TORONTO – Jay Baruchel has a Canadian flag tattooed on his heart — but sometimes it seems the Maple Leaf might as well be etched across the motor-mouthed actor’s lips.
His new hybrid heist flick “The Art of the Steal” is a cross-border caper set against the inimitable backdrop of Niagara Falls, Ont. And really, it’s set there — not Niagara Falls dressed to look like some generically tourist-friendly town someplace vaguely in the U.S. — and on the Canadian side, no less.
It’s an important point to the 31-year-old Montreal native.
“I’m just sick of watching Canadian movies with Canadian actors and Canadian backdrops and then they exchange money and it’s American cash,” said the excitable star during a promotional whisk through the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film premiered ahead of its cross-Canada opening on Friday.
This comment raises the attention of writer-director Jonathan Sobol, seated next to him.
Given that the film — which casts Kurt Russell as a reformed criminal-turned-motorcycle daredevil who’s pried from that depressing gig by the promise of one more big score — explicitly needs to take place on both sides of the border, it makes sense that characters’ wallets would be packed with more than just American greenbacks.
Still, it was apparently an issue.
“I didn’t tell you this, but when we were onset one day and Kurt (in character) had to give his lady money —” Sobol begins.
“I bet there was a convo,” Baruchel interjects.
“Well, I got pulled aside,” replies Sobol, nodding. “I mean, like, of course, you’re in Canada, you use Canadian money.”
“Why the (hell) wouldn’t you?” says Baruchel, in fact using a harsher profanity.
Sobel responds: “But then there was a little huddle. They’re pulling me over. I’m like, no, what?”
Asked to explain the anxiety over Canadian currency appearing onscreen, an exasperated Baruchel takes over.
“They seem to think that the moment Americans see Canadian cash on the screen, no matter how long they’ve watched the movie already, they’ll say: ‘Aw, (screw) this then!’”
In this case, Baruchel and Sobol stuck to their guns — or, to use a more appropriate cliche, put their money where their mouths were.
The film, which features a sparkling international cast including British Oscar nominee Terence Stamp, Americans Matt Dillon and Russell and Canadian supporting players including Katheryn Winnick, Chris Diamantopoulos and arch “Daily Show” vet Jason Jones, doesn’t try to hide its setting, in fact basking in Niagara Falls’ kaleidoscopic carnival. (They also shot in Hamilton).
At least one of those Americans in the cast was mystified by any anxiety over “The Art of the Steal” looking too Canadian.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with anything,” Russell bristled. “Movies, where they’re shot, makes zero difference to the audience. What the audience is looking for is a show-me experience. Show me that this is entertaining.”
Increasingly, it seems as though filmmakers are banking on exactly that.
At the recently completed Toronto film festival, several buzzed-about films anchored by major international stars were both shot and set in Canada, including Denis Villeneuve’s Toronto-set, Jake Gyllenhaal-starring psychodrama “Enemy,” Don McKellar’s uproarious “The Grand Seduction,” which cast “Friday Night Lights” heartthrob Taylor Kitsch as a doctor docked in a Newfoundland fishing village, and Michael Dowse’s Daniel Radcliffe-headlined romantic comedy “The F Word,” which so lovingly filmed Toronto-specific idiosyncrasies, it couldn’t have been mistaken for another city.
Still, Baruchel argues that rooting Canadian films in Canada is still a problem for some — including Canadians.
“I remember when ‘The Trotsky’ came out,” he says, referring to his 2009, Montreal-set comedy about an eccentric high-schooler leading a student rebellion.
“All the reviews were like: ‘Ohh, some of the Montreal inside jokes will take some getting used to.’ I was just like, what inside jokes? We reference the town we were shooting in…. We got a lot of flack. More in Canada than the States. Americans just watched it.”
When Sobol says he optimistically hopes the tide is turning, Baruchel responds: “If you leave it alone and don’t make it too much of an issue — if you don’t oversell the Canadian-ness — you’re OK, usually.”
In fact, Baruchel has long been critical of homegrown stars who turn their backs on homegrown fare.
It’s a position that seems to mean more as the “Goon” star sees his profile — and opportunities — grow in Hollywood. Earlier this summer, he was among a twinkling cast heading up the raunchy Armageddon smash “This is the End,” and he has upcoming roles in other hotly anticipated properties including the 2014 “Robocop” reboot and two or more sequels in the animated “How to Train Your Dragon” series.
Still, he says he’s determined to continue working on Canadian films, including his own sequel to “Goon.”
“I was in a movie that connected a lot with the Americans this summer, and that means that I can use that and make more (stuff) happen up here maybe,” said Baruchel, who’s still based in Montreal.
“I’m not chasing a brass ring anymore. I’m not trying to be a movie star. I’m so happy with the life that I have right now, and part of that is being up here. And I love movies. So it just comes down to I want to make movies at home. I prefer spending time here than any other country in the world, simple as that.”
He continues: “David Cronenberg’s my idol for a reason. He made the world come to Toronto. He became the Fellini of Toronto. The best talents in the world will come to you if you’re doing stuff that’s good.”
And his advice to Canadian filmmakers fretting about setting films here?
“Turn the camera on, walk down the street,” he said. “Where you’re shooting, that’s where it takes place. Simple as that.”