The Name to Know: Emily Hampshire

Photography by Jason Goodrich

Montreal-born Emily Hampshire is incredibly busy these days starring in two widely popular shows—Schitt’s Creek and 12 Monkeys—and she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I thought I never wanted to do TV, but now I love it,” says the 36-year-old actor. “What I do enjoy about both shows is I feel fully satisfied—I want to live all these lives.” Her outlook and impressive acting chops have landed Hampshire in director Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, one the most anticipated films to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this month. Next January, she’ll be starring in fellow Canadian Xavier Dolan’s star-studded feature, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, where she plays Game of Thrones star Kit Harington’s wife. Here, Hampshire opens up about what impacted her earlier on in her career, the year ahead, and how she plays polar opposites so seamlessly.

Do you remember a performance that had a profound impact on you at the beginning of your career?
“My first real boyfriend was a director. He knew a lot about film history, and the 10 years that we were together felt a lot like a film school. We watched all of John Cassavetes’ movies, which were a huge influence. One movie that was my own discovery was Breaking the Waves. Emily Watson’s performance set the bar for what I wanted to do. I love the duality of characters in life and work—I cannot cry about a thing if I can’t find the funny in it, and I can’t find stuff funny unless it’s tragic. There is a movie I did called The Life Before This, and I think that was the first time I discovered that kind of comedy, or any comedy at all. When I did that movie I played an overweight actress and I had to wear a fat suit. Doing that, I realized “Oh, I have to be funny now,” which is a very female, very awful thing to think. That character made me discover playing more characters.”

You’re starring in Xavier Dolan’s The Death and Life of John F. Donovan. Did you know him before signing on?
“I met him on the set of a movie I did with my best friend, Jacob Tierney. Jacob had seen Xavier’s movies and thought he was brilliant and wanted to cast him in the movie. Xavier had come to my trailer and told me he was moving and was looking for a place to stay. I offered him to stay with me for the weekend, but he ended up staying for about a month! We became best friends and he wrote this part for me—we’ve always wanted to work together. It’s a movie about stardom, and I play John Donovan’s wife, and the two characters have been best friends since they were kids. It was fascinating working with Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, and Kit Harington. Being on that set was about doing your best work and that made you a star—we were all equals the minute the take ended.”

There’s a lot of buzz around the movie Mother!. How was it working with Darren Aronofsky?
“I got the call when I was shooting Xavier’s movie and my agent said, “We can’t tell you what the part is, but would you be interested in acting in Darren Aronofsky’s movie?” I said, “Yes!” At the time it was so under wraps—I couldn’t tell Xavier. Darren made me do improv, and being on set, not knowing what I was doing was insane—no one had a script besides maybe Jennifer Lawrence. When I was in wardrobe once, everyone kept saying,
“It’s a really intense set.” They kept using the word “intense.” On my first day on set, finally understood why they were saying that. Darren has these expectations for everyone that are super high. We really work hard to meet them and hope to rise above them. It’s not like he’s mean, he just expects the best. It was fun not knowing what my part was. It relieved this pressure because, being me, I always over-prepare—at the beginning, I even tried googling what the movie would be about. It was kind of like working with David Cronenberg who was the first director that didn’t really direct you: He casts the right person, lets you do it, and you move on. What’s good in that is it teaches you self-reliance.”

Can you talk a bit about the evolution of your character Stevie in Schitt’s Creek?
“At the beginning of the show, I thought I was just the girl behind the desk. But then I had this friendly relationship with David (Dan Levy) that I loved because I feel like I have that in real life—I have these complicated relationships with all my gay friends. What I’ve realized is that Stevie is part of their family and becoming like a daughter to them. Working with Johnny (Eugene Levy) gives her a sort of father figure and she gives Johnny a different daughter figure who is not Alexis (Annie Murphy). I think Stevie is fascinating because she seems like the most normal girl in the town, but you find out she has different sides to her. She stands out to the audience.”

How did you prepare for your role in 12 Monkeys?
“I felt like I identified with this girl who is in this society of people who deal with mental illness and are always the truthsayers. I felt like Jennifer at her core was the person who said the truth but everyone says she’s crazy. Beyond that, I feel she is this pure love. I think a lot about how she grew up in a mental hospital most of the time. In the script, a lot of her references are from movies—to me, Jennifer is always living in a movie, she’s always taking on a new role. One week she’s the CEO wearing Louboutins and YSL, and the next she’s started a girl gang to do some heist. I love Jennifer and Stevie on different levels. They are such polar opposites and I feel like I couldn’t be complete without them.”

Why do you think there is such a deep connection to the show for fans?
“I think the mythology of the show and time travel is so huge. And it’s very complicated: You have to be so dedicated and smart to understand the storyline of time travel in this kind of show, which is actually quite genius. The writers link something to an episode on season 1 that adds up in season 3—it’s brilliant writing. What is amazing about our show in
particular are the characters. They’re all so rich and human, which is rare on a sci-fi show. I never thought I would like sci-fi because I related it to space and aliens. This show, though, is about these characters trying to form this makeshift family, which is interesting because Schitt’s Creek is kind of like that too.”

How is your creative process different when it comes to TV vs. film?
“I’ve always been an actor who loves to create with the director. I usually work with most of my friends, so I feel like I’m always very involved. With TV, it’s the showrunners’ medium. At first, I was thrown by the directors changing every week but after a while, you realize this is your part, you can share it with these people and this is who you can be creative with. You don’t have the luxury of time on a TV show at all. I found that difficult, but it gives you a very good work ethic.”