“If people tell me the idea I’m pursuing is impossible, that’s when I know that it’s not impossible, it’s just really difficult; and anything worth doing is probably going to be really difficult.”
At a time when people may doubt whether Canada should be so accessible and unguarded, it’s wonderful to discover just how open and giving one of our biggest stars has remained.
Allan Hawco, upon calling me for our interview, immediately and earnestly apologizes for being a bit late (although I was given plenty of heads up that there would be a slight delay) and tells me I have him on the phone for “as long as you need me.” He also thanks me for the honour of including him on this website.
Allan may not need much of an introduction, if any, but his fellow Kickass Canadian Andrew Furey provided such a nice one when he nominated Allan. So I thought I’d share it here:
“Allan would be a perfect fit to be a Kickass Canadian. Of course you know him for creating and starring in Republic of Doyle. What you may not realize is that he is a leader in the community, tirelessly promoting Newfoundland and Labrador, committing his extra time to charitable work, supporting the arts community, and making our province and country a better place to live.”
Rockin’ the arts
Before Allan became an international star, bringing well-deserved recognition to his home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, he was just a kid growing up on “The Rock.” He knew the value of hard work, taking his first full-time job at age 12 at a supermarket, and he knew to appreciate the good fortune of having parents with “relatively good jobs—mom [Mary] as an elementary school teacher, dad [Mike] on a ferry.”
Born on Bell Island, Allan and his family moved to the town of Goulds in St. John’s, N.L. when he was only a few years old. As the youngest of four children (after Michelle, Greg and Lenore), he says he “was raised by the village of my family.” Given how much younger he is than his siblings, he describes the scenario as more like having five parents than a mother, father and three siblings. That dynamic persists to this day. “No matter how much I accomplish in my life, my siblings still treat me like a little brother,” he says.
Not that there aren’t positives to growing up with elder siblings. For one thing, he says, “you get the benefit of their experience and the benefit of learning from all the mistakes they made.” For another, it you get an in-house guide to TV marathons, helping you find all the best shows to watch, and teaching you how to properly critique them. As kids, Allan and Lenore bonded over countless hours of watching 80s shows and 70s re-runs, like Miami Vice, V, Magnum, P.I., Simon & Simon and WKRP in Cincinnati—his favourite, to this day.
“Over the years, I often questioned whether I should have been spending that much time watching television,” he says. “But now that I’ve made a career out of studying and watching television for as long as I can remember, I realize it was probably a great thing for me.”
As Allan subconsciously observed and absorbed the skills and talents of artists on TV, he was also surrounded by heaps of real-life artistic talent, right in his own backyard. On his street alone, there were, of course, him and his brother Greg Hawco, now a successful film and television composer (including for Republic of Doyle); Keith Power, another composer, who counts The Fast & the Furious and Iron Man films among his credits; and world renowned operatic tenor David Pomeroy. At the same time, Goulds was also home to Siminovitch Prize-winning director Jillian Keiley, who is currently Artistic Director for the National Arts Centre’s English Theatre; Governor General’s Award-winning playwright Robert Chafe; actor Neil Butler; and novelist Wayne Johnston.
That’s “just a taste” of some of the many great artists to come from Goulds, says Allan. And it doesn’t even touch on Petty Harbour, from whence Kickass Canadian Alan Doyle hails—among others.
In spite of having such a staggering number of neighbouring artists, Allan had a complex about believing he could pursue a career in the arts; to him, it was unattainable. “When I was young I didn’t really think that people where I come from could be an actor or make a living as a creative person,” he says. “Now, it seems so strange that I ever thought that, because so many Newfoundlanders are part of our cultural landscape in Canada.”
When Allan was about nine years old, he walked in on a gym rehearsal of the Christmas pageant his school was putting on. Immediately, he asked himself, “Why am I not in this?” It was his earliest memory of knowing he wanted to be an actor. Yet he kept it to himself, adoring the performers on his favourite TV shows but never imagining he could one day do what they did.
It took a teacher at St. Kevin’s High School, Tony Duffainais, to recognize Allan’s potential as a performer and truly give him the incurable acting bug. But Tony’s faith in him wasn’t enough for Allan to overcome his insecurity about being able to make it in the industry. So he gamely made his way through high school; he completed assignments, held down various jobs on the side, and was even school president during his final year. And after graduating in 1994, he eventually enrolled in the business program at Memorial University.
“I thought I should put my dreams away and focus on reality,” he says. “It was the worst advice I could have given myself.”
While attending Memorial, he dabbled in community theatre. His first role was in a Shakespeare by the Sea production of Macbeth; he had only one line, but the experience introduced him to the “really high-end amateur theatre” in his community, and let him know that he was finally where he belonged.
“I realized I was in the right place and everything else I had been doing was a waste of my time,” he says. “I remember telling my sister Michelle that I’d been doing all these other things—playing hockey, working on all these jobs, doing taekwondo, being in a band and the choir—and I wasn’t confident about anything else I was doing in my life except for acting, and I knew it was what I wanted.”
All three of his siblings were “extremely encouraging” of his acting and made it clear he’d be miserable if he didn’t pursue it. He recalls Lenore telling him: “You don’t want to end up being the funniest guy in the office who should have been an actor.”
Casting the net further afield
Even with his sisters’ support, and buoyed by his time with Shakespeare by the Sea, Allan wasn’t quite ready to go all in. So he stayed at Memorial for his first semester. And he kept working full-time at a local bakery to support himself, until a customer walked in and changed everything.
“I was telling this guy—whose name I don’t know, to this day—about my acting aspirations, and I that I wanted to apply to Memorial’s theatre program at Grenfell,” he says. “The guy stopped me mid-sentence and said: ‘If you’re going to pursue that business, do not do it halfway. It’s too challenging a business. Go in all the way. Apply to the most famous and the best theatre school in the world, and go there.’”
So he did. (Although he’s quick to point out that Grenfell offers an excellent theatre program, one that has produced countless great actors.) Of the thousands of students who auditioned for Montreal, Quebec’s National Theatre School (NTS) in 1997, Allan was among the 13 accepted to the English program. And from the minute he arrived at NTS, he knew there was no going back.
“I decided I was never going to have another full-time job that wasn’t acting,” he says. “I did lots of part-time things here and there to survive through the dry, dry, dry years, but I would not take a job as a bartender or as a waiter or anything that would bring me real income, because I was afraid that I would give up on my dream.”
With that laser-sharp focus and unrelenting commitment, he threw himself into the world of theatre. Never one for academia in the past (he calls his Memorial grades “abysmal”), Allan was suddenly keen to learn more about politics, history and “anything that had to do with studying the theatre—what inspired different types of plays and art,” he says. “Once I had a connection to it, I felt I had to fully embrace it.” He also dove headlong into writing, something he’d done only idly before NTS.
After graduating in 2000, Allan immersed himself in the audition circuit. But he quickly found that acting in other people’s stories wasn’t all it would take to make him happy; he needed to take control of his own story.
“I was really negative and I was unhappy with the roles I was getting, and I was developing a resentment for people for not seeing me the way I wanted to be seen,” he says. “I was developing spite and bitterness, which is extremely dangerous in our business. And I was 24; I was too young to be bitter. I wanted to break myself out of that.”
In great company
Refusing to cow down to fear of failure—in fact, emboldened by the prospect of staring fear in the face—Allan and fellow actor Philip Riccio co-founded The Company Theatre in Toronto, Ontario in 2005, with the idea of presenting works that were creatively challenging and took bold artistic risks. Their inaugural production, A Whistle in the Dark, which featured Allan and Phil among its cast of eight, earned raves for the company and landed Allan the coveted Birdland Young Actor Award.
“(A Whistle in the Dark) is a very intense and extremely driven piece of theatre,” he says of the Irish play, “and the part (of Harry Carney) offered me everything I wanted to achieve as an actor at the time. It was perfect for me.”
What was also perfect was the lucky hiring of Jason Byrne, an Irish theatre director known for his experimental work. He fell into The Company Theatre’s lap by “fluke,” as Allan tells it; Jason was the only person who called them back from a list of other prospects, and when he showed up in Toronto to direct the play, it just happened that he’d been wanting to try a theatrical approach that perfectly matched what Allan and Phil had envisioned.
“That strange mix-up of luck and opportunity, and absolute fluke, changed the course of my life forever,” says Allan. “Jason opened me up as an actor, the community saw me as a different type of actor, and people saw me the way I wanted to be seen… It would have been very different if we’d had another director direct us the way I’d always been directed. It was a shock to my system in the best possible way and I did the best work that I’d ever done. It was a miracle.”
Allan speaks about the experience with such reverence that it begs the question of whether he believes in fate or divine intervention. In a word, “No.” But he does believe this: “Put it out there, do the best you can, and good things will happen.” Or, to put it another way, he borrows the words of the great Don Cherry: “Good things happen when you go to the net.”
“Few people have the passion for the arts and home like Allan. He’s one of those guys who’s completely supportive of anybody chasing what seems impossible, as he’s been doing it his whole life.” —Kickass Canadian, singer and author Alan Doyle
Take the shot
Whatever apprehensions Allan had in his youth about pursuing his dreams, they’re gone now. He has no problem racing up to the net to take whatever shot comes to mind.
“If people tell me the idea I’m pursuing is impossible, that’s when I know that it’s not impossible, it’s just really difficult; and anything worth doing is probably going to be really difficult,” he says. “I think I might have been driven by fear of being a failure in the industry when I was younger, but I think that fear demon has hopefully been put to bed.”
So when he decided to bring life to his idea for a TV show about a father and son P.I. team in St. John’s, he had no reservations about forming Take the Shot Productions to make it happen. With Allan serving as the show’s creator, executive producer, head writer and star (as Jake Doyle), Republic of Doyle debuted in 2010; it has gone on to air in nearly 100 countries and be nominated for a slew of Gemini Awards (now the Canadian Screen Awards).
Take the Shot has garnered critical acclaim for its other productions, too, including the hit factual series Majumder Manor; the Alan Doyle documentary Boy on Bridge; and HBO Canada’s Shaun Majumder, Every Word Is Absolutely True. But all that success wouldn’t mean much to Allan if his fellow Newfoundlanders didn’t embrace him, and particularly Republic of Doyle, the way they do.
“If people here didn’t like the show, generally, that would have broken my heart,” he says. “I think part of the reason why the show is successful, and part of the reason why I have any career at all, is the sheer luck of having been brought up in this culture and living here.”
“What Republic of Doyle has done for Newfoundland and Labrador goes far beyond the weekly show. It has showcased the province and its citizens in vibrant, active light, highlighted to the rest of the country the incredible talent in the province, and made us all proud to watch.” —Kickass Canadian, Team Broken Earth founder and proud Newfoundlander Dr. Andrew Furey
Go big AND go home
When Allan first left The Rock for theatre school in Montreal, his lifelong commitment to acting wasn’t the only thing that was solidified; his love for his homeland became etched in stone.
“I didn’t realize until I moved to Montreal how different my experience had been growing up in Newfoundland,” he says. “I realized how lucky I was and what a beautiful experience it is to grow up in this place. The landscape is one thing, because we’re all flung to the rocks and survival is a thing that’s just bred in you, that’s in your DNA; you have an understanding that you have to do what it takes to get along in the world. And there’s an overall sense of community here, which lends itself to an incredible amount of generosity. People are just so good to each other, from common decency right to absolute generosity; it’s abound and it’s so special.”
Republic of Doyle recently wrapped its sixth and final season, which is currently airing on CBC. But although Allan and his co-producers decided it was time to finish the show, to avoid “pushing the creative envelope too far,” he has every intention of staying grounded on The Rock.
Take the Shot’s creative power players—producers Perry Chafe, Rob Blackie and John Vatcher—are all working on other projects under the St. John’s-based company’s umbrella. And looking further down the road, says Allan, “We’re developing lots of television and film material for various networks across Canada.”
Jake Doyle or no Jake Doyle, Newfoundland has definitely not seen Allan take his last shot.
Luck of the island
Since announcing that Season 6 would be Doyle’s last, Allan has taken the time to flex some different acting muscles on a trio of projects. He starred in a six-part mini-series adaptation of Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, which will air January 2015 on CBC in Canada and on Black Entertainment Television (BET) in the U.S. “I play a British 19th Century slave trader—a massive departure for me,” he says. He also performed in a Company Theatre production of Bellevile, and is in the midst of shooting Paul Gross’ film Hyena Road, due out sometime next year.
“It’s been fun to be an actor again, I’ll tell you that,” says Allan. “I’m having to relearn a whole series of skills that went dormant for awhile, or that I was distracted from with all my other duties on Doyle.”
And that charitable work Andrew Furey mentions at the top of this article? Allan also makes time to help support Foster a Future and Stella’s Circle, two St. John’s-based non-profit initiatives that help address the province’s “critical shortage of foster homes” and “look after young adults and adults who have lost their way,” respectively.
He signed on as the spokesperson for Foster a Future in 2012, after his sister Michelle became regional director for Newfoundland and Labrador’s Child, Youth and Family Services and reminded him of the great need for more foster care. “I hadn’t thought about foster care since I was a kid,” he says. “Growing up, I had girlfriends who were in foster care, lots of my friends were in foster care; it was a common thing in my neighbourhood… And I know there was a massive stigma attached to children in foster care, and to the program in general. I knew that if I could bring awareness to it, and if people in Newfoundland and Labrador found out about the issues in foster care—that all these kids were in dire need of help—they would want to step up. So that’s why I jumped on board immediately and I will be their spokesperson for as long as I’m valuable to them.”
Through his work for Stella’s Circle, Allan sees a clear link between foster care and people who wind up dealing with “mental illness, drug addiction or all sorts of stigmatized issues.” In both cases, he says, “there’s an element of people not wanting to think about or talk about the issues. And both cases involve people who need our help. I think if more people knew that they only had to do a little in order to literally change people’s lives, they would be lining up to help; and luckily, they have.”
Given his keen awareness of the struggles other people face, and appreciation for his own good fortune, it’s not surprising that he doesn’t think it right to ask for anything more. “I literally wrote a list for myself when I was about 25 of the 10 things I wanted to accomplish in my career,” he says, without revealing what any of those things are. “I’ve been so lucky; of the 10 things on my list, I’ve accomplished nine, and the last one is completely unimportant to me now.
“I’ve gotten to a place where I feel like I’m one of the luckiest people in the business and one of the luckiest people alive. I’ve got a great wife [CBC journalist Carolyn Stokes], I’ve got a great life, I have fantastic partners, fantastic friends—I have the best friends in the world, the nicest, kindest, most interesting people. I’ve got it all right now. For me, thinking about wanting anything else would be just too much and I think I’d be pushing my luck. So I’m just going to keep doing the things I love.”
* * *
For the latest on Allan, follow @allanhawco on Twitter.
Thank you to Allan’s Executive Assistant, Leslie Pope, for making this interview possible.