From child catalogue model, to teen television heartthrob, to award-winning actor and director – Jason Priestley’s recent In Conversation with Toronto Film School students covered all facets of the Canadian Walk of Fame inductee’s 40+ year career in the entertainment industry.
Hosted by Executive Producer in Residence Andrew Barnsley and Writing for Film & TV Program Director Adam Till, the virtual 90-minute discussion with Priestley over Zoom on April 24 marked the continuation of our exciting new speaker series at Toronto Film School.
Designed to inspire and engage, the In Conversation events have allowed students the opportunity to hear directly from of a growing list of award-winning filmmakers, writers, actors and comedians – including Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Atom Egoyan, 30-year veteran stand-up comedian Caroline Rhea, and Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated writer and actor Nia Vardalos.
Here’s a little about what Priestley had to say about his personal journey:
On his early beginnings as a child actor in Vancouver
“I started working back in the ’70s…and the industry in Vancouver was very small back then. My mother was an actress and a dancer and a singer, so I sort of had a way into the industry because of her. My sister and I did commercials and modelling – we were in catalogues, we were on the cover of Vancouver magazine and stuff like that.
“But there were basically three young dudes in Vancouver who did everything there was – and there wasn’t much, just a couple of TV movies and a little bit of episodic stuff. So, there was me, there was a guy named Ian Tracey, and there was a guy named Bernie Coulson, and we were the three guys. Anything that came to town, the three of us were in the waiting room and one of the three of us got every gig that rolled into town.”
On coming into his own as an actor during Vancouver’s booming ’80s
“Sort of in the mid ’80s, everything started to change in Vancouver. Shows like Airwolf and MacGyver…21 Jump Street and The Misadventures of Beans Baxter and Booker and all those shows started coming to Vancouver, and that’s when Vancouver started to become Hollywood North and all this stuff started to happen.
“I was becoming a junior and senior in high school (at the time) and I recognized that maybe this was an opportunity for me. While I was in my last two years of high school, I was also going to theatre school at night, because…I wanted to learn how to be a real actor. I also recognized that, for television, shows were beginning to skew younger because of Fox and all the shows that were coming to town in Vancouver. All of a sudden, I was doing a lot more auditioning and I was getting these gigs. And I was, like, ‘Wow, something’s going on here, right?’ I recognized that there were going to be more opportunities for young actors.”
On his lasting connection to Canada
“My connection to Canada is huge and it’s deep. And my love for Canada is to my core. I’m incredibly proud of all the work I’ve been able to do back home…When my career took me away from Canada, it was a long time ago. I had to leave Canada because, back in 1987, the industry was based in Los Angeles for the most part. There was a little bit of work in Vancouver and a little bit of work in Toronto, but it was pretty much all in Los Angeles and that’s why I came here.
“But now, there is so little work here in Los Angeles – it’s all in Vancouver or Toronto or New York or Atlanta – nobody works here. My son is 10 years old, and since my son was born, I’ve had one job in Los Angeles. So, when young actors talk to me about moving to Los Angeles, I say ‘Don’t – there’s no work here’…
“I spend about half my year in Toronto (filming Private Eyes) every year now…And I love Toronto, by the way. I think Toronto is a phenomenal city, I absolutely love it there.”
On the launch of his American acting career as Teen Angel
“I went to go meet Matt Casella, who was the head of Disney casting and who cast all the Mickey Mouse Club guys. He was responsible for finding Britney (Spears) and Justin (Timberlake) and Christina Aguilera – he found all of those kids. He’s a casting legend here in Los Angeles, and he found me, too. He cast me as Buzz Gunderson in Teen Angel …which was this Disney, Mickey Mouse Club movie that they chopped up into little seven-minute episodes. He was instrumental in launching my career here in America.”
On getting airport pick-ups from Brad Pitt in his early career days
“While I was in Phoenix, Arizona, shooting Teen Angel, my agent calls me and tells me I’m going in to the network to test for Sister Kate – the first TV series I did here in America for NBC. We were night shooting for Teen Angel, so I shoot all night, and without sleeping, they drive me to the airport in Phoenix, I get on a 6 a.m. flight and fly into Burbank airport.
“Now, the only friend I had that I trusted to actually pick me up at the airport was Brad Pitt… We were all just a bunch of out-of-work actors, right? He was just my buddy Brad, and I called him and said, ‘Brad, can you pick me up at the airport, because I don’t trust Bernie. He’ll probably be stoned.’ Ha ha!
“Brad was the only guy that a) had a car that usually ran and b) I knew that he was actually reliable enough to be there. So, it’s funny, but he was the guy I knew would actually show up…
“So, Brad picked me up at the airport and drove me over to NBC in Burbank, and I went and did my network test at NBC. They told me before I left that I had gotten the part (on Sister Kate), so I was super excited. Then Brad drove me back to the airport and we flew back to Phoenix and shot all night again (for Teen Angel).”
On meeting legendary producer Aaron Spelling during casting for Beverly Hills, 90210
“It definitely landed on me, the fact that I was going in to meet Aaron Spelling. I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s when ABC was Aaron’s Broadcasting Company. I grew up on a steady diet of Fantasy Island and Charlie’s Angels – I was no different than anybody else. When I went to go meet ‘The Mister,’ as everybody called him, it was something, because he was something with the thick shag carpeting and the big gaudy doorknobs. It was like a time machine going into his office – pretty cool. But I’ll always remember that first reading that I had in his office with Shannen (Doherty) and just, like, all the people in there. It was awesome. Just meeting him, I’ll always remember that.”
On bonding with his costars on the “crazy” set of the iconic ’90s teen drama
“We all got along right away…Ian (Ziering) and Gabby (Carteris) came from New York, Jennie (Garth) had just sort of landed in L.A. from Phoenix, Shannen was obviously a veteran – I think 90210 was her third or fourth series. And it was my second series…
“But that was a crazy time – our production schedule on that show was crazy…because, Aaron wanted to get to 100 episodes as fast as he could. Then he wanted to get to 200 episodes as fast as you could. Then he wanted to get to 1,000 episodes. Just kidding, he didn’t – but he would’ve if he could’ve, trust me.
“We were doing 32 episodes a year and had two crews shooting simultaneously. It was like actors bouncing back and forth between units – we’d get to the set and literally go to the script supervisor and go, ‘What episode is this? What are we doing?’ and just try to, like, learn the lines as fast as we could, because it was pandemonium and nobody even knew what was going on, really…there were times when it was just chaos. It was craziness.”
On not really feeling the global impact of Beverly Hills, 90210 at the time
“Because that was back in the days when the internet was just in its early days and there was no social media, it was hard to feel the impact, per se. It wasn’t until we travelled (that we felt it).
“I went to Europe a lot and had friends in other parts of the world that I would go to visit, and I was always shocked to see just what sort of impact the show was having. I would go to Italy and be chased down the streets in Rome and stuff like that. It was crazy how popular the show was in these far-flung destinations. It was super cool, but we never really felt it.
“We shot the show in these converted warehouses in Van Nuys, California next to a porno duplication warehouse. It was crazy to us. We really felt like we were in this strange vacuum, especially compared to now. I think now we would definitely feel it in a much different way.
“I mean, I feel it much differently now with Private Eyes, which is on in 160 different territories around the world. I feel the impact of that way more than I felt the impact of 90210. And 90210 was on all around the world, even more so than Private Eyes, and with a way more rabid fan base. Teenagers are way more rabid than the adult fans I have now. I mean, they’re the same fans, just grown up. They never left me, thank God!”
On getting his TV directing start during his 90210 days
“To be perfectly honest, there weren’t a lot of challenges to playing Brandon Walsh. He was the lynchpin at the centre of that show, and everybody else got to do all the fun crazy stuff on that show. Brandon Walsh was the sanctimonious one who did a lot of finger wagging and ‘Oh well, I don’t know if that’s smart. Are you sure you want to do that? Give me your keys, you’re drunk,’ and that kind of stuff…So, I thought, if I’m going to be here in my high-waisted mom jeans and be that guy, I needed to find ways to keep myself interested and involved, and (directing and producing) was what I decided to do. So, that’s what I did…
“I recognized that I was working for Aaron Spelling and that if I was going to make the most of that opportunity, then I needed to learn as much as I could while I was there working for him… Certainly, directing television was something that I really wanted to get into, so I took the opportunity when it presented itself…I not only learned the directing side of it, I also produced with Aaron for two years, and then I executive produced for two years with him.”
On biggest challenge he’s overcome in his career
“Oddly enough, it was getting out from the shadow cast by Brandon Walsh and Beverly Hills, 90210. That was a big shadow, because that show was a monster and it was a very difficult thing for people in the industry to see me as anything other than that character in that show.
“And the way I overcame it was just hard work and perseverance, and just by continuing to find projects and find characters that challenged me and made me uncomfortable. I had to get out of my comfort zone and do things that made me feel uncomfortable. Some of them worked and some of them didn’t work, but I just had to keep doing different stuff, and eventually I was able to shake off that thing, right?
“Eventually it worked, but it was tough. You know, it’s the fur-lined handcuffs, right? Not that I would change any of it. Working on that show was an amazing experience and getting to go on that kind of a ride is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and you never change that for anything, but it also can be a difficult thing to shake afterwards. You just have to prepare yourself for when it’s over.”
On reuniting with most of the original cast for the BH90210 reboot in 2019
“In the 20 years since we finished the original show, we hadn’t spent that much time together as a group. Gabrielle Carteris lives very close to me, so I see her, and I see Ian, and I see Brian (Austin Green), but I don’t see Tori (Spelling) or Jennie very often, and I hardly ever see Shannen. So, all of us being able to spend that much time together was actually really fun for all of us. It was like summer camp…
“The time that we spent between ‘Action’ and ‘Cut’ was really fun, and every one of those people, they are all a remarkably talented group of actors. You need to be able to trust your scene partner, and the level of trust that we all shared as kids, it was like no time had passed…we just fell right back into the rhythms and the trust. It was really nice. It was like putting on an old pair of slippers, and we really did have a nice time, all of us.
“The sadness that we all felt that Luke (Perry) wasn’t part of it was really palpable, though. Luke was a big personality and he was a big part of the original show, and we really felt his absence. It was really hard.”
On the importance of ambition and drive in the entertainment industry
“To be successful in this business, you have to be very ambitious and you have to have a lot of drive. And all that drive has to come from within yourself…because nobody else is doing it for you.
“And there will always be a lot of impediments to being successful in this business. Not to be a naysayer to anybody out there, this is just the reality of this business – for every ‘Yes’ you get in this business, there’s going to be 100 ‘Nos’ and you have to find that drive in yourself to keep going. Even though people say ‘No,’ you have to be able to keep going.
“Everybody has to deal with rejection in this business and not take it personally…It’s not until you get in a position later on in your career, when you finally get to sit on the other side of the table, that you truly understand that it’s not personal, at all. There are a million reasons why you didn’t get that job, and it can be as simple as: You’re too short. You’re too tall. Your hair is the wrong colour. Your beard is the wrong colour. There are so many factors outside of your control…so all you can do is go in there and do your thing and leave. And the same thing is true for producers and creators and writers and directors. All you do is go in there, do your dog-and-pony show, and just have confidence in yourself that what you did when you had your five minutes on the floor was good.”
On his actors’ approach to directing other actors
“I’ve always found that it’s all in how you approach it…When I directed Cas & Dylan, I had Richard Dreyfuss and Tatiana Maslany (as my stars). How am I, Jason Priestley, going to approach directing Academy Award-winner Richard Dreyfuss, right? I’m not going to go up to Richard Dreyfuss and say ‘Richard, in this scene, you should do this.’ Maybe Steven Spielberg can talk to him like that, but not me. You have to make your relationship with him a partnership. You don’t tell someone like that what to do, you talk to them about ideas, so that it becomes a free-flowing exchange of ideas. It’s a collaboration.”
On his advice to students on how to build a professional network
“Part of it is what you’re doing right now, being in school. I found that a lot of the initial contacts that I had were people that I went to theatre school with, and then there were people that I met in those first initial jobs that I got. And then you just build it out from there, right?
“It’s not rocket science. I was in school and I had all my friends at school, then I had my agent and managers and other people that were represented by my agency. I met a bunch of those people, and it just kind of built up on its own. You just have to not be afraid to put yourself out there. People will have parties, and you’ll go to those parties and meet people. You’ll find your people. I find it just kind of happens holistically.
“The term ‘schmoozing’ puts a bad taste in people’s mouths, but it’s just about putting yourself out there.”
On the personal impact the COVID-19 crisis is having on his projects
“I was supposed to come to Toronto on Monday (April 27) to start prep on our next season of Private Eyes. I’m directing the first episode this year, and we were supposed to go to camera on May 4, so obviously we’re not going to make that date. And we don’t know exactly when we’re going to go to camera this year, whether it’s going to be July, August, we don’t have a date set, but it’ll be sometime later this year, so that’s an immediate effect for me.”
On his latest TV show binges
“This is my guilty pleasure: I have been watching Cheers from the very beginning – all 250 episodes. I’d forgotten how great it is. It’s really good. It really holds up.”
On the advice he’d give his 20-year-old self
“Don’t be afraid to take your foot off the gas every once in a while. When I was 20, I was terrified if I took my foot off the gas for a minute, then everything would stop. I was so worried, that I was trying to do everything all the time. So, don’t be afraid to stop and smell the roses.”
**Quotes edited for length and clarity