British-born Canadian actor Greg Kramer returns to Ottawa’s National Arts Centre (NAC) on Dec 9, as Mr Brownlow in a new production of Lionel Bart’s Tony-winning musical Oliver!
Kramer insists he’s not intimidated by playing the NAC. “No, it’s a lovely little cabaret space!” he laughs. “I’ve been here a few times, yeah.”
In fact he’s performed on stages right across the country and around the world in his 30-year career. He immigrated to Canada from the UK in 1981 “because of Maggie Thatcher,” he says. “The [company I was with got axed completely after being in existence for 13 years, so I went to Vancouver.”
Over the next quarter-century, Kramer lived in Montreal and Toronto, too. He earned raves in the title role in Richard III at Vancouver’s Firehall Theatre in 1984. He played Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew at the Ottawa Shakespeare Festival a decade later, and made headlines as the Devil-dog in Peter Hinton’s production of The Witch of Edmonton at Harbourfront in Toronto in 1993. But Kramer says working with living legend Christopher Plummer on The Tempest at the Stratford Festival in 2010 is one of his all-time favourite jobs.
“Plummer is incredible, an unbelievable professional,” he says. “If something would go wrong one night it would be corrected the next . . . He knows what everyone in the room is doing. But it wasn’t intimidating working with him because he is really friendly and very open. Given his age and how well he has kept himself, he is an inspiration.”
Many young actors also look to Kramer for inspiration. He has written three novels and a collection of short stories called Hogtown Bonbons, culled from his old biweekly fiction column in Xtra. He voices characters in cartoons like Arthur; and he appeared regularly on such TV shows as Forever Knight, John Woo’s Once a Thief and Tales from the Neverending Story.
Kramer also appeared in Todd Haynes’ 2007 Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There, which was shot in Montreal. That film boasted an incredible cast: Cate Blanchett, Ben Wishaw, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richie Havens, Bruce Greenwood, Michelle Williams, Christian Bale, Kris Kristofferson, Julianne Moore and Richard Gere.
“There was so much respect and good feelings on the set because we were doing that film for the art and not for the money,” Kramer says.
He says it was especially thrilling to work with out director Todd Haynes. “It’s so rare to work with openly gay actors and directors in the movies.”
But does Kramer believe his being an out gay man has affected his career? “What career are you talking about?” he replies with characteristic good humour.
“Had I wanted to be a film or TV actor, I might have thought more carefully about being openly gay,” he says. “Maybe if more high-level actors came out it would help. I have never compromised myself, and I still worked on three TV series and a handful of good films. But if you want to work in the commercial end of the entertainment industry and be openly gay, you’ll need to be pretty darn strong and proud.”
Kramer puts his money where his mouth is. When he directed Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Montreal’s Segal Theatre back in 2008, he put the gay subject matter front and centre where it belongs.
“It’s the sissy fucking queer version,” Kramer told me then. “We deal with homosexuality, as well as cancer. Homosexuality and cancer; those are words we whisper. But they’re both important in this play and balance each other.”
Kramer won the Montreal English Critics Circle Award for Best Director for that project.
Clearly Kramer – happiest when he is on the stage – doesn’t need Hollywood to make his dreams come true. “You can still make money in theatre,” he says. “You can. Just, obviously, not quite so much.”