Breakin’ into the Big Smoke
Newfoundlanders take to Toronto

By Jeremy Eaton

Jonny Harris is shy, modest, polite and very entertaining. We met at Café Diplomatico in downtown Toronto. He is about 5-8 and his hair is short but wild and wiry; standing on its own in all directions. He sports a slightly wrinkled, collared shirt, a scarf and doesn’t stop smiling. When Harris speaks his accent is distinct --he is a Newfoundland native. 

Steve Cochrane lives a few blocks down the street from Jonny. Cochrane is clean shaven and his short hair has been styled. He wears a retro Quebec Nordics T-shirt and when he speaks, he looks directly into your eyes; he is engaging, funny, focused. He has to be.  He may be a writer, actor and director, but his first priority is being a dad.

For the past four years Harris and Cochrane have been touring North America with their sketch comedy troupe, the Dance Party of Newfoundland.

In the ultra-competitive world of Canadian acting, parts are hard to find and funding is nearly impossible to come by. People can, and will, use anything they can to get ahead. Cochrane and Harris make an impression because of their talent and the fact that Newfoundland is their home. Both would rather be on the island, however Toronto is where the work is, so they need to be here.

While touring Ontario with a theatre company, Harris sent in an audition reel to CityTV. He had low expectations of landing the role of Constable George Crabtree on their new show,
Murdoch Mysteries.  Set in 1895 Toronto, Harris describes it as, 
“a Canadian version of Sherlock Holmes meets CSI.”

“Crabtree was supposed to be the muscle; an intimidating cop. They couldn’t have asked for a less intimidating guy,” he laughs. “I went in for an audition with the lead guy, Yannick Bisson, and read off him. A couple of agonizing weeks later I got the part.”

Harris’ colourful speech gets him laughs while touring North America with the Dance Party. However, his agent doesn’t find it as amusing as his fans. “He gives me some grief about my accent. As an actor your voice is your tool. He thinks I should get some dialect coaching,” Harris says.

Harris acknowledges his thick accent; it has become more apparent to him the longer he is away from the island. While getting ready to do a table read for the Murdoch Mysteries, he was chatting with one of the guest stars. She quickly recognized his accent and asked if he used it while on set. “No, I just neutralize it when we are filming,” he told her.

 “The rest of the cast burst into laughter. ‘Oh my god. No you don’t.’ I first saw an episode. There were all these Victorian people and then there is me, this cop who is going bananas.”

Harris made the big move to Toronto in 2006. Last summer he filmed 13 episodes for the Murdoch Mysteries, and says it was an experience he truly enjoyed.

“Screen work, for an actor, is just ridiculous. They pick me up in the morning and drive me to work. I don’t even need to remember when I have work. You get your own trailer so you can sleep half the day. Your food is always taken care of. I would literally roll out of bed and put on a pair of pants five minutes before my pick up time.”

Unlike Harris, Cochrane speaks smoothly. His speech has not impeded any of his auditions, but the casting directors take note of his native province.

“Every time I go to an audition they ask, ‘where are you from? Vancouver? Boston? You an American?’ No, I am from Newfoundland and they go ‘I knew it, we could hear it. You gotta work on that buddy.”

Cochrane first moved to Toronto in 2000. “I moved up just in time for the SAG strike in the States,” he says. “SARS started and then 9-11. The industry completely died. So I did some theatre.”

His big break on the national acting scene came in 2005. He auditioned and got a role in the CBC miniseries, Above and Beyond. However, he says the mini-series was poorly handled.

“They changed hands and wanted to go in a new direction. They pretty much tried to bury it and didn’t publicize it at all. It was a $10 million dollar production,” he says.

Last year, Cochrane earned a guest appearance on CTV’s Corner Gas and spent a few weeks in Rolo, Sask.

“It was amazing,” Cochrane says. “They are the best people. The calmest, nicest, most together people I have ever worked with.”

He also made an impression on casting directors for CBC’s The Border and guest starred on an episode.

“It’s one of the first Canadian TV shows that doesn’t look under-populated,” he explains. “They have got enough extras and the design is fantastic.”

Cochrane is still acting but is slowly moving towards writing and directing. He is currently working on a feature film called Finger Skater that is being funded by the Canadian Film Centre. He tells me that he is a bottom feeder when it comes to pay compared to someone like Bruce McDonald (director of Hard Core Logo, Tracey Fragments), tilting his head to where McDonald is drinking a cappuccino and reading a script.

As 2007 came to a close, the Dance Party of Newfoundland won Toronto’s Sketchfest “Best of Fest.” After seeing a performance, executives from the Comedy Network approached Harris and fellow Dance Partier, Cochrane, to write show pitches. Cochrane says the network wants to work with them -they just need to agree on a project.

Harris briefly mentions a move to L.A., but only to get away from the winter as he is itching to get his motorcycle out. Cochrane talks about returning home so that the kids can see their grandparents. Newfoundland is where their hearts, families and friends are, but Toronto is where the money is.

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