She has been a school principal, a doctor, a beauty queen and a porn star. Much to the relief of her dear parents, this career variety has come via Johannah Newmarch’s work as an actor.
Like other successful Vancouver-based actors, Johannah’s long resume boasts a mix of American and Canadian productions. Her recent credits include Motive, the Garage Sales Mystery series and The Whispers – a new show with Steven Spielberg as one of the Executive Producers. “I played a doctor in a scene with Lily Rabe who plays Sister Mary Eunice McKee on American Horror Story. I enjoyed that.”
One of Newmarch’s proudest moments is the first Leo – B.C’s primary film and TV awards – she received for The Sunflower Hour. This mockumentary, which focuses on the ‘seedy underbelly of puppeteering’, was written and directed by Aaron Houston and filmed on weekends. “He did it for thirty thousand dollars, most of which was insurance and food. It was a really strong cast of local actors…such a wonderful, guerilla, indie experience.” Newmarch plays an ex porn star who is now casting a children’s puppet show.
She wasn’t expecting to win, so headed to the Leos without her family, saving a little money on tickets and ready for a low-key evening with friends. “When they called out my name, I almost fell off my chair. It was a real sign to me that hanging in there was worth it. I feel like I really sweat blood to get where I am. It was a nice nod from the industry that I had the right to be there and that my hard work meant something.”
That hard work started for Newmarch when she was 15. Her first serious job was as a lead on a CBC show called Family Pictures. “It was the show I probably enjoyed the most. I was so free. I didn’t know any better.”
Newmarch’s parents have always supported her creatively, whether she was spending hours drawing, spontaneously redecorating her room or going to yet another ballet class. After her first big acting break, she found steady employment, yet decided to walk away at age 21. “I was idealistic and disappointed with the narratives of the TV shows. I was young. I didn’t feel like I was doing enough to make a difference.”
She missed it too much, though, and came back at 30. “Now, I can say I’m an actor and I say that with immense pride. The arts get kicked around. They are considered icing. But, the older I get, the more deeply I believe in them.” Acting is also thrilling – a little like skydiving, she says. “When they say Action, you have to jump and trust the work you have done prepping and that the connection between you and the other actor will work.”
These days, she spends a lot of time auditioning: two a week, on average. She’s excited about the high quality of TV shows on offer. Some of her favourites include Mad Men, House of Cards, True Detective and The Hour – “a phenomenal show based on a British newsroom in the 60’s.” But, with higher quality shows come bigger name U.S. actors and greater competition for roles. “I have just enough victories to keep the faith and keep soldiering on.”
This year, Newmarch was delighted to be filming Grace Point – a remake of the British drama Broadchurch – alongside David Tennant and Anna Gunn. “My scene was with both of them and I sat there blinking. I couldn’t believe I was talking to Dr. Who and Skylar from Breaking Bad. They were so lovely and fun to work with.” She also enjoyed working with Carrie Fisher on a Christmas movie. “She was quirky and charming. A really cool lady.”
Newmarch’s creative role models are the female greats, especially as she watches them age. She admires Helen Mirren, Judy Dench, Emma Thompson, Cate Blanchett and Julianne Moore, the latter particularly in her work with Colin Firth in A Single Man. And Meryl Streep, of course. “She is just so good. It’s the consistency and the authenticity.”
Johannah was wowed by Streep’s transformation into Maggie Thatcher, her work in Bridges of Madison County and her role as a caustic CIA bureaucrat in Rendition. “She was so good as Julia Child. I even remember a scene where Stanley Tucci was toasting her and you literally saw her blush in the scene. Here is this actress who is able to generate an authentic blush in a scene. She was also completely riveting in Doubt. Her scenes with the incredible Phillip Seymour Hoffman were a master class in acting. And, of course, she was the most magnificent, all-powerful bitch in The Devil Wears Prada.”
There are also directors with whom Newmarch would love to work: Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott, Mike Leigh, Jean Marc Vallée. “I appreciate anyone brave enough to tackle big deep questions – why are we here? What is the meaning of time?” She also appreciates intimate, character-driven dramas. Newmarch is thrilled with the surge of Canadian directors such as Denis Villeneuve, the Academy award-nominated director of Incendies. “After I watched that, I thought: Wow. Who is that?!”
Looking forward, Newmarch will keep up the work she so enjoys mentoring young actors through programs like Women in Film and FYA – Fulfilling Young Artists. “I’m very honest, maybe too candid, about the struggles. But, if they are really committed, then I encourage them to keep fighting for their creative voices and to relish working with like-minded people.”
Newmarch has spent many lonely years in the trenches, but is now reclaiming more of the joy and lightness she felt as a 15 year old working on that first show on CBC. “When creative people create, they are happier. I’m a better mother, partner, mentor and teacher when I am filling up my own creative well.”
Written by Elizabeth Newton
* Photo into Ai Weiwei’s Bang installation at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s current exhibit of The Forbidden City.