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McKellar adds voice to unity calls

When Don McKellar was cast in Window Horses, he didn’t anticipate how relevant Ann Marie Fleming’s acclaimed animated feature would become.
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Don McKellarÕs character, Dietmar, and Rosie take centre stage in a scene from Window Horses.
When Don McKellar was cast in Window Horses, he didn’t anticipate how relevant Ann Marie Fleming’s acclaimed animated feature would become.

“It’s perfect timing,” said the Toronto-based actor and director, who provides the voice of Dietmar, a smug German poet.

Dietmar is a colourful character in the Vancouver filmmaker’s thoughtful charmer, which blends an array of animation styles to chronicle the cultural reawakening of Rosie Ming, a Canadian poet of Chinese and Iranian descent.

Although Rosie makes it clear she’d rather go to Paris, her journey begins when she’s invited to an international poetry festival in Shiraz, Iran, homeland of the father she assumed had abandoned her.

“When Ann Marie was making it, I thought, that’s what film needs — a story about tolerance, patience and curiosity, and this desire to learn about other people’s heritage and your own,” McKellar said.

His castmates include Sandra Oh as Rosie, represented by Fleming’s signature “stick-girl” avatar, along with Ellen Page, Nancy Kwan and Iranian film star Shohreh Aghdashloo as Rosie’s kindly mentor.

McKellar, who will participate in a question-and-answer session moderated by film critic Richard Crouse after tonight’s opening-gala screening at Cineplex Odeon, said the film reflects one of his own beliefs.

“I’ve always felt that what was missing from the world, and America in particular, was travel,” he said. “If more Americans had time to spend abroad, the world would be a better place.”

Indeed, with xenophobia having reached a fever pitch in the U.S. after Donald Trump’s election to the presidency, Rosie’s brush with Iranian hospitality and culture is a cinematic tonic.

“At this point, the film almost seems like science fiction,” McKellar said with a laugh. “The idea of a poetry festival in Iran and this kind of cultural exchange is almost inconceivable. It seems outrageous, but it’s possible.”

The National Film Board feature is making its Victoria Film Festival debut the night after its U.S. première at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

McKellar was invited to voice Dietmar after his friend Oh asked him to read with her during a rehearsal.

“Ann Marie had auditioned real Germans and, for whatever reason, was having a hard time,” recalled McKellar, whose character has dyed blond hair and stubble to go along with his attitude.

“I’d read the script and I thought: ‘Oh, he’s like this German guy I was hanging out with at this festival in China’ — a sort of arrogant type who’s a romantic in the German sense.”

McKellar is best known for his appearances in Bruce McDonald’s Roadkill and Highway 61, and in Atom Egoyan’s Exotica, as well as for his achievements as a film director, notably his feature debut Last Night and The Grand Seduction, his 2013 remake of the Quebec hit La Grande Seduction.

He’s no stranger to voice acting, however, having voiced the title character for the animated Canadian sitcom Odd Job Jack.

The upside to voice acting, he said, is that “you don’t have to worry about your physicality,” but it can be challenging.

“Your voice is the most intimate part of yourself, the part we’re most embarrassed about exposing,” he said. “When we hear our voice played back, I think it’s harder than seeing a picture of ourselves.”

McKellar admits he felt self-conscious and vulnerable at times in front of Fleming, who showed him a drawing of his character to inspire him.

“It can be hard to convey emotions,” McKellar said. “You have to trust the animation. But we were all quite loose, and we were able to make stuff up and play around with it.”

McKellar has been a fixture for years at the Victoria festival. In 2014, he came to promote the première of Sensitive Skin, the HBO Canada series he collaborated on with Bob Martin, the writer with whom he co-authored the Tony Award-winning musical The Drowsy Chaperone.

McKellar directed several episodes of the series, in which he co-stars with Comox-raised Kim Cattrall, before re-teaming with Martin last year on Michael: Every Day, a followup to their 2011 CBC-TV sitcom.

The series, originally titled Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays, has drawn comparisons to What About Bob? and Newhart.

In the new six-episode season that CBC-TV began airing Jan. 15, the title character (Matt Walsh), who suffers anxiety disorder, learns his Ottawa-based therapist (Martin) is in worse shape than he is when they reconnect.

McKellar said no one knew what to think at first about the network’s desire to revive the critically acclaimed series, which lasted only one season because of low ratings.

“Then this five-year gap really appealed to us, the more we thought about it,” he said. “It forced us to come up with a very tight story. It’s very independent of the past one.”

The sitcom’s comeback is being aggressively marketed, including, to McKellar’s delight, on another network with a captive audience, CNN.

“I was so happy with that. A lot of people are watching CNN these days,” he deadpanned.

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