Don’t you wish there was a more convenient place to vent your frustrations? Making an appointment, organizing transportation, the shuffling of human traffic, the awkwardness of making eye contact and reading body languages… just to get to a therapist. Sometimes you need therapy to talk about your trip to the therapist office… it happened to a friend of mine. However, if you’re perfectly balanced, you ate that oyster that represented the world and you’ve climbed to the top of the rock wall at your local rec center, maybe you’ve never heard of therapy, self-help, counselling… hypnosis… incarceration?
My very good friend and I believe that therapy has its place in society but our society has turned itself upside down in this last year. I’m no sailor but I think someone needs to check on the ballast levels… balance has become a thing of the past, man overboard, we are out of life-savers and the ship is sinking! Okay, so in my friend’s mind, the ship is sinking… but he has a friend in me, when life goes south and he starts visiting the hardware store for fish hooks and a rope (don’t ask). The point is, life gets tough when change doesn’t come easy. You’re not alone though, mental health affects 60 % of the population that is willing to admit it. For the other 20 % (my best guesstimation) there is no need to feel shame or ridicule, we’re not robots… yet and John Wayne cried a few times… my friend saw it.
Speaking about therapy… there is a brand spankin new show that I need to tell you about called, Trigger Me. It stars Gabrielle Miller (Corner Gas, The Good Witch, Down River) as the therapist (Pamela) that is forced to treat her clients (Mercy, Jayme, Lennon) through Zoom due to the Covid pandemic. The series explores diverse issues that we find difficult to discuss without group get togethers and physical socializing. The issues discussed on this series are personal, they affect minorities but they should be important to all of us, if we are to claim that we are truly a diverse country then actions speak louder than words and I believe in aggressive action rather than a passive ripple effect… but change comes slow, which is most unfortunate for those yearning it the most. Let’s all hang on a little longer, clear skies are in the forecast.
This 6-part digital series is the brainchild of award-winning writer/director Benjamin Ratner and the rest of the cast include Jennifer Spence (You Me Her, Traces), Natalie Farrow (iZOMBIE, The Flash), Favour Onwuka (The Order), and Elliot Ramsey (UnREAL and Occult Anonymous) among others. Although I’ve only seen a trailer, Gabrielle’s character as a therapist was spot on. Benjamin and Gabrielle have had a long standing relationship and he has so much confidence in his actors. He knows their limitations, how to bring out their best performance, while writing to it. His background as an acting coach and intuitive writer has prepared him for this production and the timing could not be better. With 6 episodes in the can, he has had much interest and we are sure to hear about the release very soon.
Without further ado… the interview.
HNM “This is a very unique show, I watched the trailer and found it very funny and fascinating. Some of these characters stories are based on real life experiences. What was the writing process like?”
BENJAMIN “The stories were a jumping off point. They’re inspired by the actors, and for Gabe’s (Gabrielle Miller) character, it’s obviously not based on her real life. I certainly wrote the part for Gabe, because we’ve worked together before and I feel like we have a creative understanding of how to find that tone between drama and comedy. I think her Pamela character is a little inspired by me, because during the writing process I was the one connecting to my acting students online, so my connection to the outside world was primarily, through these younger people – who educated me, on some of the things that were going on in the world through their perspectives. I will say, that I don’t believe that this is Elliot’s true story about the events of his characters story… but it’s certainly Elliot’s ideas and Elliot’s philosophy on some of the issues, particularly around gender and race that come up in the show.”
Benjamin continued to describe the development of the other two characters, Lennon and Favour. The character Lennon (Natalie Farrow) is based on a student of Benjamin’s that talked to him about TIK TOK, which he knew nothing about. He didn’t want to be the old cranky – judgy guy, so he watched her videos and said, ‘she is really talented’. She was using her skills to put up some really interesting, funny content. He admits, if he were in his early twenties and Tik Tok was around, he too would try to reach millions, rather than dozens. Benjamin continues to tell me that the character, Mercy (Favour Onwuka) is the one character, most closely based on true-events. It had been a very challenging day – George Floyd had been recently killed and my students and I were all turning our screens on for a Zoom class. There were 7 white faces and Favour Onwuka. We were very aware of the discomfort as we best tried to understand the best way to approach it.
HNM “It sounds like a lot of personal stories came out of this project. Was there a lot of collaboration between you and the cast?”
BENJAMIN “There certainly was and I would love Elliot to speak on how we were able to create Jayme’s character and the things that happen to them.”
ELLIOT “Benjamin called me up one day to tell me about this project he was working on. He told me that he wanted to do an arc about gender, and then – not really knowing how to phrase it, asked… Elliot, what’s your gender? (Laughter) Although it’s something I’ve always lived with but hadn’t defined because, to a certain extent – I find it a very difficult thing to define. I wanted to portray a character, that is non-binary and frustrated with the way non-binary and gender are defined and talked about. Gender – represented by the superficial characteristics on our bodies that should somehow dictate the ways in which we behave and comport ourselves. Jayme is a young educated, fresh out of university, is in an internship and acting cultural editor at a Lifestyle Magazine. He’s trying to use his little platform to dismantle the institution of gender itself. It really came from my own irritations with the way non-binariness is framed, to suggest that it’s a mix of masculinity and femininity, but I believe everyone is a mix of these things. We have Jayme trying to shift the conversation away from identity politics, towards gender – as we’ve conceived of it – is problematic and not equitable, so let’s go back to the social drawing board. I think he’s bitten off much more than he can chew.”
HNM “I think it’s terrific Benjamin, that you are taking up the torch and addressing some of these issues that people are talking about in silence.”
BENJAMIN “Thank you, but I think I’m handing the torch and matches to people like Elliot to run with it. You can hear that Elliot has a lot to say and articulate, so for me – I don’t want to try to speak for other people in that way. That was an important part of this project, in the spirit of authentic diversity and mentorship – to facilitate/create an environment where people can speak for themselves. We want to share stories, to hopefully activate some new ways of thinking. What’s ironic, is that Gabe’s character (Pamela) is in a long distant relationship with a character, Nicky – played by my wife Jennifer Spence, who left yesterday to shoot a TV show in England for 4 months. Now I’m in Pamela’s place, in having a Zoom relationship with my partner. A relationship during the pandemic – via Zoom, is new ground for all of us.”
HNM “This is for Gabrielle. With your character being a therapist on the brink of madness, was there any life experiences that you were able to draw from, that you were able to bring to the character?”
GABRIELLE “Not tied to therapy necessarily, but if you work in that field, I think it’s about emotional understanding and connection that gestates that closeness – to be able to look into someone’s face and be in their space, seeing the drastic change up close. Having to do that from a computer has been a huge adjustment for Pamela. I love that Ben wrote this character that is really good at helping people work through their stuff with them, while having a high understanding for other people. She isn’t necessarily good at helping herself with her own mental health, however. It’s super exciting to be working on a project with Ben, we’ve had a long friendship and a long history of working together. Ben was telling me stories about the sh@t young people are going through and dealing with in their world – so to be part of this project makes me very happy.”
HNM “What was the biggest motivation in starting this project?”
BENJAMIN “A friend of mine (Jack Ong) that executive produced my film, Down River (Gabrielle Miller, Jennifer Spence) suggested to me that I make a Zoom quarantine show. At that time, I had no interest in that because quarantine for me, was sitting home and eating spaghetti with my wife/best friend and I didn’t feel like I had a story that I needed to tell. It wasn’t until… we started these Zoom classes with these young actors I was working with, I started looking at what was happening around the world from a different perspective, through social media and through the news. There’s a quote from a writer, author, psychologist, Viktor Frankl, who is a holocaust survivor that wrote a book called, Mans Search for Meaning. In it, he says that suffering ceases to be suffering when we find meaning. When I read that, I realized that it was really my life story as an artist. All the struggles I go through, the struggles we go through together and the struggles I was watching my students go through. I was really inspired by the bravery of this young generation and older generation, suddenly having the world as you know it… Stop and not know what the future holds. I wasn’t sure if all the stories I’d written and have in development, would ever be relevant again. I realized that what was relevant, was right in front of me 3 nights a week in my Zoom classes. Those are the stories that I was compelled to tell. I guess it’s a way of dealing with all the fear and uncertainty in the world, in a meaningful way in order to feel better.”
HNM “You really have a very diverse cast. Was that part of the mission, to have really diverse stories told?”
BENJAMIN “For me, the only thing I have to offer is authenticity. I couldn’t have set out to do that intentionally, it’s just not how I do things. I can’t calculate a project that way, seeing what comes, what happens… it’s like laying on the bottom of the sea waiting for fish. The fish that did come are sitting in this frame (Zoom screens) and they happened to land. Those characters/people represented different things that were very relevant at the time. Once my collaborators and producers started working on this, we realized that we have a very relevant story here, in terms of gender diversity and ethnic diversity – different voices talking about different things that are important and relevant. Another important part of this was mentorship and putting together a crew that was very young and talented but not necessarily experienced. For the past 30 years I’ve gotten used to making films with old white guys with sore backs, but that’s not what we had on this crew. I’m hoping that this project will take their career to the next level too.”
HNM “It seems to lend itself well to character arcs, since we begin at the beginning of the pandemic, I’m assuming?”
BENJAMIN “We take it from the beginning – the idea is from the journey I went on, everything changed… the way I saw life and the way I lived in the beginning, but then you gradually get used to it, then it gets hard, then you go back to getting used to it. It’s the rollercoaster of the experience.”
HNM “Have you had anymore interest in getting your show onto a bigger landscape/network to find your audience?”
BENJAMIN “We have a lot of options right now, which is a great thing about this project. Having people like Gabe and Elliot come on and take a leap of faith/get behind something, the momentum that occurs is unstoppable – you’re going to make the project and tell the story. We can either put this thing out ourselves or it can go to a completely different level. One recent development is an executive producer that’s come on board, Richard J. Lewis. He’s and executive producer and director on HBO’s Westworld. We’ve known each other for a while and he’s seen some of what we’ve done. We’ve talked about working together but finally the timing worked out. Richard, along with our other executive producers is going to run with it. We’ve been showing it to production companies and have quite a bit of interest. Everything is about timing and either way, the shows going out there.”
HNM “How long is each episode?”
BENJAMIN “Right now, each episode is sitting between 10-15 minutes and we have six for the web format. All the episodes run in chronological order and are serialized. It could run as a movie or it could run as 20-30 min episodes.”
In moving forward in the interview, Benjamin flipped the script and asked Elliot where he would like to see his character going next. He had a great answer.
ELLIOT “This isn’t a mandate or a request, but on the last day that I shot, it was my first and only day I’d shot with Natalie and Favour. It was so great to finally meet them and we all clicked. Other than 1 Zoom table read, we hadn’t met at all but instead would work in our respected corners on our own arcs that would intersect with Gabe (therapist). I think that, in the early stages of this… we thought we might intersect and be friends. In coming episodes, I would love to have Jayme meet Mercy and Lennon in some capacity.”
BENJAMIN “I love that idea. When we go into season two, we don’t know how the world will change, so I would imagine that if Gabe’s character were to return to her office, then that would open up a lot of opportunities for the characters to collide.”
GABRIELLE “I love that too. I was thinking the same thing… if we’re going back to in person meetings, that would be exciting because it would open up opportunities for her to connect on another level with her clients that she hadn’t been able to before, as well as getting a flavour for life again outside of their homes, which is perfect for what we’re doing.”
HNM “This is a very unique way to be directing a storyline/series?”
BENJAMIN “I’ve always been fortunate to be able to work collaboratively with people. When I did Down River, I wrote the lead parts for Gabe, Colleen Rennison and my wife, Jennifer Spence. We were lucky and got Helen Shaver and some other great actors to play the other leads. I like writing for specific people because I know that they can take it further than I can. I have a lot of confidence and faith in the actors I work with and they have to believe that its all going to be worth it. We haven’t even released it, but I’d do it all over again because of the experience of going through it. Vancouver as a setting, presents so many opportunities and issues that I’d like to explore more. I’d like to see Lennon, who’s mother is an alcoholic and drug-user, volunteering on the downtown east side and getting her mind blown. I’d also like to see a young kid from Hong Kong living alone in a big house and seeing what that experience is like. I’d like to address homelessness; I have a student that was living in his van, coming to class and nobody knew they were homeless. Those are a few specific Vancouver issues but the challenge with this show will be finding the humour and the humanity in that – not making it a big bummer. That’s what I think makes this show unique and different from anything else out there. We want to be authentic; we want to tell the truth but we have to find that balance between the light and dark, we have to tell both sides of the story.”
Both Elliot and Gabrielle were extremely candid and authentic throughout… and I wish I had more time to engage – but Zoom has its limits and I know we will talk again… someday. I want to encourage you all to watch this series in the hopes that you can take something away, that makes you feel a little better.