Bruce Dow isn’t your typical leading man. But he never aspired to be. In an industry obsessed with image, his burly bear physique and somewhat fey mannerism could have stopped his decades-long career before it started. But the celebrated Canadian actor has built his substantial resumé by embracing oddball status.
His most recent Broadway turn saw him continue his darkly comedic take on King Herod in Des McAnuff’s Stratford production of Jesus Christ Superstar. More recently, he’s been featured in Toronto in back-to-back productions at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. The first was his Dora Award–winning stint as queer icon Leigh Bowery in the Lady Gaga musical Of a Monstrous Child. A year later he appeared in the world premiere of British playwright Tim Luscombe’s edgy SM drama Pig.
Much was made of Dow’s balls-out approach to those roles; he did full-frontal nudity for both. But it was his Stratford turn as the omnisexual Emcee in Cabaret years earlier that first gained attention for his fearless ability to flaunt what nature gave him. Appearing in the buff save for a strategically placed cuckoo clock, the role also garnered his first hate mail.
“I wish I were kidding!” he laughs. “My semi-nude chubby body threw some people into paroxysms of distress. I can laugh about it now, but it was horrifying at the time. It’s amazing what audiences feel free to tell actors sometimes.”
Dow is unlikely to receive anything but positive notices for his upcoming run in Morris Panych’s Sextet. The show follows six musicians snowed in overnight at a cheap motel. As the storm approaches, they try to compose a set-list for a show they know isn’t going to happen. But their struggles with stagnant careers, failed marriages and unfulfilled desires make for an emotional blizzard.
Dow plays Gerard, a violinist with Klinefelter syndrome. The genetic condition, which results from having an extra X chromosome, often causes muscle weakness, impaired cognitive ability, gynecomastia and decreased testicular size.
“It seems his manhood is challenged by his condition at every turn,” Dow says. “Being a gay man, I can relate in that I still had to learn how to be a man, to understand what manhood meant to me, how to be myself, my gay self, my male self. Gerard is a challenge to play. What Morris has written is far from a caricature, but the elements of his character can make him seem so. I hope I can make him as real as he is odd.”
While Dow still has doubts about his ability to nail the role, Panych (who also directs) has known he was right from the start. The pair met on Panych’s 2003 production of Sweeney Todd for Canadian Stage, which nabbed Dow his first Dora nomination for his larger-than-life portrayal of faux-Italian barber Adolfo Pirelli. When it came to Gerard, he didn’t even have to audition.
“Morris called me out of the blue and said he wanted me for the part,” Dow says. “I was interviewing for a teaching position at the time that would have taken me off stage and away from Toronto. I didn’t get it, but Morris very patiently waited for me to hear from them.”
Taking up one thing because he failed to get something else has been a mark of Dow’s career. He graduated from the University of British Columbia’s MFA directing program in 1988 and had some minor success creating shows for West Coast companies. As the work tapered off, he fell into an eight-year slump that included battles with anorexia and bulimia. It wasn’t until 1998, when he scored his first major role at Stratford as Sancho Panza (Don Quixote’s right-hand man in Man of La Mancha), that things began to turn around. Realizing he didn’t have to change who he was to be onstage was liberating. Shortly after, parts began falling in his lap.
After 12 years at Stratford and half a dozen Broadway runs, Dow shifted his focus to other projects. As commercial producers strive for increasingly larger audiences, he’s felt the Great White Way shift from high art to theme park. Returning to Canada, he’s put an emphasis on a greater connection with the audience, both through quality roles on smaller stages and his recently launched cabaret series at Buddies.
The shift represents getting back to his roots in a sense: both his life as a Canadian and his childhood impulses toward acting. Dow was often the featured entertainment at his parents’ dinner parties and had wanted to act professionally as a youngster, but his parents were determined he would stay off the professional stage until he finished high school.
“I’m very glad I was spared the life of a child actor,” he says. “It’s clichéd, but from my experience working with child actors, I have very few ‘they turned out well’ stories. There are exceptions to the rule, but most of the child actors I know have ended up pretty screwed up. I’m happy to be the oddball, but I’m glad it’s come through a process of self-acceptance, rather than just letting myself be fucked up by the business.”