Toronto
5 min

An outrageous original

'Twelve feet of steel in many colours'

FIRECRACKER. Celebrated actress - and infamous local loudmouth - Ellen Ray Hennessy plays true-life bisexual torch singer Libby Holman in Sky Gilbert's Play Murder. Credit: Paula Wilson

She’s too much and she knows it.



She’s been hearing it all her life, but she’s made life accommodate her style, her talent, her insistence on being noticed.



She’s Ellen Ray Hennessy, actor, star, eater-upper of life, if not people, and survivor of all the things put in the path of the odd, driven, gifted and original.



Not to mention hyper, manic and just plain on. Seeing Elly Ray eat Japanese, talk English, act out and switch gears, it’s not hard to imagine she’s on drugs.



“I’m hyper, so [people think] I’m obviously on cocaine all the time because I’ve got so much energy,” admits Hennessy. “Which makes me laugh my head off because – me on cocaine? I actually am dulled into a dull zone.” Maybe she should take cocaine to come down. “I do!” she jokes.



“I have kind of an attention deficit disorder. They said I was retarded in kindergarten, and then wanted to skip me two grades in grade two.” Suddenly, she’s singing: “Slow down, you move too fast. You got to make the mornin’ last.…”



Typical Hennessy outrageousness? For Cheap Queers 2002 she did a wordless bit that involved leather, red urine and a martini glass. “Everybody was saying I couldn’t have done it, that I let water out of a bag. No, I peed; not a big deal. Beethoven’s Sixth was playing.



“People come up and go, ‘You really are insane.’ I thought that was the greatest compliment I could ever get. Point is, why not? Because then the stakes are higher and everybody in that room, we all suddenly think in a different way. I know when I feel that.”



Hennessy is playing 1930s torch singer Libby Holman in the Buddies season opener Play Murder. The role suits her just fine. “She was a trendsetter, an alcoholic bisexual who sang the blues with black men, raised the skirt-lines and put her career on hold to be in a certain relationship. She mirrors my life!”



Writer and director Sky Gilbert originally planned to remount Play Murder with its entire first cast, but was more than pleased to have Hennessy join when some of the original talent was unavailable.



Early on, he saw Play Murder as a game of Clue – a big house, a body, an investigation. At least a hint of that, he says, is now possible with this revival for Buddies In Bad Times’ 25th anniversary season. “There’s space to have a large mansion with floors and levels and rooms.” Lighting is by Jeff Logue. Set and costumes are by Steve Lucas and Wendy White, who designed for the first production in ’93.



Also from the original show are Ed Roy as a detective and Ann Holloway as grande dame actress Blanche Yurka. Jane Johanson is new to the cast as Holman’s horse-riding lover, Louisa; Jason Cadieux (Lilies) plays Smith Reynolds, the conflicted, youthful heir to a tobacco fortune who marries Holman; and Marc Gushuliak from Winnipeg plays Smith’s good ol’ boy sidekick.



“She was a firecracker and a sexual creature,” says Hennessy of Holman. “If you are free in all areas, you appear more sexual because you’re without borders.”



As for Hennessy’s own sexuality, she solves the issue with one word: “I’m queer.” That covers the diversity and intransigence nicely.



“The gay community gets upset, the lesbians want me not fucking men, the heterosexual community goes, Omigod, she’s some strange creature. I don’t ever try and fit in – I’m rare. I like that about myself.”



Not only does Hennessy get to sing and act up a storm in Play Murder, she gets to “kiss everyone in this play because [Holman] can, because there is a fearlessness about her. It really might be a recklessness but does it matter? The outcome will be the same.”



Hennesey, 45, gets plenty of film work (Clutch, Perfectly Normal, Ham And Cheese), does voices for radio and animation (George And Margaret, Care Bears) and teaches voice work as well. “My wealth of characters comes from a place that is without parameters. Characters channel me, I don’t have to do a lot of work.”



Gilbert admires Hennessy’s business acumen as well as her talent. “I turn on the TV late at night and it’s a Hollywood movie where they have to go to the lair of some murderous SM lesbian. And who should open the door but Ellen Ray Hennessy. That’s the kind of thing she gets. Casting agents go, ‘Oh an out-of-the-closet person. They do stuff that challenges their gender type.’ So you can make money off the system, to some degree.”



“Sky, what do I call him, a mentor?” ponders Hennessy. “He has believed in me from the get-go. I was supposed to be in three Sky Gilbert plays this year and we had a little talk. I said, ‘I think that’s a bit much for one year, don’t you?'”



An upcoming Hennessy project is playing Hecuba in The Trojan Women for her own company DDT Inc. Asked if there are roles she’s wanted and not gotten, the tall skinny blonde thinks not, on balance.



“But be careful what you ask for. I just wanted to play a sweet, normal Disney mom. Didn’t I get a Disney series called Flash Forward? And I played the mom in the jean skirts and the little flippy-do hair and I wanted to kill myself.” Anyway, she says, “People are always in shock when I don’t play some wild, outrageous freakazoid.”



At a sleep clinic Hennessy was once told her brain activity was at a level seen only in insane people. As she puts it, “My atoms vibrate at a high level.” Does she ever stop, kick back, throw the switch to off? “My down time is yoga – because they say I need it.”



She also volunteers. “I work at the Centre For Addiction And Mental Health; it keeps me real. I am an alcoholic.” She dropped drink from her life for over a year, fell off the wagon, then had a life-changing revelation.



“I ran into a psychic. She opened the door, said ‘Lose the booze,’ turned around and walked away. Confirmation of my own feelings. You have a lot of gifts to give and you can’t give them when you’re drinking.” She’s now with AA.



In her private life she’s monogamous and long-term oriented. “I’m out of an eight-year relationship with a woman that was fraught, as all relationships are, with the desire to be yourself and yet be somebody else for the other person. I’m now with a man who is younger. Because it’s across continents, it’s less a relationship than a communication of sorts.”



Sunshine through her red straw hat makes little freckles of light dance on her nose and cheeks. Hennessy jokes that kissing dark-haired Cadieux in rehearsal has given her face a rash, before turning a tad serious.



“I scare a lot of people, and that makes me sad. It’s not my intention to ever wanna scare anybody. People say after the fact, ‘When I first met you, you were so strong, loud, aggressive.'” She shakes her head.



“The inside of me is like a tiny little peanut. With a shell that is 12 feet of steel in many colours. To really get in there you have to work.”



* The Buddies’ Silver Anniversary Kick-off Bash is after Play Murder opening night, with a Keith Cole cabaret. Admission is free at 10:15pm on Thu, Sep 25 in Tallulah’s Cabaret (12 Alexander St).



PLAY MURDER.

$10-$25. 8pm. Tue-Sat.

PWYC. 2:30pm. Sun.

Thu, Sep 25-Oct 12.

Buddies In Bad Times Theatre.

12 Alexander St.

(416) 975-8555.