"I paid off my student loans by doing all kinds of TV commercials," says Canadian actor and playwright Salvatore Antonio, whose mug you’ve seen all over television, in shows like Paradise Falls, ReGenesis and Queer as Folk. "There was nothing I wouldn’t do! So my agent sent me off to audition for a Deepak Chopra video with weird new-age visuals and I was told to appear at the audition in my underwear or in Speedos."
Antonio – who has performed at the Segal Theatre and Monument-National in Montreal, was playwright-in-residence at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in 2004, and was a finalist for a 2007 Governor-General’s Award for Literary Drama (for his play In Gabriel’s Kitchen) – arrived and peeled off his clothes.
"The room was filled with girls in bikinis and guys with 24-pack abs," Antonio recalls. "They played wind chimes with birds chirping from this tiny ghetto blaster and we had to spin like whirling dervishes! I spun for 10-minutes and barely made it out of the room without puking! I went outside, began to cry and told my agent, ‘Never again!’ That was the beginning of me not selling out."
Ah, the trials and tribulations of the struggling actor.
On the eve of this weekend’s Academy Awards, there were just a few actors left that I’m interested in interviewing: Montreal’s very own Christopher Plummer who – unbelievably – has never won an Oscar (and I’d love to hear him tell stories about his youth in Montreal competing for local roles with William Shatner); the great Stephen Fry (who should’ve been nominated for an Oscar for portraying Oscar Wilde in Wilde); and the curmudgeonly film critic Rex Reed, who once co-starred with Mae West in the so-bad-it’s-good movie version of Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge. Reed actually agreed last summer but told me, "I’m in London speaking at Jean Simmons’ memorial service in Covent Garden – perhaps another time?"
The last actor on my wish-list was the handsome Salvatore Antonio who graduated from Montreal’s National Theatre School of Canada (alumni include Roy Dupuis, Colm Feore and Sandra Oh) back in 1998. In 2005, Antonio returned to teach at the NTS, which itself was founded back in 1960 (their original artistic director was Michel Saint-Denis, who created the Old Vic School and would later co-found The Juilliard Drama School).
"NTS now has more alumni teaching – not [people] from 20 years ago who had a career in England! I tell my students I was just like them and barely made it through my three years. So I’m not talking from the mount."
Antonio teaches Acting for the Camera at NTS. "Ì also teach The Business of Acting because when I graduated there was no bridge between the program and the real world. There is this shock period where you know you can play a king [on stage] but you can’t even deliver a pizza in a TV commercial!"
Antonio is arguably best-known for his terrific play In Gabriel’s Kitchen, about a gay son who commits suicide. It was compelling theatre back in 2006 when its sold-out run at Buddies didn’t impress the critics. "It was panned across the board. ‘Why bother? The whole coming-out thing has been done before.’ But it got incredible word of mouth and was the hit of the theatre season."
In Gabriel’s Kitchen practically presaged North America’s current gay-teen-suicide epidemic ("Sadly, yes," Antonio sighs). I tell Antonio I think he could’ve filmed an It Gets Better video like columnist Dan Savage. But Antonio – a former public-speaking champion – replies, "This enrages so many of my colleagues but I’ve always tried to stay away from these kinds of political statements because I personally don’t want to become a poster boy or reference point for anything."
Not to mention for gay people it’s often career suicide (no pun intended).
Like my friend writer R.M. Vaughan once accurately told me, "When I was shopping one of my books around, [one publisher] said they already had a gay writer. It’s like that old porn adage about blacks: ‘One’s exotic, two’s a ghetto.’ It’s an eternal battle. There is a lavender ceiling. I’ve hit it enough times to know. Newspapers expect us [gay writers] to write about art and culture. ‘Why do you want to write about the Iraq war? That’s for straight people.’"
Which is why I want to film an It Doesn’t Get Better, So You Better Get Used to It video.
Just ask any matinee idol in Hollywood. Are there any openly gay actors nominated for an Oscar this weekend?
"You know, now being part of the jury for the Geminis and the Genies, I never trust that everybody sees everything. So I think it’s a popularity contest. Still, I’d love to get one one day!"
Finally – like Plummer and Fry – there is no escaping Antonio’s awesome voice.
"I still want to be a TV news anchor!" he says. "There’s something about how polished they are. I always wanted to be a fake news anchor. That’s the lure, you know, to look like plastic. That’s what I always wanted to be!"
Essential buttplugs The Oscars air Feb. 27 on CTV at 8 p.m., while the National Theatre School of Canada celebrates its 50th anniversary this season. Surf to www.ent-nts.ca/en. Also, director John Greyson will answer questions following the Sex, Song and Segregation screening of nine shorts and excerpts from his films, Feb. 28 at 7 p.m., at Concordia’s Hall Building auditorium.