Sheila McCarthy: the star on collaborating with Liza Minnelli and why she loves life at Yonge & St. Clair


Image: Tim Leyes Photography

Sheila McCarthy speaks quickly, in torrents of asides, exclamations and declarations, of all that she’s done and all that she’s excited to do. The actress, a resident of North Toronto and one of the most recognized Canadian performers in stage, film and television, leaps from topic to topic with the bounce and energy of a first-time performer.

And why not? After wrapping her sixth season on the CBC juggernaut Little Mosque on the Prairie, the decorated acting veteran feels as if she’s gotten a new lease on life.  

“Although I miss Little Mosque, I’m getting my acting chops back because, I admit, on the show I was playing a version of myself and I may have got kind of lazy,” McCarthy says and laughs. At 57 years old, she is gregarious and as blond and as trim as she was when she was first introduced to Canadian audiences in 1982 on the Canadian television show Hangin’ In. “I’m going back to the theatre and doing TV and teaching this wonderful class at Humber and the Canadian Film Centre, and, really, it feels like I’m making up for lost time.”

As an actor, McCarthy has been rewarded richly. The recipient of two Genie Awards, two Geminis, two Dora Awards and countless additional nominations, McCarthy has lived a full life on stage and screen, which puts her on nearly equal ground with her newest collaborator.

McCarthy tells the North Toronto Post that she’s currently developing a new film project with her close friend, “The Queen of Hollywood,” Liza Minnelli, who she met on set for the 1991 film Stepping Out.

“She’s become quite a good friend of mine, and we’re excited about working together, but she said that there’s three rules we have to follow for our film: one, she doesn’t sing; two, she’s not going to wear any makeup; and three, it has to be a buddy film.”

McCarthy, who’s collaborating on the script, a thriller, with Genie Award–winner Laurie Lynd, says, “It’s going to be a little low-budget indie thing that we make for two cents with our friends and have premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. I’m so excited to help give Liza a third act in her incredible career.”

“I haven’t had any plastic surgery, and I’m about to turn 57, and I’m proud of that.”

In terms of her own vast and impressive career, McCarthy, who was born in Thornhill but has spent much of her time in Stratford, Ont., says that she draws much of her strength from her family.

It’s been well reported that she lost her husband, the actor Peter Donaldson, in 2011 after his two-year bout with cancer. But what’s less well-known is how, through his grace in the final weeks, she was inspired to keep her home life steady for herself and her two teenage daughters. Donaldson, who appeared onstage in Glengarry Glenn Ross and Art, among many others, would undergo chemotherapy in the morning, then attend the theatre for work in the night. 

“When he was diagnosed with fourth-stage lung cancer, instead of throwing in the towel, he looked at me and said, ‘We’re not going to get sad twice,’ and instead, he worked harder and got busier than ever before, and that was his medicine,” says McCarthy, who was married to Donaldson for 25 years.

“He was a warrior, and I took my lead from him, to the point where, when he did die, it was shocking. He was so tough and so talented and so kind, that he crammed a lot of life into his 58 years.”

Part of her healing method — and, as any of us would, she says she has had both good and bad days in the two years since saying goodbye — has been the creature comforts of her community. Surrounded by neighbours and friends and engulfed in the good memories of the life she and Donaldson shared, McCarthy says she’s pleased to call North Toronto her home.

“I live in Granite Place, which is near Yonge and St. Clair, and I remember being out on the balcony and Pete looking out at me. He said, ‘You’ll be safe here,’ ” says McCarthy, who first learned of the building from Morris Panych, who directed the actress in the Canadian Stage performance of The Arsonists.

“I love the neighbourhood and know a lot of people in the ’hood. People recognize me at Starbucks, and I swear we have the best saltwater pool in the city.”

Among the many delights she finds in her neighbourhood, including the green space and the trees, her favourite thing in the area to do might just be spending the afternoon shopping with her neighbour Deb McGrath.

McGrath, of course, is a local Second City veteran and performer with a long list of film and television credentials of her own, including many with her husband, Colin Mochrie. For McCarthy, little beats shopping for bargains with her friend.

“When I met Deb, she was voted one of the Top 100 Shoppers at Holt Renfrew, and I told Colin, ‘I’m going to get Deb to Winners,’ but the opposite has happened. That girl can shop!” McCarthy says with a laugh, before explaining how their favourite place to hunt for bargains currently is the box stores at Laird and Eglinton, which the women affectionately dubbed Fakey Town. “I’ve always been a thrifty shopper, but Deb … not so much. Still, there’s a liquor store in Fakey Town, a South St. Burger and a two-storey Winners. Trust me, we have a blast.”

Having a blast coupled with keeping exceedingly busy seems to be the local resident’s recipe for enjoying the city’s cold winter months. Teaching her courses, writing her film and being there to offer encouragement to her two daughters are just the tip of the iceberg for the busy actress. In addition to shooting an episode of Murdoch Mysteries and a film with local resident Nicholas Campbell (she says acting opposite him is like playing jazz), she recently wrapped up her well-received stint on stage, starring opposite rock star Justin Rutledge in The Arsonists.

She remembers fondly how her character is routinely referred to as “sexy” in the script. “I kept asking Morris to take that word out, but he never did. Here I am, an older woman singing rock ’n’ roll with Justin Rutledge, and I did the sexy maid. You know what? It was so much fun.”

“I haven’t had any plastic surgery, and I’m about to turn 57, and I’m proud of that. I keep reinventing myself and that’s good,” she says.

A positive attitude, a loving community and a host of career options, she believes, have given a spark to her life, both in and out of the arts.

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