Stately, sombre and quiet, actor Louis Negin is the picture of dignified propriety as he reminisces about his long and distinguished stage and film career.
“In the movie Sissy Boy Slap Party, I had to park the bicycle between this guy’s legs,” he says, “but during the rehearsal the prop guy actually hit his balls. So the boy is petrified and won’t open his legs! I finally got the bicycle in his ass, which was more comfortable for me than him.”
Well, okay, perhaps sombre isn’t a word one immediately reaches for when describing the eternally effervescent and delightfully irreverent Negin.
Compact and fit, with sparkling eyes and a shock of luxurious white hair, this Toronto treasure is as entertaining offstage as he is when treading the boards or lighting up movie theatres.
Negin’s latest project is a remount of Guy Maddin’s silent film Brand Upon The Brain, a huge hit with 2006 Toronto Film Festival crowds. That original presentation featured a live 11-piece orchestra, a castrato opera singer and Negin narrating onstage. The expansive project returns to the Elgin Theatre stage as part of the Luminato festival on Tue, Jun 5.
“The film is wonderfully bizarre,” Negin says. “I think it represents all of our lives growing up. Guy talks a lot about secrets. We all have secrets, especially when we’re kids.”
Brand Upon The Brain is a sort of cinematic recollection of director Maddin’s childhood, as interpreted by his wonderfully eccentric storytelling. Grainy black and white vignettes take us through Maddin’s boyhood lighthouse cum orphanage home where he has returned to restore the crumbling façade for his ailing mother.
Flashbacks reveal a troubled youth (played by Sullivan Brown) dominated by a nutty Mommie (Gretchen Krich) who spends most of her time spying on neighbours through her lighthouse telescope. Daddy’s not much help, labouring ominously in a Frankenstein-style laboratory as the orphans begin to sport mysterious head injuries.
“It’s reality taken to the nth degree,” Negin says. “Guy’s unbelievably inventive. I admire that complete willingness to explore his own history so honestly and openly, in his own fashion. I’m amazed at how open he is about himself.”
High praise indeed, considering Negin’s delicious sense of frank disclosure. The actor’s resumé is extensive and glittering (Studio 54, Slings And Arrows), exhibiting a professional life that’s provided him a lifetime of toothsome celebrity tales.
One of his favourite stories retells a notorious segment from Truman Capote’s scorched earth society tell-all, Answered Prayers. Negin conducted exhaustive research while preparing to play the infamously catty author onstage in the acclaimed one-man show Tru. Capote’s revelations about his high society cohorts were legendary, and Negin recalls them with flourish.
“Gloria Vanderbilt was having lunch with her best friend, and this guy walks by, stops to chat for a bit, and then walks away. Gloria asks her friend who it was, and she says, ‘That was your first husband.'”
A conversation with Negin is full of such anecdotes. The actor is equally candid when discussing his own near-disasters onstage. Audience members who attended last year’s screening of Brand On The Brain might be surprised to know that all did not go as planned in the seemingly seamless performance.
“We have a monitor in the box that I read from,” Negin says. “Everything is meticulously planned so I know when to talk. The musical cues and the narration cues all have to be exact for the orchestra and for myself. If this monitor goes off, I’m really up the creek. Guy said, ‘Trust me,’ and I said, ‘Please don’t say those words to me!’
“Sure enough, during the show, the monitors went off. Luckily I had the script with me, but suddenly I felt somebody pinching my bum! It was Guy behind me giving me the cues.”
Once he’s finished with this latest production, Negin returns to work on his upcoming one-man show, tentatively titled Polos’ Fanstasy. It’s a story of a boy growing up in Canada, who creates an alter ego to look after his ailing mother.
While the doppelganger drudges through days of nursing, Polo jaunts off to Europe to enjoy a life of carefree sophistication. Negin has already workshopped the piece in Montreal, and plans to take it on the road to Hamburg. It would be a tireless schedule for thespians half his age.
And just what is his age, one might ask?
“Write that I’m 95 years old,” Negin deadpans, “and that I’ve been to Hungary to have some work done.”