The business of being Mr. Lahey

Originally published with Smile Politely on May 26, 2015.

When John Dunsworth drives around his native Nova Scotia, Canada, there’s a likely chance one of his children will hear about it. “Sometimes people phone my children and say, ‘You better get your dad off the street. He’s driving around drunk,’” he says.

For the record, Dunsworth isn’t drinking and driving. “It’s a lot of silliness,” he says. “[My kids] laugh because I don’t drink.” Dunsworth’s notoriety in the province (and really everywhere else he goes) has much to do with a certain character he plays on beloved TV show Trailer Park Boys. Set in Nova Scotia, Trailer Park Boys is a mockumentary following Sunnyvale Trailer Park residents Ricky, Julian and Bubbles, who often concoct harebrained schemes to make money only to land in jail as a result of many (many) screw-ups. As Jim Lahey, Sunnyvale Trailer Park’s supervisor and the show’s original, primary antagonist turned doddering drunk, Dunsworth plays the character so well and has become so well known across Canada and the U.S. for his portrayal that it’s no wonder people conflate the two.

The 69-year old actor couldn’t be more separate from Mr. Lahey. Where Lahey connives, Dunsworth thoughtfully pontificates; where Lahey continuously seeks out his next “drinky-poo,” Dunsworth prefers to spend time doing stone work on his land; where Lahey exudes a brand of physical comedy that brings to mind Buster Keaton, Dunsworth’s deep and soothing voice displays none of that wild physicality.

This is, after all, the business of acting. Actors take on roles, climbing into a character’s personality and wearing them for a brief time. Typically, audiences understand the distinction between character and the person portraying them. But when the portrayal is so gosh darn good and it stems from a cult sensation like Trailer Park Boys, where creator Mike Clattenburg fully developed this intricate world, it makes sense that, for fans, seeing Dunsworth is seeing Lahey.

Dunsworth and Patrick Roach, who plays Lahey’s assistant trailer park supervisor and sometimes lover Randy, use their characters’ popularity to their advantage. The two will be going on tour, stopping in Champaign on May 28 to perform at The Highdive. “We’ve been doing it for close to a dozen years in Canada, and then a couple of weeks ago our agent put out a blast in the States and we got overwhelming response,” Dunsworth explains.

How exactly do characters that originated on a TV show that itself began as a short film segue to the stage? “It’s based on Trailer Park, but it’s a lot of silliness, is what it is,” Dunsworth laughs. “We do a little stand-up, and we do a skit and we sing some songs, and we talk a little bit about Trailer Park, and we try to involve the audience a little bit with some make believe product that we’re pretending that we sell. Every show’s a bit different. It depends on the audience. Sometimes we get into a little bit of politics and sometimes we don’t. It’s a lot of fun. People find it very amusing.”

“I believe in variety,” he continues. “For example, if you’re talking to the audience one moment and then you break out into a skit, it keeps people interested. You can’t let the audience get ahead of you. You have to be a little bit ahead of them. If one minute I’m guzzling alcohol and the next minute I’m ranting against Hilary Clinton, that’s going to keep them awake.”

Trailer Park Boys’ characters aren’t strangers to live performance. Netflix released Live in Fuckin’ Dublin and Live at the North Pole, two specials featuring the three central protagonists, Ricky (Robb Wells), Julian (John Paul Tremblay) and Bubbles (Mike Smith), and are essentially filmed versions of their live shows.

The live show with Lahey and Randy harkens back to Dunsworth’s theatrical roots. “I spent the first 25 years doing live theatre, and then in the mid-80s I started a casting company,” he says. Although he loved the experience theater offered him, he wanted something more long lasting. He says, “You spend four weeks rehearsing a play and then you spend a month doing it and then it’s gone forever. But when you do film, you can put it on your shelf, and when you’re 80 years old, you can pass it on to your kids, or your grandkids and there it is. That appealed to me at the time.”

If legacy were ever a concern, Dunsworth has sealed his fate with Mr. Lahey. For American viewers, Trailer Park Boys first appeared on BBC America. Although the series ended in 2007, a number of films and specials kept the characters alive. Netflix eventually began streaming episodes and based on their popularity ordered two new seasons (Seasons 8 and 9) produced. Those went over so well that starting in early June, everyone heads to work on Season 10. “We have several more seasons in us,” Dunsworth assures. “It’s original. It’s not a copycat. I think the characters are…I think they have staying power. Also, the writing of the show, it continually seems to be in a micro way re-inventing itself all the time.”

Part of that reinvention exudes a soap opera quality in that, when it comes to their relationships, characters have a tendency to switch things up. For example, when the series begins, Lahey lives with his wife Barbara, Sunnyvale’s owner. After the two split thanks to Lahey falling off the wagon and onto Randy, Barbara begins dating Sam Losco, a greasy bastard no one in the park likes. Meanwhile, Barbara and  Lahey both have crushes on Julian, which he uses to his advantage over the seasons. Randy later dates Lucy, Ricky’s ex, and later pursues a relationship with Donna (a cross-dressing man named Don). In between this mixing, Lahey and Barbara try again, which never fully takes because his attraction to Randy is too strong.

For a show whose audience may have been less sexually progressive at the time, Mr. Lahey’s relationship with Randy comes as a surprising point of acceptance. Not only in terms of viewers but for characters in the park as well. It’s one of the most refreshing (although admittedly dysfunctional) male relationships portrayed onscreen, because it exists beyond labels. “I think it’s because, well, nowadays you hear so much about people talking about why they’re this, and we never did do that,” Dunsworth explains. “We just showed up in weird costumes. In season 9, Randy’s a bunny and I’m Lahey Crockett,” he chuckles, recalling a scene where Barbara stumbles in to find the two in a compromising position, replete with costumes and all. Rather than label and define the couple’s relationship, Trailer Park Boys simply puts it out there, and everyone onscreen and off goes along with it. Ricky, Julian and Bubbles even use Lahey and Randy’s off-again status to their advantage by trying to reunite the pair for their own purposes.

The bond Dunsworth shares onscreen with Roach  comes across off-screen in his admiration for the actor.  “He’s one of the funniest guys,” Dunsworth says. “I  mean sometimes I can hardly contain myself, because  when he goes off, he’s one of the funniest guys in the  world.” When the two perform live together, “[Roach]  stays in character pretty well. I jump in and out, but  people can’t tell because they just assume I’m drunk.“

In addition to playing Mr. Lahey, Dunsworth also  keeps his dramatic skills sharp. He currently plays  Dave Teagues on sci-fi series Haven, and a priest on  Forgive Me. If you think switching between roles and genres is tough, Dunsworth is a professional all the way down the line. “You have to know your dialogue, and I’m proud to say that I take learning my dialogue very seriously,” he says. “It takes me longer than anyone else, because I’m getting old. When I was younger, I was much quicker but now for a two-minute monologue, it’ll take me a day to memorize it. “

Never one to settle in a role, Dunsworth recently completed his first book, Dicshitnary. “It’s not just about fecal matter, it’s a literary kind of thing. It makes fun of poetry and religion and politics and the whole business.” Having enjoyed the experience so much, he’s at work on his second. “It’s a mystery and I’m almost finished. It’s a kind of whodunit.” Dunsworth finds the creative control he exerts as a writer an interesting and welcome, challenge. “You’re in charge,” he says. “For Trailer Park, there is a little bit of license. And sometimes I come up with my own ideas and the writers say ‘yeah’ or ‘nay.’ But when you’re writing your own book you can do whatever you like.”

After finishing his tour with Roach, the two will head back to Nova Scotia to begin work on Season 10 of Trailer Park Boys. For the talented Dunsworth, wearer of many hats both creative and productive, Trailer Park Boys continues to be a project he thoroughly enjoys. “I love the whole thing. I mean, all the people that are in the cast are great to play with,” he says. Jonathan Torrens, who plays white rapper J-Roc, now writes for the show and sometimes directs. “He’s really fun to be around,” Dunsworth says. “He’s one of the funniest men I ever met.”

If the series’ trajectory is any indication, Season 10 promises to be even wilder. “Snoop Dogg’s going to be in season 10,” teases Dunsworth.

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