TORONTO (CP) _ As Gordon Pinsent opens the door of his downtown condo with a welcoming smile, it’s easy to see why he was Sarah Polley’s first and only choice to play Grant, the devoted husband who watches his wife of 45 years sink into the thick fog of Alzheimer’s disease in "Away From Her."
The native Newfoundlander has all of Grant’s grace, his soft-spoken kindness, his gentlemanly manners despite still grieving the death in January of his own wife of 45 years, Charmion King.
Pinsent is even wearing the very same navy cable-knit turtleneck he wears throughout the powerful "Away From Her," a film adapted by Polley from an Alice Munro short story that’s already wowed critics at the Toronto, Berlin and Sundance film festivals in advance of its mainstream release May 4.
"She didn’t have much convincing to do," Pinsent, 77, says of Polley’s push for five years to make the film with him and iconic British actress Julie Christie in the lead roles.
"You know, you can be a working actor in this country all your life, and it’s just terrific, but you don’t always get the stuff that’s a bit more challenging."
He bursts into laughter when told audiences at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, were buzzing about his performance after taking in the movie there in January, wondering aloud where this unknown first-time actor had been discovered.
The notion that Pinsent, three years away from his 80th birthday, could be on the brink of international attention after 40 years as a stage and screen legend in Canada both tickles and astounds him.
"It’s a bit weird, actually, and funny," he says of the attention. "It feels fabulous. But I felt strange after the Toronto film festival as a matter of fact. At the time, I was saying to Sarah: ‘This is not right.’ We’re used to a little more negativity. I said: ‘My God, it seems abnormal. Nobody is saying anything bad about it."’
Talk that he and the luminous Christie _ the duo is perhaps one of the most attractive elderly couples to ever be seen on the silver screen _ could be in the running for recognition come awards season in Hollywood is now causing Pinsent to prepare for some hard work promoting the film.
"Lionsgate is certainly going to push it," he says. "As for nominations, who knows about all that except I do know that you have to be in shape to chase it down. I don’t feel like going to L.A. to stay, but if it’s useful to Lionsgate I’ll do whatever I have to do to push the piece."
Would he go to the Oscars?
"Oh sure!" he says as his blue eyes light up. "Even if Julie just wanted me to accompany her, I’d go."
"Away from Her" is a true tour de force for Pinsent, who’s in almost every scene playing Grant with a quiet and dignified despair. The one-time philanderer watches his wife, Fiona, immediately fall for another man after her dementia worsens and she asks to be admitted to a care facility.
Grant is haunted by suspicions that perhaps Fiona isn’t sick so much as she’s trying to get back at him, many years later, for his dalliances. But when Fiona falls into a life-threatening depression following her boyfriend’s departure from the facility, Grant unselfishly does what he can to save her.
"It’s a bigger job and a tougher job than maybe anything he’s ever done," Pinsent says. "And where does it go? Where does love go? Where do you go, the leftover?"
Those are questions that Pinsent is now intimately familiar with following King’s death on Jan. 6 after a battle with emphysema.
"It was something I wasn’t necessarily drawing on except in a general sense of how anyone must feel at a certain time of life after spending so many years with a partner," Pinsent says, blinking back tears. "It’s almost impossible to grasp. It was something that was absolutely unexpected and Grant was not necessarily equipped; nobody would be. How do you prepare?"
He admits he initially felt hopeless when his own wife died.
"When this happened in the family, I thought to hell with everything, I am going to run away from it all, nothing else could be important, it truly couldn’t," he recalls, again fighting back tears. "But I thought: I can’t do that. It will lessen her importance if I give up, because she wanted me to go on and do things and so on. And so I am writing and staying busy."
What attracted him to Polley’s script, he says, is how realistically it portrays the vagaries of a long marriage and how every union goes through good times and bad times to end up stronger in the end.
"I don’t know how interesting it would be in the case that it was total happiness from Day 1 for the entire length of time. I actually don’t think that’s possible. The difficulties from the past were something the two of them had quietly and nicely put aside because they had both grown up, in a sense. And she had waited for him to grow up. That’s what goes on in a marriage."
Pinsent couldn’t be more delighted with how the film turned out, he says, and has special praise for Polley, who marks her feature-film directorial debut with "Away from Her" after acting since childhood. He laughingly refers to her as "this old woman of the cinema" at the age of 28.
"She’s such a giving person," he says. "She’s had her hand at being an actress and a very unionized kind of a person, so she’s been very much giving as opposed to taking from this industry. She’s done very well as an actress and now as a director too, so the girl has just amazed us all."