Hailey Gillis sits across from me in the lobby of the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. I figured that, at 11:00 in the morning, this wouldn’t be a busy place. I was completely wrong. It’s full of people buying and making coffee, chatting, working, and reading.
Gillis graduated from UTM’s Theatre and Drama Studies program in 2013, after which she attended the Soulpepper Academy, a professional training facility for young artists. Admission is by audition, and those who complete training at the academy then get to work in the professional acting company.
The Medium: So, what are you working on right now?
Hailey Gillis: We’re working on a show called Marat/Sade, which is an amazing play based on the style of Artaud, so it’s a bit Theatre of Cruelty. Mike Ross, our musical director here at Soulpepper, has written new music for it, but it’s the same text. We set it behind a fence, like the Pan Am fences, so it’s like an asylum or a prison came in to do a play for the audiences, and we’re behind this cage.
TM: You really walked out of Theatre Erindale and into the Soulpepper Academy—that’s pretty impressive. Where do you go from here?
HG: Well, we graduated from the academy in June, so right now they’re contracting us on a regular basis. And then we just do what actors do and take auditions elsewhere, but I think that Soulpepper right now is the thing that turns me on the most, creatively speaking. I love to be here as much as I can.
TM: There are artists who have been here for a long time. Do you see yourself being a resident artist?
HG: Yeah, that would be incredible. I would never say “no” to that, but I understand the positive aspects of also taking work somewhere else so you get respected and learn so much in different buildings. Just like how at Theatre Erindale, you learn so much from different directors, different shows. But [Soulpepper] is my home now.
TM: Where else do you want to work?
HG: It’s less where and more what. So if a project pops up that’s exciting, I’ll try to let the director know that I’m really interested.
TM: What defines an interesting project for you?
HG: The team, the show, everything sort of fits together in a project that excites you. There are some amazing directors out there. I also really love Toronto right now. I know that everyone always has ambitions to go to New York or go to L.A., but I’m so invested in figuring out what this thing in Toronto is right now. It’s an incredible city with so much to offer. And we’re so vast but also young in our art, compared to other cities. We’re also still trying to figure out what represents us.
Theatre Erindale really prepared me for this academy, though. The training that I received there was incredible.
TM: What did you learn?
HG: A: Working really hard. All the time. B: A sense of camaraderie. Especially doing the Collective at Theatre Erindale—[Soulpepper] is such a collective building. They built the academy, they said, not on who the best actors were but who would be the best group to work with.
TM: Were there any classes that you think really carried over?
HG: More how to work with specific directors, and what they need. That was a big learning curve. If I had to go back to my Theatre Erindale self, I’d say… fuck up more. Don’t be afraid. I feel like in university it’s like—gotta get it right, gotta get it perfect, so when I get out I can get it more right and I can get it more perfect, which is not how it works. School is such an opportunity to figure out what doesn’t work and then figure out what makes you tick and makes you creatively turned on. That’s what I’d say to myself.
It’s hard though with marks, to not try to get good marks to impress that director or impress that teacher.
TM: Do you find working professionally that you worry less about what other people think?
HG: I’d like to say that, but I don’t know if that’s true. I think at the beginning of the academy I was terrified of what people thought because I had just come out of school and was on stage for the first time here. I think now, when I’m onstage, I can be more focused on the task at hand, and how important that is. And I feel my level of stress not changing but shifting from pleasing people to telling a story.
Now when I get in my head and think about what others are thinking, I get mad at myself because I wasn’t in the play.
TM: Do you have a favourite thing about acting? A least favourite thing?
HG: I started as a singer and I was in musical theatre, which I still love, and the one thing about acting was that it was much less clear. There were so many more ways to achieve what I thought was success. With a dance move you got that high kick because your foot was in the correct position, and in voice you got that high note because you hit that note and then you could check it on a piano. But with acting, there’s no marker of right or wrong or success. I like sitting in that grey area.
What don’t I like? I don’t like judgement. I don’t like seeing my amazing peers going to a show and not trying to understand what that show was trying to do. [Actors] don’t spend two months rehearsing and not think about the choices they made. I like theatregoers and actors to be in more of a conversation about theatre rather than judge them as right or wrong. The type of actor that goes: “Well, I could have played that better,” is not the type of actor that I want to work with.
TM: Do you believe in luck?
HG: I totally believe in luck. Right place, right time. It’s one of the most frustrating parts about this business. And once you just let go of the fact that it’s going to happen, it’s a bit easier to handle.
TM: Luck or hard work—do you think one matters more than the other?
HG: I think it matters that we understand that we can’t control luck, but we can control our work, so you might as well work really hard on working hard—and work really hard on letting go of the fact that some people might be luckier than others.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.