Few actors manage the transition between independent and studio films so effortlessly as Deborah Kara Unger. Since the beginning of her career—in the 1989 miniseries Bangkok Hilton—Unger has alternated between studio films such as Payback and The Game and indies such as Sunshine and Thirteen, the only consistent thing being the quality of the movies and her talent. No matter what the role, Unger brings her intelligence to bear, and any film with her in it is better simply for her presence. Direct-or David Cronenberg may have spotlighted her combination of cool beauty and wit best in his outré film Crash, but Unger does great work for many noted directors, and has already been featured in three films released in 2005: A Love Song for Bobby Long, White Noise, and Emile. Appropriately enough for an actor with such a diverse career, Unger's introduction to the world of acting was offbeat and distinctive.
"I skipped a grade in school," Unger says. "I was helping out a kid in the Christmas play, which was A Christmas Carol. He was Scrooge, and I was helping him memorize his lines. [The student] decided he was sick the night of the performance, and the only person who knew Scrooge's lines was me. So my very first time onstage was as a cross-dresser. I didn't anticipate that. My family are doctors and pilots and people involved in indigenous First Nation land rights; [they're] not overtly artistic."
Unger admits, in the interest of full disclosure, that her initial impetus to become a working actor was not due strictly to a love of the art form.
"I was 15 years old at university, studying economics and philosophy, and I saw a retrospective of Australian film," she says. "They were very raw. Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli; they were fantastic. I thought I had a huge crush on a young Canadian photographer, who was commissioned to go down to Australia to do a series, so I tried to figure out a way to follow him without getting in trouble with my parents, and that was by auditioning for their National Institute. So I flew down and auditioned for NIDA [National Institute of Dramatic Art], and I actually got in, even though they audition 3,000 people a year and take 15. His job didn't work out, he went back to Canada, and I kind of carried on."
Unger's current film, Emile, co-stars Ian McKellen and was written and directed by Carl Bessai. It follows the story of a Canadian-born teacher who has worked most of his life in England. McKellen plays the titular scholar, who has returned home to Canada to receive an honorary degree. While there, he reconnects with his niece Nadia (Unger), who has serious cause to never want to see him at all. It's an emotional yet subtle drama, and it's a showcase role for Unger, who makes the most of the resilient Nadia. When asked what drew her to the project, she has a couple of answers.
"Initially it was meeting Carl," she says. "And then of course knowing that Ian was on board was absolutely central, because he's an extraordinary actor. We shot [the film] in 17 days, and I was also filming Stander in South Africa at the time, and so I flew from Victoria in the Seychelles to Victoria, British Columbia, which ended up being a 36-hour trip or something like that. I remember we were held up at the runway in Kenya because some assholes were taking potshots at British Airways [planes]. I arrived in a very interesting state and went right to the set and started working, because there wasn't time for rehearsal. When you're working with someone like Ian, who's obviously from a theatre background—luckily I had a window of time [working] at the National, where I had the benefit of that type of experience—we just leapt into it and had a great time. There was one day, I remember, where we shot 11 pages in a day. Of course in television—they work so extraordinarily hard—[they'd say,] 'That's not difficult.' I was really grateful to work with someone like Ian, who's also funny."
The most memorable scene in Emile is one in which Nadia very simply tells Emile exactly what her life has been like, and how responsible he has been for her misery. What makes it remarkable is the calm way Unger delivers the monologue, decades of pain hidden behind a simple recital of facts.
"There was a challenge, and I really loved doing that scene," she says. "It was certainly an opportunity for the character to feel sorry for herself, because she's really had quite a horrific and lonely past. I felt sorry for her, but I didn't believe that she felt sorry for herself. That's just the truth that she's known. You see a lot of people who come from much more challenging backgrounds that she has, and I really admire that they don't sit there; they move forward with it. I liked her directness. Inside, when I did that scene, my heart hurt. It really hurt. But just because this man shows up, it's not this Chicken Soup for the Soul moment. I think when we've been really hurt by someone, it takes more than a tap dance for us to open up to them.... I remember when I first read [the scene], I think I got teary because I felt sorry for her, but the thing I had to be very clear on was to not see it from Deborah's point of view."
Up next for Unger are The Shoestring Paradise, with Patricia Clarkson, and another film by Edoardo Ponti, who directed her in Between Strangers. Unger expresses a happiness with her life and craft, and her enthusiasm is infectious.
"That excites me, working with really excellent people, be it wonderful directors or actors or cinematographers and especially writers," she says. "My work life is going to a set and having these great experiences and coming home shifted by them."