For Vancouverites, the name Jim Byrnes is synonymous with two things: television and music. Although born in the United States, Byrnes has been long been a permanent fixture on the Vancouver arts scene, appearing on the small screen in the hit shows Wiseguy and Highlander, as well as winning 2 Juno awards for Blues Album of the Year.
Now, Byrnes can be seen in the feature film Heart of a Dragon, which chronicles his longtime accquiatance Rick Hansen's two-day climb of the Great Wall of China as part of his worldwide Man in Motion tour in the mid-80s. I caught up with him to talk about the importance of Hansen's story, the similarities to his own experiences, and what it was like shooting an independant film in China.
Mark McLeod: I'd just like to start out with a bit about how you became involved in the project.
Jim Byrnes: I've known Micheal (French) -- the producer, director, screenwriter -- since back in the old days of the Vancouver Show, as I used to perform on it back in the late 70s, early 80s and he was floor director and producer. So we knew one another, and also I knew Rick through people at GF Strong and people that I had worked with, and Rick's accident came about 6 or 7 years after mine. There's a world, a small world, and the community and I was aware of what was going on with him and in fact had been there the day he took off from Oakridge and had performed in the celebration when he came home. So I was excited about what he did.
So a few years passed and it was in 1993 up at the Rick Hansen fishing challenge, and Micheal was up there, and we were waiting for the boats to come in, and I had known that Micheal had done the documentary in '85 and he had said, "We have this script and we want to do a feature film." And as you know, what any actor says to a director, I said, "Well, where's my part? What about me? I could play the 17-year-old girl." So I said keep me in mind. So like ten years later Micheal phoned and said, "Remember when we were talking? Well, it looks like we finally have a script we can use and someone is going to put some money into it." So I said, once again, "Please keep in mind." They cast this and they cast that and the script changed and people became unavailable and he finally came to me and said, "I think we've got it together, and would you play the part of Ivan?" and I said, "I'd love to!"
He's the bad guy -- well, maybe not the bad guy, but the devil's advocate. I come into the situation and I don't want to paint this as being the feel good story of the decade, and I see it as an ego trip at best, a guy trying to use this to get on the front page of the paper because his athletic career is over now but he still craves the (attention of) people around him. I find out differently as the story goes, but really in a way, the story doesn't happen without Ivan or people that are dismissive, because if it weren't for them in the world, Rick wouldn't have to do what he did and to go around the world to increase awareness. As much as things have changed in terms of awareness and sensivity, there's still a long way to go. So the character of Ivan is really the catalyst for making everything happen, and these people come in, and I have to ask them why, and they have to really ask themselves why, and in the process of that we find out their motives are pure and true.
MM: You mentioned that you start out as sort of an outsider to the group, and given that the events of the film take place over a really short period of time, there's a real arc to the character. Did you find it difficult to play that sort of arc?
JB: If acting was so easy, then everyone would be doing it. It's easy for me to remember lines, but the hard part is finding the truth and making it so it doesn't look phony. That's the hard work that you do. It's easy to find where you come in, and that my character thinks it's sort of a joke. And a guy of my reputation, why did they send me up here to the middle of nowhere? I've covered this and that, and so, well, I'll ask a couple of questions, then get the hell out of here and file my story. Then Ivan finds something compelling about these people, and in that sort of job, it becomes an occupational hazard that you become quite cynical and jaded. You've seen it, you've heard it, you've been lied to, and you're always looking to scratch the surface. And I keep doing that, and there's really something inside here. Part of what helped me was that I know everyone in this film -- the characters that are being portrayed are people I know in my real life, and I know what they did and what they've become and how they've changed. But you have to take it all back to before all that when you don't know that he's going to succeed, and that's the fun of being an actor, finding those hypothetical situations that you make real for people.
MM: Now all the press materials are saying that this isn't a biopic, and of course all of these characters are based on real-life people. Was your character based on a real person or is it sort of a combination of a couple people?
JB: That was a question I asked Micheal when we started, and he said that it's a composite of about three different people that followed Rick, some in China and some in the States, but three different journalists. In fact, I read one of the articles that these guys had written and the really disturbing part of it was that it wasn't really acerbic, but it was just dismissive, and that what he was doing was just a blip on the radar. And that's what I used, that dismissive tone of this one article that I had read. I also know a couple people here in town that are involved in print and in broadcast who are noted for their muckraking style, so I sat down with them just to get a sense of how they approach a story and how you don't believe anything you get and how you think that none of this is true. It was just the matter of finding the mindset -- and I wasn't imitating anyone, I was playing three real people wrapped into one and bringing my own truth to it.
MM: As someone who was born in America but has lived in Vancouver for decades, you would be more familiar with the story than perhaps some of the other cast members like Ethan Embry or Sarah Jane Potts, who are from the U.S. and UK, respectively. Were you able to help them understand the backstory a bit more?
JB: I think so. Not only am I more familiar with the story, but I know these people. We never wanted to, and I'm so glad it didn't become that of imitating, and we didn't cast people based on "he looks like so and so". It was more the spirit or the essence of these people that we were looking for, and we wanted to find their inner truth. I think we did it, and during our first couple of meetings in China over dinner or a beer, we talked about how we were going to approach things. I think even Victor (Webster), who's from Calgary but has lived in L.A. for a long time, wasn't really as familiar with the story as definitely I was. But also, Donny was there -- the real Don Alder, the real Lee Gibson was there, and so they also gave these people a sense of "that would never happen". We sat down with the script, for example, and there were a couple of scenes where we changed lines here and there. And more than anything else, there's a responsibility in playing a true life story, whether you're doing it as a biopic or not, but there is definitely a responsibility to the story and to the individuals, and there is also a responsibility to the Chinese culture, which is a big part of the film as well. There were times when you'd say that this would not be right, both in terms of the characters, and I know Jan Walsh who was the professor of Chinese at SFU, some of the music and iconography that we brought into it would not happen that way and would disrespect the culture. More than anything we had a responsibility in telling the story, it was not just a matter of how we're going to make a movie and have it sell, we wanted to bring a great respect for the culture and Rick Hansen's accomplishment and his team's accomplishment as well. That was always a part of it. I think obviously I was able to bring some of that, and Donny and Lee and Micheal had been there too, and were in China at the time and know what happened and didn't happen and what we can stretch and eliminate.
MM: Now the movie is starting out with a small release in B.C. and expanding from there. How important do you think it is for British Columbians to go out and support this movie?
JB: I really think the story we tell is quite uplifting and it has a message that we all sort of need to be reminded of. I think this might be a little off this point, but when we first came back from China, I was in this store that I go to a lot. And I know the guys, and there was this guy who was a part-time worker and a grad student at SFU -- not some sort of flake or whatever, but like 23 or 24 years old, a Canadian guy and a great guy. Now remember, this (story) was 25 years ago. (And I said) we were in China and we were making a movie, and he asked what the movie was about. And I said Rick Hansen and the Man in Motion tour, and he didn't have a clue and he had never heard of Rick Hansen. And it shocked me and dismayed me, so I said, "Have you heard of Terry Fox?" and he said, "Oh yeah."
It's not about Rick's ego, but the work that he's done, and obviously the Spinal Cord research institute and the money and awareness they've raised is fantastic. But I think that it's important that people remember this story, and so to start here in British Columbia is good because this is where it started and ended, and hopefully it can start again and people across the country and North America and maybe the world will take heed of this story and realize what a great accomplishment it was and how it's an ongoing story. He keeps saying we're going to get to the top, but when you're at the Great Wall of China, there is no top. You get to the top and then you look three miles away and there's more. It's kind of like the struggles in our everyday lives -- we have to get up and face challenges no matter what. People have visible disabilities, and people have invisible disabilities. There (are) people who have all their physical facilities and are in great shape, but they are afraid of success or failure, so there are invisible disabilities as well, and we all live with them every day. To reach our potential, we have to take those barriers down. The barriers exist, but we have to find our way around them, and once we've done that then we can really reach our true potential.
MM: I like to ask everyone I talk with, if they had to describe their character, what would it be and why?
JB: Is "pain in the ass" one word?
MM: Maybe if you put some hyphens or dashes in there.
JB: I don't want to say "jaded", because he is that, but that's not it. He wants to know the truth, so I'll say the word "investigative" because he does want to know the truth and he is jaded and a lot of things stand in his way and there are barriers blocking him from that. At the heart of it, though, really all he wants to know is the truth, so in a way he's a truth seeker. It can be a happy truth or a sad truth, but I want to know that truth.
MM: You shot in China, and more and more movies nowadays shoot, say, Vancouver for Seattle or something like that. How important was it for this movie to shoot in the actual location where the events took place?
JB: You know, I thought it was very important, because actually the antagonist in the story is the Great Wall of China, and so to actually be there, visually, it's just absolutely stunning. You can't build that as a set, you can't build those vistas. Sure, you can build a brick wall and do close-ups on it, but the vistas and the scope of the Great Wall are very important to the telling of the story. Also, us being there surrounded by this culture, because China really is a character too, and we were surrounded by it. The crew every night was trying to learn from them and the places we went and the things I learned, and just to be wrapped up in it to show that respect and honor the culture. We couldn't have done that here because then you're seeing things through western eyes, and there's a very fine line between exposing a culture and ridiculing it.
MM: Lastly, the film's title -- Heart of a Dragon -- could mean many things to many different people. What does it mean to you personally?
JB: Well you know, the dragon in the Chinese culture is the magic, is the X factor, and so as they say, "It can be an enemy, but it can also be a close loyal friend". My daughter, for example, was born in the year of the dragon, and she and all her pals are these little dragons, and they all have a spark and a key to destiny. I find the imagery of the Chinese dragon is so deep and means so many things, that at the heart of it is truth and loyalty.
MM: Thank you so much for your time. Best of luck with the film.
JB: You're welcome. I hope some of that made sense.
Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.
To me, Jim Byrnes will always be Inferno. "Yes, my queen!"