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.
BG: Yeah: Name-Dropping Chess Players I’ve Being Beaten By. Most people have beaten me, actually, come to think about it.
NA: I’m not sure if you’re still following the Star Trek timeline, but the season of the new Star Trek: Discovery TV series ended with Discovery intersecting with the USS Enterprise at a point in the continuity when your Capt. Pike would still be captain. Is there a chance we might see you for a third outing as Pike in that context?
BG: This is the new television show that’s filming here? [He pauses] I don’t know. That’s interesting. That’s a good question. Not something I can answer. [He teases with peals of laughter] No, I really can’t.
NA: You really can’t — it’s not a Mad Men secret thing where you “can’t answer.”
BG: No — although I’ve been in that place. I’ve been in the Matthew Weiner place where you can’t answer, and it’s very scary. Oh, you’ll be sued. They have very serious conversations with you about what you can’t say.
NA: Looking at your varied career credits, even just recent ones like Rehearsal, Sorry for Your Loss and the upcoming Strike! and your support of the Telefilm Canada’s Talent Fund, you pay more than lip service to working with our industry and talent. Why is that important to you?
BG: Well, it’s nice to come home. It’s nice and fun — to tell Canadian stories. Strike! particularly [about the unprecedented General Strike that shut Winnipeg down in 1919] I’m really looking forward to. And this little movie I’m doing with Jerry Ciccoritti and Leslie Hope next week called Exposure is really interesting. I mean, no money, our own wardrobe, no dressing rooms, no nuthin’.
NA: That must take you back.
BG: In fact, a lot of the wardrobe I have personally is taken from sets, it’s hard to tell what’s my own wardrobe and what came first, you know — the chicken or the wardrobe!
NA: Like what? Did you keep any of Robert McNamara’s 1970 clothes or the Mad Men polyester leisure suits?
BG: No, I didn’t keep that — or the wig.
NA: Well, you have played three major historical figures from a certain continuum in American history — McNamara, John F. Kennedy himself [Thirteen Days, about the Cuban Missile Crisis] and Sandy Smith [the Watergate reporter at Time magazine, in thriller Mark Felt]. Can you talk a bit about the research and if playing one character perhaps informed another?
BG: First, I should tell you that my aim is to play everybody in Kennedy’s cabinet at one point or another. Let’s just get that out of the way for prospective other movies that might be being made about that period. [He chuckles.] For JFK, of course I did voluminous amounts of research and the same thing for McNamara. For Sandy Smith not as much because a lot of that research was overlapping.
NA: Did doing McNamara in The Post almost 20 years after the Kennedy movie change the way you understood Kennedy?
BG: I would play Kennedy differently now, having read more. But the funny thing is when you’re doing historical dramas the more you read, the more you realize that any given account is a point of view. And is going to be different from another iteration or articulation of what that event was. The more you read, the more you realize there’s not going to be a definitive account.
NA: In terms of your attitude to aging on screen, the role I think about most specifically is Gerald’s Game [an intimate chamber piece based on the psychological thriller by Stephen King about a wife (Carla Gugino) whose husband dies while she is handcuffed to a bed during sex games], which has you both in lingerie. You really can’t shy away from the camera. How did you approach that, and did it give you an appreciation for the image pressures women face in Hollywood?
BG: It was like “Okay, you’re going to be in your underwear for a month. And what are you gonna do about it?” There were a couple of choices. I could just let myself hang out and be as I am now or — I know what I’ll do [he laughs] — I’ll decide he’s a narcissist! And I’ll really work out! And it worked for that character, that he was narcissistic to the nth degree. So I gave myself the permission to do 150 crunches a day and try and get in as good shape as I possibly could in six weeks. That pressure, I put on myself but men, we don’t face the kind of pressure that women face in terms of looking presentable in a negligée — we’re always dressed up and concealing our age.
NA: Do you think that’s changing at all, given what’s been going on in Hollywood these past months?
BG: It’s kind of a weird thing. There’s an interesting thing happening also where as a culture we’re being asked to just accept our bodies, right? And accept however we look. And at the same time, well, if we’re really really out of shape, then we’re really out of shape. And it’s not good for us to be out of personal health on a certain level because 30 years from now when you’re getting diabetes and your knees are sore, it might not be so great!
NA: Do you have any advice for your 25-year-old self on that?
BG: Oh God, yeah! Well, first of all, do a whole lot less of everything you were doing. [laughs] Except for skiing. That might not be the answer you’re looking for in terms of body shaming and everything, but I think it’s kind of tricky, right? Being okay with everything … maybe I should just leave it at that. What’s your next question?
NA: All right then. Well-written good guy or well-written bad guy? Is likability overrated? You often play morally ambiguous yet likeable people. That seems a draw for you.
BG: You can’t really get away with being a bad guy if you appear to be a bad guy all the time.
You try and find a way to make somebody who’s got nefarious agendas to make them appear balanced enough that you can believe that they’re doing what they’re doing. And they’re getting away with it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Zoomer sat down with June 2018 cover subject, Bruce Greenwood.