Emily Hampshire seems to be everywhere these days, and I’m not just talking about her time-traveling character Jennifer Goiens on Syfy’s 12 Monkeys. Over the last 20 years, Hampshire has carved out a successful career for herself in both Canada and the US as an actor who can do anything. There’s no better testament to her versatility than the exact point she’s at in her career: the star of two TV shows. On the first, 12 Monkeys, Hampshire plays a character who can best be described as “an erratic, ranting, and seemingly unhinged woman” who travels through time. In the role, Hampshire acts in many eras, even playing her 65-year-old self. Syfy released the entire third season over the course of three days last week and now all the episodes are available online to stream, binge, consume, or parcel which I recommend because that way you’ll get to really take in the energy and emotion Hampshire pours into Jennifer. It’s remarkable and something to be savored. The other show Hampshire stars in could not be more different from 12 Monkeys: CBC’s—or in the US, Pop TV’s—Schitt’s Creek, a comedy. On Schitt’s Creek, Hampshire plays the rye and dry Stevie Budd opposite some of Canada’s best comedians. In this interview, Hampshire discusses her experience acting on both shows, as well as all the preparation and dedication that got her to this point.
When did you catch the acting bug?
Well I think I caught it from my mom taking me to see Les Mis in grade school for my sixth grade graduation. I didn’t want to go because there was a pool party at Corey Matto’s place. I really liked him and I really didn’t want to go [to the show]. And then I went and it felt like I left the earth when I was seeing it. I instantly just wanted to be in musicals [Emily laughs]. I started doing plays in high school and I didn’t end up doing musicals because I can’t sing and dance that well. I did some plays and my high school Vice Principal talked to me after a show and said, “You were really good and funny.” That was it. I was like, “Oh I do something well?” From then on I decided I was going to be an actor and I even, like a crazy person, wrote a contract to myself that I still have. It said that I would only do acting stuff all day long for like 22 hours a day and the other two hours I was allowed some free time. I really committed [Emily laughs]. That was basically it. Then I joined an acting group where we did plays for casting directors. A casting director saw me and brought me in for an audition. That was how I got my first part…
You mentioned that Les Mis was influential, but once you were pursuing acting more, did anyone or anything inspire you as you were making it a career?
The thing that actually really got me when I started working—it’s kind of weird—was being on set. The magic of a night shoot where the entire world is sleeping and we’re working in this whole other universe. The craft truck, the ADs [Assistant Directors], the whole world of being onset was something I really fell in love with and to this day love more than anything. I love driving up to set. I feel like I can breathe easier there. I’m always asking if I can sleep on set but no one ever let’s me do that. That really got me in terms of wanting to do film and television work.
And then my first real acting job I would say—I played a very small part in Are you Afraid of the Dark?—but in my first real movie I played the daughter of this actress named Genèvieve Bujold…She really made an impact on me. I don’t know if it was methody on her part because I was playing her daughter, but she really treated me as such. She started writing me letters. She is originally a Québécois actress from Montréal. We started corresponding snail mail style. Now that I’m older and working with younger actors all the time I remember how much it meant to me for this person who’d done exactly what I wanted to do and came from the same place I came from to take the time to just speak to me about acting: give me advice. She invited me to stay with her. My first time in LA was going to her place in Malibu. I was so lucky in terms of having that kind of mentor. She was definitely a huge influence on me.
Emily Hampshire making her film debut along her mentor, Genèvieve Bujold, in Dead Innocent
The other thing was my own self-discipline with books. I read every acting book ever. You’d find me at a 24-hour café highlighting the entire book, which is a bad thing to do because essentially you have not highlighted anything FYI [Emily laughs]. I recently found all these things in my storage unit because my mom is moving from her house…I went through everything and it was all these really crazy notes that I took from every single acting book. The things I really found inspiration in were books.
I think it’s so interesting, the idea of an acting book. When I was younger, too, I would read them and then I had an acting teacher be like, “Why are you reading a book? It’s all about the doing of it and that’s how you learn.” Do you feel like what you read in the books actually impacted how you perform?
I think your acting teacher was right in the sense that [becoming a better actor] is in the doing. I could never have gotten in the books what I learned in the doing and on sets. What it did give me was I never went to formal acting school. I made the decision to go out and audition for this place called the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I auditioned right out of high school and I got in. But the week after I got a movie, so I had to make that decision. I chose to do the movie. But I’ve thought about this a lot. It would have been such a different path. I wonder if I would’ve ended up in the same place. A lot of my friends who went to acting school got a later start. They learned a lot in school that I’m kind of envious of, like when they can pull an accent out of their hat, which for me I have to really work at. On the other hand, I got something of a practical education being thrown into the field. I learned so much from directors and doing things. I know how to find my mark, all the things you could maybe learn in school but don’t really know how to do until you do it [on the job]. I guess it’s like any job: [you need] 10,000 hours of experience.
I think just last year I was feeling this way on Schitt’s Creek. We went for our third season, it was the first take of the third season, and I was like, “Wow I really feel confident and I know what I’m doing now. I know everything about this world.” It’s taken a long time to not only learn but also feel confident in [what I know]. So to get back to what your teacher said, I think he was absolutely right. But I think learning those things in a book in the way that you do any subject is that you learn intellectually first and then you make it practical. The doing of it is where it all comes together, I think.
What was it like getting your start in Canada? How is the industry different from LA?
I’ve really gotten perspective on it now. I had my start in Canada and worked here a long time. Then I lived in LA for 10 years but have come back to Canada. I can definitely say that, for me at least and a lot of my peers who work in Canada, it’s much more of a blue collar mentality because we don’t have a star system. I’ve had the opportunity to be the lead in like 15 movies you’ve never seen [Emily laughs]. Where as for my friends in LA, a lot of them don’t get that opportunity. They are still trying to get a commercial or guest spot on a show. It’s such a lottery win to get the lead in a huge movie as an unknown—or you just have to be a star. If you do get that lead as an unknown and it’s your first job, you’re really thrown into the fire. In Canada, I feel with the smaller pool and smaller community I had the chance to really hone my craft. I’m so grateful for that now, but at the time when I was starting out, I really wanted instant success. I thought my career was over at like 18 because I wasn’t huge when I was 16. I’m so grateful for that now because when I went down to LA, I knew what I was doing there. I had a body of work. That’s the difference.
A lot of people say LA is better because they have a star system and all that, but I appreciate this place where I could hone my craft in secret a little. And I also just love working. I would totally be okay being able to work on movies I love, even if I don’t become a huge star. The working is what I love the most. The only reason for me to have success outwardly is so that I could have choice. My dream would to be to just pick what I want to do. In order to do that, you have to be somewhat of a name—a household name.
You star in two hit shows Schitt’s Creek and 12 Monkeys, which is pretty amazing.
It’s usually not allowed. What happened was I got Schitt’s Creek and while I was doing it, I auditioned for 12 Monkeys because I had in my contract that I could do an American show if it worked out with the schedule. Usually an American show will never let you be in second position, but I started 12 Monkeys as a recurring character and then they upped me to a regular. They allowed that to happen because in the Schitt’s Creek contracts [it specifies the show] will always end the season by June and 12 Monkeys was always going to go after that, except for this season because they decided to do two seasons back to back. I’m right now overlapping both shows. I’m literally about to shoot a day on Schitt’s Creek and then be driven in event to do a night shoot on 12 Monkeys, which is insanity but that’s how it worked out this year.
The shows are obviously very tonally different. Can you talk about how that effects the acting?
You’re absolutely right. They are polar opposites. I’m just realizing this now that it’s because they are so polar opposite that I think it makes it a lot easier for me to make the distinction. Like first of all, Schitt’s Creek it is basically like a vacation. I can’t believe I get paid to do that job. Especially because its a half hour comedy, it’s a much shorter shooting day. It’s like a 9-to-5 job. Crew call is around 8 AM and I probably end by 7 PM, whereas 12 Monkeys is 16-18 hour days on average. That is insane and also harder because of my character. My character on that requires such an output of energy because she’s kind of crazy.
What’s different from Jennifer [on 12 Monkeys] than Stevie [on Schitt’s Creek] is that Stevie is always in reaction to things. I find Schitt’s Creek, as an actor, to be a much easier job energetically: to watch, and observe, and react. Alternatively, Jennifer is always the instigator of things: the catalyst, pushing people. That takes me a lot of energy to light fires everywhere. At 12 Monkeys, on set I have more energy than I’ve ever had in my life because there’s adrenaline going all the time. By the end of a day playing Jennifer, I’m never more exhausted physically, mentally, everything.
To go to Schitt’s Creek is like a relaxation day. I sit behind the desk, nothing is too taxing, it’s just fun. I wouldn’t want to say 12 Monkeys is just pure exhaustion. The reward of playing Jennifer Goings is amazing. I feel so lucky to have both of these things because I feel like even one of them would be the best job in the world. But I have both of them at the same time and it’s so satisfying for me personally. I wouldn’t be completely satisfied with just one side of what I like to do. Like if I could only play Stevie—who I love more than anything—I would miss the dramatic stuff I get to do on 12 Monkeys…So as much as it’s exhausting these two shows overlapping right now, I wouldn’t change it for anything. I know how lucky I am.
What’s your advice for aspiring actors?
The best acting advice I got is, think like a person. Whenever you’re in a place when you’re acting and think, “Ugh, what do I do with my arms?” you feel awkward or you’re in your head, the best thing to do is just think like a person. Stop thinking like an actor. What always gets you in the most trouble is worrying, “How should I do this?” Start having the thoughts of your character as a real person.
And then I would say read this book called Letters to a Young Poet. It’s not an acting book. It’s about being an artist. It’s nonfiction. It’s these letters from an older poet to a younger poet. He’s critiquing his poetry. It’s kind of a dense read but a small book. It’ll be a book you’ll read for the rest of your life over and over again. It will solve all of your artistic angst.
The thing that gets in the way of your best work is yourself. It’s all confidence. If you do the work, then the only thing getting in your way is the mentality. So when you go to an audition and you’re worried about what they think of you and being good for other people opposed to worrying about scene. Say the scene is that your son dying. Worry about saving your son. Go to the audition like it’s an opportunity to act and an opportunity to play this person, to express yourself instead of impress other people. I think that’s the hardest thing to really get into and latch onto because there’s so much desperation. You want the job, right? That’s the thing that fucks you up I think: want to get it so badly instead of being an artist and expressing something you have to say. You always have to, especially going into an audition, have something you want to say. It’s much more than just getting the part. It has to be important. Even when you’re doing something like Big Bang Theory, it’s only going to be good if you’re really saying something. That would be my advice. ♦