In conversation, on acting and on wine.
Canadian actress Sonja Smits is all grace and poise: she speaks and moves with a serenity and self-possession that is captivating. Lord, it’s hard to take your eyes off her. She’s relaxing on a Roman-style couch. Her rich, chocolate eyes, fine cheekbones and glamorous figure all add up to one classy dame. But she’s not on a film set, or a stage, delivering her character’s lines. She’s just being herself. And talking passionately about her latest venture.
It would be safe to assume she’s describing a challenging new role, or a great script she’s about to tackle. Not so. Ms. Smits is talking about digging in soil, gouging into limestone, planting grape vine graftings, painting a barn, picking grapes and, come this spring, bottling wine. This will no doubt come as a surprise to millions of devoted viewers who have followed her rich and prolific acting career, on the stage and silver screen, underscored by 14 seasons of starring television roles: Street Legal, Traders and The Eleventh Hour.
While Smits has proven herself a thoroughbred among actors, her roots are actually deep in agricultural terra firma. She is one of two daughters of Dutch immigrants who settled in the Ottawa Valley. They were dairy farmers on River Road, between Osgoode and Kars, on the Rideau River south of the nation’s capital. And now, 24 years into an award-winning career, Smits is trying her own hand at pioneering in an area as steeped in Canadian history as you can get: Ontario’s Prince Edward County. Seven years ago Smits and her husband Seaton McLean, who at the time was head of film production for Alliance Atlantis, purchased 15 acres of land on the western reach of the county, facing southwest onto Lake Ontario. Several years ago they also bought an 1860s loyalist farmhouse, situated near the intersection of Closson and Chase roads, so named after farmers who settled and worked the land. Hence they christened their fledgling estate Closson Chase Vineyard and Winery Inc., post office box Hillier, Ontario.
“We’ve started with a dairy barn and want to make it into a winery. We haven’t closed it all off, though, because it’s important that we keep the integrity of the barn, you know, how in a barn the light filters through? We’ll also keep the cobblestones on the barn floor. Everything else is very simple, but what we do, we want done right, with a blend of elements that are visually pleasing, because wine is about pleasure.”
Smits explains, “My inspiration is a friend, Deborah Paskus, who I met about 25 years ago. She was in advertising, very attractive, blond, dressed to the nines. Then I heard that she was in the fields, grafting grape vines. I couldn’t believe it! She’d dropped everything, gone to the University of Guelph, and now Deborah’s become one of the best winemakers in the Niagara region. Her wines have a cult-like status, made with particular techniques. The point is, I am amazed she’s entirely changed from one career to another. Plus, she’s the first winemaker I’ve ever known.
“Deborah came to see us about seven years ago, and told us she dreamed of starting her own vineyard. She’d already researched and identified a piece of land in Prince Edward County where she felt the terroir could eventually produce quite wonderful wine. Seaton and I talked about the costs, and the risks. But, in the end, this was a perfect chance to help someone realize their dreams, and be involved in something entirely different than either of us had any experience in.
“In the same way, another person I admire is Judith Thompson, who started out as an actress, but then she began to write her own plays. I’ve always been amazed that she was able to take make that change. The last play I acted in was Judith’s Perfect Pie, at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, which was completely sold out, and received standing ovations every night. But it was so intense and draining. Judith directed it and I thought, hats off, that was a really tough gig,” says Smits, who has a solid roster of stage roles to her credit.
It’s difficult to resist asking about her favourite actors. Smits answers, with no hesitation, that London-born actress Vanessa Redgrave is her female choice. As for men, it occasionally changes. Right now, today, her pick is Javier Bardem, who recently played Felix in Michael Mann’s Collateral. “He’s such a manly man,” sighs Smits. “Years ago it was Rutger Hauer, who was in Ladyhawke, really, really handsome, a Dutch actor, blue-eyed, tall. And I also liked Gabriel Byrne, he played Tom Reagan in Miller’s Crossing, he’s also a very manly man.”
But, seriously, did Smits, who early on devoted herself exclusively to her career, and admittedly would have jettisoned interfering personal relationships if necessary, ever imagine herself enamored by anything other than acting?
“In hindsight you see past experiences more clearly. Here’s an example. When I started out as the young lawyer Carrie Barr on Street Legal (1987) no one on that show had any experience with an episodic series in Canada. We had to figure it out: how do you maintain the characters and the story line, and not repeat yourself, so that people would tune in the next week, let alone over the 85 episodes we finally shot. We had to figure all that out, because no one had done it before. So, I don’t see much difference between pioneering in television and pioneering in winemaking,” says Smits.
“And Seaton is also very excited. Just like when he started Alliance with his partners, this is a bold new venture. And in the winemaking business, as in the film business, you’ve got to deal with a certain amount of bureaucracy, with the governing and regulatory bodies, like the LCBO and the VQA. So for us it’s still a blend of craft, artistry, luck and good business.”
Closson Chase’s articles of incorporation are also a blend of good business and luck, the shareholders comprising a small but devoted crew including Smits, McLean, Paskus, and a handful of close friends and admirers of Paskus’s winemaking skills. A dash of artistry has been infused into the winery: Canadian David Blackwood created the seminal artwork, using the marine flag for the letter “C”, its horizontal bands of blue, white and red, a nod to France, reflected in gentle waters in the forefront. A local artist, who does business under the name Shattered Glass, incorporated Blackwood’s design into an abstract stained glass window around the barn’s double doors. Designer Tim Forbes integrated Blackwood’s painting into a signature label for their emerging winery which plans to open to the public in this spring.
“We wanted to keep it small. Our mission is to make a premium, limited release wine. We have 15 acres planted, and in about a year we may double that,” says Smits.
Their vintner, Deborah Paskus, explains that they have had their hands full over the past years dealing with the variable climate and short growing seasons. “We chose to plant a small amount of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which are early-ripening varieties. We’ve come through two crisis winters, and one summer that was the hottest on record. Moreover, we’re also dealing with a lack of soil, that is, compared to the Niagara grape-growing region. And our graftings are imported from France,” Paskus explains.
“But in 2002 we lost part of our shipment at sea. The boat was in trouble and had to dump the graftings. And we’ve also lost our crops to raccoons, so we now have electric fences installed. And I’ve had to completely tent net our vines, because the land is on a bird migration route. But when the setting sun lights up the stained glass windows on the double barn doors, it’s absolutely fabulous.”
Smits clearly has a penchant for taking chances on those prepared to take risks and chart new territory. Smits has been impressing audiences for three seasons in her role as TV correspondent Megan Redner on CTV’s The Eleventh Hour, created by young, savvy Canadian writers Semi Chellas and Ilana Frank. “The writing has been the strength of The Eleventh Hour,” says Smits. “Interestingly, they came from feature film backgrounds, which has given the scripts far more strength and subtlety than I’m used to. There have been some nice surprises, and the show has also evolved from the first season to the third. The writers have also had to learn how to make a script episodic, including dealing with commercials, audiences tuning in at various points. I think the process has been really good, evolving with these practicalities while maintaining the integrity of the story. I feel very proud of what we have done to this point.”
After Street Legal and before The Eleventh Hour, Smits worked five seasons as Sally Ross, Bay Street financial investor, on the award winning series Traders (1996). It was during this time that the second of their two children was an infant. Smits has been characterized, in the same breath as being an internationally renowned Canadian actor, as also a “devoted mother and wife”. She is clearly impatient with this moniker.
“You cannot do it all. Yet somehow people are sold on the idea that you can have a fabulous career and also be a devoted, fabulous and perfect mother. And perfect wife. But, I’m sorry, no one can do that. There’s always a price to be paid. When I had the opportunity to do Traders, to be part of starting a new series, I felt that it had the potential to be something very special, which it was. But I also had a new son, who needed me. Then started the debate. What do I do? If I were a truly devoted mother, I would say forget the show. But I’m an actress, which is a big, big part of who I am. If I don’t do this, am I going to regret it and resent it? Plus my husband was part of the equation, and at that time his job was very demanding. In the end, I had three months with my son, then shot Traders for four months, then I took more time off. But I still carry that guilt that I should have stayed at home. It was like torture when I started the series. I felt completely and utterly torn.”
In spite of this, whatever role Smits is cast in, she always makes it appear effortless. Yet the career that she set out on has not been entirely a walk in the park. Like many Canadian actors, in the early 1980s she made the inevitable trip down to LA. “I was there for three years, and it turned out to be a very difficult, very unhappy time for me. Five weeks after I arrived I was going through the gates at Paramount, you know, having a costume fitting in Edith Head’s dressing room, it was all very heady. And then you find yourself back in your studio apartment in North Hollywood staring at the walls. LA is very isolating. What I didn’t know then, and what I tell young people now, is to make sure you get involved and get busy.”
“But out of that came some wonderful things: returning to Canada, meeting my husband and falling in love with someone who is a good person. There’s a lot of trauma in life, but that is part of life, and without that you don’t grow. Like the vines, without stress they won’t develop the fruit you want.”
“Now that we’re into this business, we find ourselves worrying about the weather,” says Smits, laughing quietly. “I’ve always looked for things bigger than myself, a spiritual pursuit. Growing grapes, agriculture, is like that. Sure you do a lot of work, but at a certain point you can only rely on the gods and fate. It’s a very humbling experience. If we’re doing things right, then the real reward will come long after I’m gone. I might be a very old lady before we have our best wines, or maybe it won’t be until my daughter is my age. And that’s exciting, that’s enriching, right?”
All make-up by Estée Lauder. Fashion Editor: Luisa Rino. Styling: Anya Shor for judy inc. Hair and make-up: David Goveia for The Artist Group Ltd. Shot on location at the Verity Club, 111 Queen Street East.