They learned about the circle of life.”
The questions at the heart of Fitz were, Can people change? And do we want them to? Priestley believes people can – “but only if the change comes from within.” His biggest transformation occurred the first moment he saw his daughter. Instantly, his thinking and decision-making shifted. “I feel incredibly blessed that I was 39 when I had kids,” he says. “My life was settled, and I had a wealth of experience to draw on, to guide them, be there for them. I never feel like, ‘I wish I could go hang out with my friends in the bar.’ I’m not conflicted, ever.”
Priestley’s on the road a lot, so whenever he has the time, he takes his kids on a trip. “It’s all about making memories for them,” he says. But sometimes, he meets Naomi in a hotel room, they have a weekend together, he flies back to work – and his children never know he was in L.A. “You have to show your kids a healthy relationship,” he says. “It’s really important to keep the love alive between the parents. You can’t give up on your wife, and you have to stop her from giving up on you. There’s always going to be good and bad. But if you value that relationship – I absolutely adore my wife – you can’t be afraid to fight for it. You can’t let your ego get in the way.”
The first time he and his wife snuck away, their children were three and one. Priestley flew his mother and stepfather in from Vancouver and took Naomi to the Monaco Television Festival. “I thought it was a pretty strong offer, heh-heh-heh,” he says. “Naomi cried all the way to the airport. We went to the British Airways lounge, I got her a glass of champagne. She took one sip and said, ‘Okay. I can do this.’ And that’s why I love my wife.”
Recently, Priestley and Naomi went to France with Sampson and her then-fiancé (they’re now married). “Seeing him and Naomi interact, I was like, ‘That’s the relationship I want,’” Sampson says. “To have a solid, grounded foundation and yet to laugh all the time.”
A month after his daughter’s birth, Priestley became a U.S. citizen: “I never wanted any government to be able to keep me away from my kids.” The family lives in Studio City, Calif., and his children have three passports: Canadian, U.S. and the U.K., where Naomi was raised.
Despite his passport, “I never identify myself as an American and I never will,” Priestley insists. “I’m a proud Canadian, all day long. I love this country. I feel so fortunate to be raised and educated here, in the public school system. I’m very proud of the seat Canada has at the world table. It’s a sensitive, compassionate, intelligent country that conducts itself thusly on the world stage. Especially these days – there are dark days ahead in the U.S.”
As of this writing, Priestley hasn’t been enlisted for any Canada 150 events, and he’s mock-hurt about that: “No Canadian ever reached out for me to do the Olympics, either – in my home town! Michael J. Fox was there. Apparently my invitation got lost in the mail.”
Unlike most shows shot in Toronto, Private Eyes is actually set in Toronto, and the production is salted with Canadian cameos: hockey star Doug Gilmour, fashionista Jeanne Beker, HGTV host Sangita Patel. Priestley had a gas with William Shatner, whose character – a rival PI with an affinity for energy drinks, menthol cigarettes and New Age aphorisms – seems destined to recur. “Our director said, ‘What if Bill gives you a little shove in this scene?’” Priestley recalls. “Well, he hit me so hard. He’s not a tall man but he’s a solid dude. I was like, Yeah!”
“I bodychecked Jason like a hockey player and he responded like a true Canadian – he knocked me on my ass,” Shatner writes via email. “He’s a lovely, bawdy gentleman who is very talented. And though he didn’t direct the episode I was in, he did direct me to a wonderful restaurant.”
On Aug. 2, 2002, Priestley was driving his Indy Pro Series car at the Kentucky Speedway. It was his 11th season as a pro. “Racing to me was about competing, and I love to compete,” he says.
With five minutes left in the warm-up, another driver blew an engine, leaving an oil slick on the track. Workers laid down quick-dry and sent the cars back out. Coming through the first turn, Priestley got pinched into the quick-dry and lost adhesion. He was going 194 miles an hour. Three-tenths of a second later, he hit the outside wall doing 187. The car absorbed the impact, as it was designed to. Priestley remembers thinking, “Okay, I got this.” Then the car careened into the inside wall.
The fuel cell bashed through his seat, breaking his back. The gas and brake pedals came up under his feet, shattering them. He suffered three skull fractures and his 12th grade-3 concussion. The artery in his neck was severed. “I was dead when they put me in the helicopter,” Priestley says. “Six minutes later, I came back to life. But I was bleeding out so fast, I expired again on the operating table.”
He was in casts for three months. It took another three until he could speak and think clearly. In the dead of night, he’d wheelchair into the bathroom, stare into the mirror and try to make the frozen left side of his face work. “Those were dark days,” he says. “I couldn’t memorize dialogue.”
Faced with this, some people would vow to slow down. Priestley vowed to accelerate. “It made me more determined, put more of a ticking clock on the things I want to accomplish,” he says. “I don’t know where my drive comes from. But I never seem to be satisfied with things as they are. I’m satisfied with my family, my wife. But when it comes to my work, I’m constantly driven – to be better and to make things better for everyone I work with.”
Priestley thought he’d been through difficult times before. He had no idea. “It taught me more about enduring hardship, and my character, than anything before had,” he says. “I was at the same time in awe of the human spirit, what the body can recover from, and I was also shocked by how little it takes for people to succumb.”
Never did he ponder, however, if he’d survived for a reason. “I don’t go down that philosophical road,” he says. “I’m not a religious guy. I don’t believe in the hand of God. It is what it is. I got lucky.”
At the peak of 90210 mania, Priestley would joke, “I’ll be lucky if I make it to 30.” He said it so often, it became a mantra. He wonders now if he did it as a shield, to protect himself from the whirlwind. When 30 arrived, he felt a flash of panic – “It’s the end of Act 1.” But turning 40 was a shrug, and he thinks 50 will be, too. “I wish my older self could get in a time machine,” he says, “and go tell my younger self, ‘Relax, it’s going to be okay.’”
If this is Act 2, Priestley is, true to form, already planning Act 3. “When I’m 55, do I still want to be working 15 hours a day?” he asks. “Maybe not. I love what I do, but ageism is a factor in my business. I need to start looking at other things for myself. I’m too old to be delusional enough to think that Martin Scorsese is calling me. He’s not calling me. Which is fine.”
He and Naomi talk about buying a vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley and making wine. He’d like to do a play on Broadway. But for now – when pressed, mind you – he admits that he’s as happy as he’s ever been. “Oh, yeah,” he says. “Hell yeah.”
In his mind, Priestley still feels 25. “For so long, I was always the youngest person in the room,” he says. “Now, a lot of times, I’m the oldest. It’s definitely a new experience for me.”
The master of understatement to the end, he adds, “But I don’t dislike it.” He laughs. “It’s okay.”
A version of this article appeared in the Canada 150 Summer 2017 issue with the headline, “Our Boy Next Door,” p. 50.