Gordon Pinsent on his recent health issues and doc ‘The River of My Dreams’

Gordon Pinsent on his recent health issues and doc ‘The River of My Dreams’

Canadian acting treasure is subject of new film documentary


TORONTO — As he reflects on his past with a new documentary, Canadian acting treasure Gordon Pinsent is also firmly focused on the future, trying to make up for time he feels he lost due to health issues.

The 86-year-old Grand Falls, N.L., native — who is the subject of “The River of My Dreams,” opening at the Ted Rogers Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto on Friday — has spent the past three years recovering from two surgeries for the chronic pain condition trigeminal neuralgia.

He was in hospital for about eight months in total, had a shunt put into his brain, went through physiotherapy, and suffered from scary periods of delirium.

It was “touch and go” at times, admitted the stage and screen star, noting he imagined terrifying scenarios in his delirium: of himself covered in blood of himself dead, bent over the railing of a ship in the harbour of St. John’s of an explosion at a function for Canadian actors.

“I’ve pretty well come through it all,” Pinsent said in a recent phone interview, noting he now works with a personal trainer to improve his balance.

“I know it’s not as perfect as it had been, which is too bad. I say too bad because I would have gone on and on and on in my career…. So I’m not getting the full advantage of a complete career and I’m still waiting for certain things that I’d like to do. I’m pretty sure I’m happy from the standpoint of coming through all of that, but I’m still hungry for certain kinds of work.”

As “The River of My Dreams” by Oscar winner Brigitte Berman shows, the ever-affable star of “Away From Her” has always had a remarkable ability to create career opportunities for himself.

The youngest of six children, Pinsent charmed his way into many odd jobs before embarking on a storied acting career in dozens of film and TV projects — from “Due South” to “The Red Green Show” and “The Shipping News.”

Pinsent has also written fiction, poetry and screenplays.

He’s putting pen to paper again, this time documenting what he imagined during his delirium. He’s written about 40 pages although he’s not sure what will come of it.

“I’ve been writing for a long, long time and I’ve got boxes and boxes filled with stuff that I’m pretty sure will never be produced,” said Pinsent, who did voice work for the recent film “Two Lovers and a Bear” and received a Stratford Festival Legacy Award in September.

“So something tells me that when it’s all over for me, somebody might just pick it up and start reading through.”

One of his recent screenplays was picked up: the short film “Martin’s Hagge,” about a middle-aged writer (Paul Braunstein) who’s haunted by the personification of his anxiety and depression, played by Sheila McCarthy. Pinsent said he and the director, Penny Eizenga, are now considering turning it into a feature film.

Pinsent said he’s also painting and is interested in acting again, but it has to be a special role that has little to do with age. He might even write it himself.

“Basically what I need now, I think, would be one marvellous turning-point character,” he said. “Something that will take me down another road and continue to show the versatility that I think I have.”

Perhaps fellow Canadian star Christopher Plummer — who presented Pinsent with his recent Stratford honour — will have a part in that.

“I said to him, ‘Chris, we’ve got to do a series,”’ Pinsent recalled of their recent chat at the Stratford event.

“I said, ‘I just thought of a joke…. Two octogenarians walk into a bar…. That’s got to be the title,” said Pinsent, howling.

Pinsent said he’s been able to maintain such humour thanks to his psychotherapist, who is teaching him mantras to “feel good about life and not fallen down” despite his condition.

“I take that with me and I practise it at home,” he said.

“I practise it with myself and say, ‘Hey, that other thing is just a thing, what I’ve been through. And I feel stronger knowing that I’ve earned the right to be front and centre, knowing how to deal with it — and I will finally defeat it.”’

“The River of My Dreams: A Portrait of Gordon Pinsent” will open in more cities including Calgary, Halifax, Ottawa and Vancouver on Feb. 17 and in St. John’s on March 30.

It will also screen at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre for Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations on Feb. 15.