The actor who plays the mayor in Theatre Passe Muraille's Rob Ford Holiday Spectacular! opens up about the demands of the role.
The National Theatre of the World’s It’s a Wonderful Toronto, a parody show about the holiday season in Toronto under Mayor Rob Ford, is best described as comedy catnip for those who avidly follow City Hall and the mayor’s antics. There’s also plenty to amuse those with an interest in local theatre. (The show contains several cracks about how they’re preaching to the choir.)
Supporters of Ford Nation, including the Toronto Sun‘s City Hall columnist Sue-Ann Levy, might take a different view. In fact, Levy recently wrote a typically vitriolic op-ed wherein she called the show “taxpayer-funded trash.” As a result, Theatre Passe Muraille has been receiving angry emails from irate Sun readers. (In fact, the show isn’t receiving any public funding.)
Anchoring the proceedings is Paul Bates, who gives an inspired turn as a willful, easily distracted, and quick-to-anger version of our chief magistrate. We spoke to the Second City veteran in the hopes of finding out how a performer portrays as infamous a personality as Robert Bruce Ford, and walks the (very) fine line between parody and nastiness.
Torontoist: So, how does one become Rob Ford? First off, you’re a pretty tall and lanky fellow.
Paul Bates: Yeah, I’m 175 pounds lighter than Rob Ford. We do have a suit—I don’t want to call it a fat suit, but it’s…padding. And we bought a size-50 jacket at Value Village, which seems to do the trick. And the pants that came with it—well, they won’t go over the padding, so I gotta cinch up the belt.
Suspenders would be great, but, Rob Ford does not wear suspenders. Those are a very classy look, and that’s not Rob Ford—he has an image to maintain.
In your musical comedy duo The Williamson Playboys, you played a man well past a century old, and without any makeup—just a hat, a cardigan, and some glasses. Are you doing something similar playing Ford?
Well, I think I’m way more believable as a decrepit old man than as Rob Ford. The process so far—it’s a lot harder to play a real person. I started with the voice [his speech goes up in pitch, becomes more nasal], and now I’m focusing on posture and movement—and a lot of that comes with the suit. And the way. In which. He speaks. The staccato. And upward. Inflection?
Ha! That’s actually bang-on.
Also—and this is really hard to play—I have to be dynamic and energetic in the show, while still playing that I’d rather not be talking to anyone right now. Because, in public and the media, he always looks so put out, “Ugh, I hate that I’m having to deal with you people.”
There’s a really interesting contrast between his public image, which is bombastic and oversized, and what he’s like in person. The people who see him in person a lot talk about how he’s soft-spoken, and rather shy.
Yeah! Though I think that comes across in interviews—he’ll have his head down, and just be mumbling answers, just tossing out idioms. “I’m a fighter. And I’m not. Not gonna quit. I’ll cut the waste.”
But the most important thing is the attitude. Not understanding what the hell people think is wrong, just not getting it. “I’m just. I’m there. To help the kids. And I’m doing my job.” Just not seeing that there’s ever a problem with anything he does.
The “wilful blindness.”
To play the guy, I have to try really hard to look at things from his point of view. And I decided that point of view is, “I haven’t done anything wrong! And I’m going to keep doing. What I’m doing!”
There are still people out there who support him. Reasonable people, not just Toronto Sun commenters.
Yup. He has his priorities, and he’s gonna focus on those, and so long as he’s seen to be doing that, those people will stick by him.
So I’m trying to be true to that, without exposing him to a lot of cheap shots. We took most of those out in the first draft. There’s still a few. It is a comedy show. But he at least doesn’t crack any jokes about himself. He does not strike me as a self-deprecating man.
Yeah, that’s been mostly on Matt Baram, who wrote the script, and Waylen Miki, our musical director. I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but thank God he got the stay, because our show would have been screwed. But now, he’s mayor at least until the new year, and it’s not a problem for us anymore! [He laughs.] I would have appealed to the court. “Let him stay in office at least until Christmas! For the good of comedy!”
Like everyone else, I was shocked when the conflict of interest ruling came out. Even though he was clearly guilty, and I couldn’t see how the judge could make any other decision, I was shocked he actually did.
Everyone was convinced he was going to find some way to let Ford off. But in retrospect, he’s a judge, so he’s going to apply the law, obviously.
But Ford got the stay—which I actually agree with, until the appeal—so the rewrites have slowed down.
So you guys can focus on the musical numbers. You’ve released a preview song, which is pretty great.
That’s right, SARSical! Weren’t you the mayor in that show, too?
Yes, I played Mayor Mel Lastman in SARSical. My life’s revolved around mayors. I played Mayor Lastman, I’m playing Mayor Ford, I was the campaign manager and best friend to Dan in Dan for Mayor [on CTV]—and in real life, I was the campaign manager for Albert Howell in the 2003 Toronto mayoral election.
And how did you guys do?
Albert did relatively well. I think he came 15th out of 40 candidates. Though that may have been because it was a butterfly ballot, and Albert’s name was right across from John Tory’s. Albert may have siphoned a few votes.
So all this experience with mayors—do you bring any insight from that to the show?
Ha! That’s a good question. No? I’ll say this: the attitude of someone in power is always fun to play. Mel Lastman and Rob Ford are completely different people, but they’re both “regular” guys who were in positions of great power, and there’s comedic conflict right there, just waiting to be exploited. They’re crazy in their own ways—and everybody’s crazy in their own way. You could have done a show about Mayor David Miller as well. Maybe I’ll do Miller next.
As for being a campaign manager—and playing one on TV—you’re just trying to control that crazy. That’s the number one thing. When you’re a campaign manager, you’re trying desperately to control things, and when you’re mayor, you’re just outta control.
Is it a full-fledged musical, or a comedy with a few musical numbers?
The show runs about 75 minutes, and there’s the opener and a Christmas medley; a “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” style duet; a wistful ballad about the days before Ford, about Torontopia; a version of “Mele Kalikimaka.” I think there’s seven numbers in the show, so it’s pretty musical.
It’s nice to remember I can sing. I’d sort of forgotten, because I’ve been doing a lot of TV, and also writing a lot myself. Sometimes you forget about being a performer, wearing so many hats in Canadian entertainment. During rehearsal, at one point, I was overcome, and almost started crying, because I was surrounded by people who’re so good at what they do, and I was just so happy.
What are those other gigs?
The most recent is writing for Never Ever Do This at Home, for the Discovery Channel. It challenges household warnings, caution labels, etc., and shows what happens when you don’t follow them, by doing the exact opposite. We’re almost done shooting, all in one house, and that house is almost gone. We’ve destroyed so much of it; we’ve blown walls out, burnt the kitchen down—it’s an insane show. And we have Norm Sousa and Teddy Wilson as the hosts, who are incredibly funny guys.
I’m also part of Illusionoid, an improvised sci-fi radio play podcast. We’ve had some great guests, like Sean Cullen, Billy West from Futurama, Colin Mochrie, and our latest episode has Scott Thompson. I follow Wil Wheaton on Twitter, and I think he’s a fascinating guy, and I’m building up the courage to invite him to take part. I think he’d have a lot of fun. In fact, I’ll do it right now: Wil Wheaton, I invite you—no, I dare you to do an Illusoinoid podcast.
Lastly, I understand you have your own Rob Ford story.
I’d watched one of the debates, when Ford said, “If you call me. Call my office. When I’m mayor. I guarantee. I’ll call you back.” And I had a hard time believing that. So on the day he took office, I was on set for Dan for Mayor in North York, had some down time in my trailer, and I decided I’d call him.
I tried 311 first, and they didn’t even know how to reach him yet, so I tried again a week later, and actually spoke with someone in his office. They asked me what it was about, and I said, “I’d like him to call me back about the bike lanes, and Transit City,” because he’d said Transit City was dead the day he took office.
So weeks go by, and no response, and I was thinking of making YouTube videos of me waiting by the phone, a Roger and Me kind of thing, but I didn’t get around to it. And then, lo and behold, he calls me back! He calls my cell phone during the dinner hour on Boxing Day. I’m at my in-laws, having dinner, and check my messages after, and there’s this message: “Hello. This is Rob Ford. For Paul. Thanks for your call. You want to reach me. Call me back. At this number.” And I was flabbergasted. This is what he’s doing on Boxing Day? I gotta give it to him, I thought that was pretty awesome, because I thought there was no way he’d call me to talk about bike lanes. It still boggles my mind that that’s what he was doing on the 26th of December, going through all these calls, ’cause it was obviously not just me.
That’s a really humanizing aspect to him. He works really hard at the things he thinks matter, at certain aspects of the job.
There’s no question some of the laughs in the show are low hanging fruit, because it’s so easy with Rob Ford, but I like to think we’ve given him some humanity in the show. You may not leave the show liking him, but maybe you’ll understand him a little better.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Second photo by David Leyes.