Frankie Drake's Lauren Lee Smith talks del Toro and creepy Michael Shannon

By Jim Slotek

With Guillermo del Toro’s award-season buzz-film The Shape Of Water – opening in early December - Canadian actress Lauren Lee Smith learned that even unsuccessful auditions can be valuable.

Smith - who debuts on CBC Nov. 6 as the star of the Frankie Drake Mysteries - first met the Mexican-born director when he was casting for his Toronto-filmed vampire TV series The Strain. (del Toro has done so much shooting here, the nickname “Guillermo Del Toronto” has caught on).

Scheduling conflicts forced her to step away from the series, but she impressed the director enough that, when his Cold War love story about a woman (Sally Hawkins) and a sea-monster went into production, he offered Smith a role as a harried housewife. She’s married to a sadistic government agent played by Michael Shannon, who tortures the exotic lab subject by day and abuses his wife at night.

Lauren Lee Smith in CBC's Frankie Drake Mysteries

Lauren Lee Smith in CBC's Frankie Drake Mysteries

When The Shape Of Water won the Golden Lion Award at Venice, Smith was back in Toronto, playing the title character in Frankie Drake, a private detective in 1920s Hogtown.

Original-Cin’s Jim Slotek talked with Smith about her Shannon/del Toro experience, and about starring in a female-driven series set at a time when women were not yet legally “persons.”

ORIGINAL-CIN: So you missed out on playing a vampire for Guillermo del Toro.

SMITH: “Yeah.” (Laughs). “I missed out on having prosthetics applied to me for hours every day. But I couldn’t believe my luck when I got the call that he was asking if I’d be available to do this role. I was like, ‘Of course! Really?’”

OC: I’ve interviewed Michael Shannon, so I know he’s not really a creep, but something sure happens to him in front of a camera.

SMITH: “I know, right? He just transforms and it’s incredible to watch. And it’s certainly incredible to act opposite.”

Michael Shannon: Nobody does it creepier

Michael Shannon: Nobody does it creepier

OC: Is it disconcerting when you’re in the moment with him?

SMITH: “Very much so. He’s a performer who plays everything on the edge. And you really don’t know where he’s going to go. Each take is completely different and his process is so intense.”

OC: When was your story filmed in the production schedule?

SMITH: “I was actually shooting on the second day, so I was there to start things off. I knew nothing about it going in. I just knew I was coming in to play Michael Shannon’s wife, that we had a very sort of tumultuous relationship and that there was this lead character who falls in love with this creature.

“But I knew being a big fan of all things Guillermo, that this creature would be some sort of absolutely fantastic vision. And really that was all I knew.”

OC: Your character, Elaine, is kind of imprisoned in the marriage.

SMITH: “She kind of is without even realizing it. She puts blinders on to everything and just wants to pretend that everything is fine and cookie-cutter and everything is going to be okay.

“Guillermo has very specific ideas on what he wants and who all his characters are. It’s also pretty incredible to have someone who’s such a visionary and able to conceptualize and tell you exactly what he wants in a way that doesn’t make you feel handcuffed.

“He very much wanted her to be someone who was never bothered. No matter how bad it gets, no matter if it gets violent, a husband has his place and she’s meant to take care of him and please him.”

OC: He comes home at one point missing a finger!

SMITH: (Laughs) “And she’s oblivious. Like, ‘Okay, we better fix that up, just another day.’”

OC: I’m going to give you what might be the ultimate compliment for an actor. You work a lot!

SMITH: (Laughs). “It is a compliment indeed. Thank you. I’ve had a pretty good run lately. When I did Shape Of Water, I was in the middle of shooting a show for the CBC called This Life. They basically gave me a few days off to hop in a car, from Montreal to Toronto, shoot my scenes, which were night shoots. And then I’d go back to set on This Life the next day.”

OC: You’re a Vancouverite, but I guess Toronto is pretty much home for you these days.

SMITH: “Toronto is where I currently live. There hasn’t really been a home base over the last few years. I’ve gone where work has taken me. I spent four years in Toronto doing The Listener. And I was in Montreal for two years. I guess Toronto is the closest thing to home.”

OC: And Frankie Drake is pretty much the opposite of an abused housewife. It’s interesting that it’s a woman-driven show, set at a time we think of as starched and patriarchal.

SMITH: “It is a woman-driven show, and we are definitely not starched and patriarchal. The leads are all females,  which is pretty incredible. And each one in their own way is breaking their own boundaries in whatever field they’re in

Myself and Chantel Riley, who plays Trudy, we are these private  detectives. We have Rebecca Liddiard, who is a (Toronto Police) morality officer. Instead of measuring skirts - which was  basically a morality officers’ job - she works with us to put her actual skills to use.”

“And then we have Flo, who is played by Sharron Matthews, who works in the morgue, and - instead of following the routine and tagging toes - is our inside woman.

“So it’s an interesting, eclectic mix of women who are breaking boundaries, each in their own way.”

OC: And you got to drive a Ford Model T

SMITH: (Laughs) “Yes! A Model T that was the bane of my existence. It gave me so much hell, it caught on fire several times. It is not easy to drive. The brakes were basically non-existent.”