Today on Supernatural Fridays, we sit down with Michelle Harrison, who played Dean’s sinister and very personal psychiatrist, Dr. Cartwright, in the episode “Sam, Interrupted”. Michelle talked with us about her Supernatural role as Dr. Cartwright; her new, Lovecraft-tinged film, Altitude; and her lead role as Kate on the CBC series, Wild Roses:
IFP: How did you get into acting?
MH: I was always really interested in theatre as a child. I spent a lot of time doing theatre in church and around the community. In high school, I knew that I couldn’t NOT do it. I remember taking my parents to coffee to tell them that I was applying to acting schools in New York City. They were tremendously supportive. I packed my bags shortly after and arrived in New York to study at “Circle in the Square Theatre School“. I never actually saw myself doing film and TV at the time, I thought I would do theatre. But life led me to Vancouver, BC and I ended up doing film/TV work shortly after.
IFP: You’ve had a pretty eclectic career to this point. What has been your favourite role so far and why?
MH: There have been a few really memorable and favourite roles that I have been fortunate to play. For me, it’s often the experience of the set/cast/director/show that makes the big difference. Kate Henry (Wild Roses) was definitely one of my favourite roles. I had the chance to develop the character and embody her week after week. We spent alot of time at “horse-riding boot camp”, which was a huge highlight for me. Kate was born on a ranch and a tried-and-true cowgirl. It was a different role for me to tackle. I spent a lot of time finding her physicality. Kate was the oldest, a tomboy, tough on the outside (and wounded on the inside). She took care of her family after her father died and sort of became the “father” of the family. When I first got the role, I felt really far away from this character, but as I started my work, I realized how much we had in common! And our cast was a dream! We are all still in contact and close friends from the show.
IFP: How did you end up working in Vancouver?
MH: I married a very cute Canadian boy who immigrated me North.
IFP: Who have been your favourite costars?
MH: I have had the privilege of working with a lot of amazing artists. Sir Ben Kingsley, Penelope Cruz, Ben Affleck, Aaron Eckhart, Hugh Laurie, Tom Cavanaugh, and Tom Everett Scott are some of my highlights. Each one offered something different as a co-star and I felt honored to be working with them. However, one of my more memorable experiences was working with Carol Burnett. She was such a classy and generous woman. A true gem. She was kind to everyone, came to work prepared, and had a light and sense of humor about it all. She was lovely. And I left, thinking, “When I grow up, I want to be like her!”
IFP: You seem to play a lot of horror and science fiction characters. Are you a fan of these two genres? Can you tell us how you choose your roles and what you look for in a role?
MH: Yes! I’ve been lucky to be a part of many great projects in these genres. Different parts appeal to me at different times. Life is ever-changing and as I grow and learn and get to know myself better, I find that I am drawn to roles that do the same. A role that I played 10 years ago might be played different today, because I have learned something and have more to offer. I am usually drawn to characters that scare me a bit because I like the challenge. A little bit of fear makes me work even harder and if Im not giving 110%, I’m not doing my best.
IFP: Some of your characters’ stories have had open endings, like Park Ranger Hendricks on NCIS or your recent role on the ABC series V, as Mary Faulkner, or even your Supernatural role as Dr. Cartwright. Any possibility that you’ll return in any of them?
MH: I hope so! No plans to return at this point, but you never know. Storylines are left open for characters to return at any point. It all depends on which direction the show ends up taking. I would love to wrap up some of those characters and re-visit those shows.
IFP: Speaking of recent roles, how did you get the role on Supernatural?
MH: I read the script and auditioned. I met the director James L. Conway and I knew we would have great fun shooting together. Thankfully, he thought the same!
IFP: Dr. Cartwright as a character seems more difficult to play than at first glance, as she turns out not to be at all what we think she is at first and you essentially have to interact with only one other actor (Jensen Ackles), while other actors around you pretend you’re not there. How did you do this without giving away the “surprise”, especially with scenes in an episode usually being filmed out of order? What kind of direction did you get to play the character?
MH: Well, I am constantly filming scenes out of order, so it takes a lot of thought and homework to remember where your character has been, and where they are going before and after the scenes. Dr. Cartwright is smart and she is able to hold her own against Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles). The first scene they have together is like a chess game, a battle of wits. (And yes, he IS playing chess in the scene). So, essentially, as an actor, I had to set up their relationship and the repartee they had together. Underneath all that, a hint of deceptiveness. The viewer could read that as sexual tension, or feistiness, or even confidence. Later on, when you realize she’s not who you think she is, those layers (hopefully) show the cracks and you think, “I knew something wasn’t right”!
IFP: Can you tell us anything about your character in your latest film, Altitude?
MH: Altitude is a story that follows a group of teens aboard a small plane on a weekend getaway. Minutes after the group takes off, an unexpected malfunction sends the aircraft climbing out of control into the heart of a mysterious storm. They are unable to make contact with anyone and realize they are locked in combat with a terrifying supernatural force. My character is the mother of Sara (Jessica Lowndes) when she is a young girl. It was shot here in Vancouver with a terrific cast and crew, and directed by a fantastic director, Kaare Andrews. I can’t say much more without giving away too much!
IFP: You were a regular in the series Wild Roses on CBC, which ended its first season on a cliffhanger. Do you know if this show will come back at some point and if so, if you’ll be coming back as the feisty Kate?
MH: Our show ended on a HUGE cliffhanger and unfortunately, none of us knew where the show was headed, either. It didn’t really have a chance to give viewers a chance to have closure with the characters and a show they had supported through season one. Sadly, at this point, I don’t know of any plans for the show to come back. But, if it ever did, we would ALL be very happy to see where the show ended after the big cliffhanger.
IFP: How did you get the role in Wild Roses? How did playing a recurring role in a series differ from playing a guest star?
MH: Working in television, especially in movies and TV shows, you are moving around, playing different roles a lot. Having a series regular gives you a chance to really spend time with one character and follow their journey. Depending on the recurring role, you can have this same experience. I’m usually much more satisfied spending time with one character. The work is never done and there is always something more to discover. When I was first sent the script for Wild Roses, I was being considered for the role of Rebecca McGregor (who was ultimately played by Amy Lalonde – and who couldn’t have been better acted!). The creator of the show, Amy Cameron, was watching audition tapes and thought I would suit the role of Kate Henry. I went in and read for Kate and, well…the rest is history.
IFP: If you could be a Lovecraft or other horror monster, which one would you be?
MH: Well, as fun as it would be to play a vampire, I think I’m more interested in playing a character in a great psychological horror movie. A nice gal who is taken over by a demon. It would give me the chance to play the layers of someone possessed. Or better yet…a female remake of The Shining!
IFP: What is your favourite horror story?
MH: One of my all-time favourites is Silence of the Lambs. It’s much more frightening because Hannibal Lecter is a realistic monster. He could be your neighbour next door. He’s intellectual, meticulous and well-thought. He’s a serial killer and he’s good at it. I couldn’t sleep for weeks after watching that movie!
IFP: If you had to give advice to someone who wanted to act in film or television, especially a woman, what would you tell them?
MH: First, I would make sure they REALLY want to do this. You have to have a deep passion for acting to get you through all the hurdles. (I don’t like the word “rejection”, because we aren’t really being rejected. As an artist, you put your best out there and leave. The right things happen at the right time; it’s a combination of so many variables that are beyond your control.)
Be authentic. Work hard. Don’t compare yourself to others. Have a life outside of acting. Travel. Spend time with family and loved ones. Make acting important, but not the MOST important thing in life. Work harder. Then let it all go.
IFP: What other talents or hobbies do you have besides acting?
MH: How much time do you have? There are so many things I love doing, and want to do. Running, cooking, traveling, reading, surfing, camping (except in the rain!), boating, road trips, drinking wine, and mostly, hanging out with my little boy.
Talents? I sing. And I love to clean…is that weird?
IFP: What projects do you have coming up in the near future?
MH: I just finished a guest star on the show Eureka. It airs Friday Sept 3rd on the SyFy Channel. Unfortunately, my latest project is “top secret” and I can’t even mention the name. But I will tell you that you that it will air on the SyFy network.
IFP: What is your dream project or role?
MH: Well, I would LOVE to do a huge period movie. 1800s western. Or something Shakespearian. I’d also love to do a film version of a musical. Oh, and play Wonder Woman:)
You can check out the rest of Supernatural Fridays – including more interviews, articles and reviews – here.