It’s a rare morning in the Stratford residence of Colm and Donna Feore: both of them are at home. He’s not starring in a Broadway show, making a miniseries in Rome or finishing off a film in London. And she’s not choreographing a movie in Prague, staging an opera in Edinburgh or mounting a musical in Toronto.
Two of the most peripatetic and popular Canadians on the world arts scene today are enjoying the unaccustomed luxury of spending some time with nothing more demanding on their “to-do” list than sharing a cup of coffee and talking about their life together. In some ways, they’re the most contemporary of couples, totally aware of everything au courant in the world around them. Mention the newest book, the hottest chef, or the latest breaking news and they’ve already got all the information.
Still, there’s something deliciously retro about them. A kind of art-deco sophistication that brings to mind Nick and Nora Charles of The Thin Man, with razor-sharp wit and banter as lively as a set at Wimbledon. “Donna understands me so well,” insists Colm. “Whenever I start a new job, she always says ‘Go easy, go gentle. See how the land lies. Don’t rip the mask off by the coffee break. Keep those restive horses in check.’”
“And he usually listens to me,” Donna confirms with a gleam in her eye, “until the second day.” They may share all the fun of Dashiell Hammett’s famous duo, but they also possess a secret weapon that couple never knew: a family. On this day, you can hear their kids having fun in the distance like an offstage chorus: Jack (17), Thomas (11) and Anna (9). “A lot of the jobs I have to take are a huge sacrifice for the family,” admits Colm, “but Donna’s always amazing.” “That’s what we do here,” she agrees. “Once we decide to make it work, we all play ball.”
They stretch out on a sofa and warm their feet on the heated tiles of their spacious kitchen. “The Chronicles of Riddick paid for this,” says Colm, referring to the 2004 sci-fi epic he starred in opposite Vin Diesel and Judi Dench as he points to the toasty floor beneath him. “Now, we need a new driveway next.” “So if you know anyone who’s casting a movie starting in November,” coos Donna, “then tell them he’s free.” Up until then, they’re both going to be unusually busy, even by their frenetic standards, but for once they’ll be in the same city for an unaccustomed length of time.
Colm is returning to the Stratford Festival, where his career began 25 years ago, playing three major leading parts this summer: Fagin in Oliver! as well as the title roles in Coriolanus and Don Juan, the last one in both French and English. Donna, who has been choreographing at Stratford since 1998, is finally getting to make her directorial debut with Oliver! which means she’ll be working with her husband. “Ironically,” she sighs, “it means the kids will see even less of us. Usually one of us stays home while the other goes away. Now we’ll both be here, but working our heads off.”
It’s an important year for both of them, for different reasons. For Donna, it represents “a chance to strike out in new and different directions”, while for Colm “this is a watershed. I look on Stratford 2006 as a chance to review all my life up to this point.” Colm was born in Boston, Massachusetts on August 22, 1958 and raised in Windsor, Ontario. It was while attending the prestigious Ridley College in St. Catharines that his theatrical instincts manifested themselves. “Doing Oliver! is like going home for me,” says Colm. “I played Fagin there when I was 17 years old.”
He was also taken to see a Stratford Festival production of The Three Sisters, directed by John Hirsch, starring Maggie Smith and recalls “being simply carried away.” After three years at the National Theatre School, he started 14 seasons at Stratford and before long, he was one of its strongest young leading men, playing roles like Richard III and Iago before he was even 30.
Then one day in 1990, he walked into the rehearsal hall to start work on Julius Caesar and noticed a young dancer named Donna Starnes who had joined the company that year. “I rather liked her on sight,” he recalls. “I spent the whole first rehearsal flirting with her.”
“Back here, I’m remembered for playing Gould and Trudeau but I don’t carry a Canadian mantle outside of the country. Out there, they only know me for the blockbusters and they don’t care where I come from.” — Colm Feore
“Not flirting,” she corrects him, “staring. I asked ‘Who’s that creepy guy staring at me?’ and they told me he was one of the stars of the company.” At that point, Donna’s ignorance of the world of Shakespearean acting could easily be forgiven. She was born in Dawson Creek, B.C. on June 20, 1963 and grew up in Prince George. She started studying ballet at 7 and eventually moved down to Vancouver where she trained with the Pacific Ballet Theatre.
By the time she was 22, the ambitious young woman had founded the Vortex Dance Company and soon moved on to New York, Los Angeles and Toronto, alternating her ongoing training with an assortment of jobs in TV, film and video. “Then I came to Stratford,” she laughs “and fell in love with the creepy guy.” They both admit the love part took a while and brought along its own set of problems, as they were both already married.
But it was during the 1991 production of Hamlet, where Colm played the title role, that things got really serious. “If you know an actor,” begins Colm, “you’ve got to understand that no matter what you say to him backstage after a show will always be inadequate, disappointing. The bigger the part, the greater the disappointment.
“Well,” he sighs, “there I was playing Hamlet, the greatest part of all. People would come back to see me afterwards and they would say nice things, mean things, smart things, dumb things; but none of them really resonated.” Across the room, Donna lowers her eyes, blushing. She knows what’s coming next. “One night,” continues Colm, “Donna came backstage. She opened the door and she just looked in and stood there staring wordlessly. I thought ‘That’s the best response I ever had.’” She picks up the ball. “I had never seen anything like his Hamlet. I thought he was talking to me. I forgot about the other 2,000 people in the theatre. It changed my life. I fell in love with Shakespeare and then I fell in love with Colm.”
There’s a rare moment of silence between them as they look at each other with deep affection. “We started out,” he says, “and it was pretty rough. We made life decisions that were hard. I remember saying to her ‘The Samsonite’s at the door. I hope you’re game for a real pile of shit, because that’s what I brought you.’”
Nineteen ninety-four was the year of living dangerously for Colm and Donna. The two of them got married and then, emboldened by the success of his performance in Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, Colm left the Festival, vowing to try his luck in the movies. Things were slow at first, but the business gradually caught on to Colm’s original talent. In a business that lived for stereotyping, his versatility was initially almost a liability.
“I’ve always felt I should play the part, instead of letting the part play me,” he laughs. But his eccentric Charlie Ross in the TV biopic Truman was totally different from the ice-blooded plastic surgeon he played for John Woo in Face/Off.
And then in the Stephen King miniseries, Storm of the Century, Colm attracted everyone’s notice as the deeply evil Andre Linoge. High-profile films like The Insider and Pearl Harbor kept his stock rising and then he came home in 2002 to portray another Canadian icon, Pierre Trudeau. “It’s funny,” muses Colm. “Back here, I’m remembered for playing Gould and Trudeau but I don’t carry a Canadian mantle outside of the country. Out there, they only know me for the blockbusters and they don’t care where I come from.”
While Colm was racking up those frequent-flyer miles zooming around from location to location, Donna wasn’t just sitting quietly by the fire. Besides keeping her hand in at Stratford, she branched into the world of opera, choreographing for the Canadian Opera Company with François Girard and working with Rhombus Media on several of their inventive multimedia projects like Don Giovanni Unmasked and Romeo and Juliet. She also became the go-to-girl for dance numbers on many of the American TV and film projects that came to Toronto, working with the likes of Sean Hayes, Julie Andrews and Lindsay Lohan.
“We love it here,” says Donna, looking around the home they’ve made together …“Our lives are a game of ‘What’s possible? What’s out there today?’” He puts his arm around Donna and they smile, as he reveals one final secret …
Colm and Donna spent the summer together in 2002, when he returned to Stratford for a few months as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady and she choreographed, but it wasn’t Shakespeare and Colm was starting to miss classical theatre. “I not only have a propensity for it,” he maintains, “but the bone structure and the vocal range as well. I have to do it.”
So when Denzel Washington asked him to play Cassius opposite his Brutus on Broadway last summer in Julius Caesar, “I agreed in a heartbeat. Here was a chance to do Shakespeare not just with a movie star, but with a movie star who really knew how to act and, believe me, it doesn’t always work that way.”
Although the distance wasn’t that great, the schedule meant that Feore was away for six months and could only return home once. “Donna and I have a rule about not being apart for more than two weeks at a time and so she and the kids were on the plane almost constantly.” “It was a huge thing for all of us, having so much time in NY,” adds Donna. “We all changed and we all grew.”
Colm received amazing reviews which called him the best thing in the production, but he keeps his usual distance in describing the experience. “You know what I love about Broadway?” quips Colm. “It’s mercenary. They’re not even going to make the toilet paper any bigger than it has to be. They’re going to put on a play and they’re going to take all the money. Thanks for coming.”
But it also served as a benchmark for both Feores. “Seeing New York, seeing London, seeing what it’s like around the world has been amazing for us, because it’s allowed us to see what’s possible.”
“And we bring those standards back here with us,” adds Donna.
Living in Stratford, where everybody knows the Feores as neighbours, the family never had to face the realization that their father has become a well-known actor until they went on a recent Caribbean cruise. “First the staff recognized me,” moans Colm, “then it spread to a few of the guests.” “That’s when you put the Speedo away,” notes Donna. “But by the end,” concludes Colm, “it was getting a bit ripply out there. People would stop me in the elevator and say ‘I looked you up on the Internet Movie Database. I loved you in Storm of the Century.’”
“The kids started to get weirded out,” says Donna.
But their dislike for the glitz of celebrity doesn’t mean the Feores plan to shun the spotlight forever and seal themselves off in Stratford. “We would move to Los Angeles if we had to,” volunteers Donna with a bit of reluctance. “I’m an actor,” states Colm. “I’ve got to be flexible and go where the work is. If you want me to go on a TV sitcom for five years and take down my pants, you know, the John Lithgow Retirement Fund, then I say bring it on.”
“We love it here,” says Donna, looking around the home they’ve made together. “But …” She leaves the sentence unfinished. Colm does it for her. “Our lives are a game of ‘What’s possible? What’s out there today?’” He puts his arm around Donna and they smile, as he reveals one final secret.“Our suitcases, you see, are never really unpacked.”
Fashion Editor: Elisa Kosonen; Styling: Elisa Kosonen; Hair and Make-up: Michelle Rosen, for judyinc.com. Shot on location at the Stratford Festival Theatre. Special thanks to the Arden Park Hotel in Stratford.