Toronto, interview with Nonnie Griffin

I first met Nonnie Griffin 6 years ago. Recently I went to see her again at her lovely house. Everything in her house is a reflection of her personality. She is passionate, extroverted, charming and a little bit a rebel. We talked about her family, her faith and men (but it’s better if we don’t write about that!). We also discussed literature – Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Goldoni, Pirandello and De Filippo. I am very proud of her knowledge of Italian writers.

1) Who is Nonnie Griffin?

Nonnie Griffin is a well-known, highly respected Canadian actress who has made her living in Showbiz in Canada as well as a three year stint in England.
Starting off in weekly repertory theatre in Ottawa at 19 years of age, she went on as leading lady in many other companies and began a career in radio and television, receiving recognition and praise for her work and versatility. At age 20, with Toronto’s finest theatre at that time, The Royal Alexandra, she appeared in Ring Round the Moon by Jean Anouilh to glowing reviews. Not long after, she went to England and eventually auditioned at the Old Vic and won a place for herself with the finest regional theatre in Britain, the Bristol Old Vic. The company was invited to Lebanon and played in the Baalbek International Festival doing two Shakespeare productions.
Returning to Canada after three years, Ms. Griffin continued her career in television and stage
as well as radio and was twice named Best Actress for her stage work as well as Best Actress for
her outstanding radio work. In a long life, acting remains an ongoing passion for her, and her greatest achievement so far was her appearance in 2010 in her own play, Sister Annunciata’s Secret which received raves and great critical acclaim.

2) When did you understand you wanted to be an actress?

The idea of becoming another character was with me from an early age. Listening to my father read Dickens was like being in the presence of a great actor, which he was. He was inspiring and acting became what I loved above everything. I managed to appear in several productions at the Convent school I attended. The highlight was Around The Clock With Claire – A day in the life of a Catholic girl. Our director, Sister Giovanni cast me as the Devil and I stole the show – at age 10. A visiting Bishop remarked to the nuns, “That little girl should become an actress!

3) Talk about your theatre education

I had a beautiful voice and my grandmother decided that I should go to the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto to be trained at age 16 . It was suggested that drama be included and I was enrolled in the Speech Arts and Drama Department which became my passion for the three years I studied there. The department was affiliated with the University of Toronto and we had access to one of the best stages in the city, Hart House. As well, our professors were the finest anywhere, as well as the instructors we had in fencing, movement, speech, dialects, stage makeup etc. Our productions were remembered for decades after because of the talent and quality of performance. One of our instructors was a gifted poetry speaker, having dazzled audiences at the Albert Hall in London with her riveting performances. The speaking of poetry has remained a specialty of mine because of this great woman, Mrs. Clara Salisbury Baker. I owe her an enormous debt.

4) Your best character?

In 1977 I auditioned for the role of an English woman in her late 70’s early 80’s set in 1910. I was fairly young and glamorous at the time, but as soon as I read the play, I knew exactly what the character was all about and how to play her. Most directors lack imagination and I figured I probably wouldn’t have a chance to be really considered for this great role. But when I met the director and read for him, he doubled up with laughter as I read – always a good sign. When I didn’t hear from him when he had told me he would let me know, I was grief-stricken. I knew I had done a knock-out reading and to not hear from the man? How could this be? Was I wrong about my ability? Was I wrong about my judgments? I felt in a state of almost total despair. When my agent casually mentioned that the director had rung him, I felt myself coming alive. “I don’t know,” my agent said. “There wouldn’t be much money in it. Are you interested?” “Am I INTERESTED? Call that man right now and tell him YES!” It was the role of a lifetime. Mrs. Rafi in The Sea – was a commanding, egocentric, cruel, witty and talented woman, a gifted actress. Totally frustrated with her life, she lives for the one play a year she puts on in the town and completely scorns the pathetic acting talent of the townspeople. She spares no one in her scathing criticisms but here and there shows she has a soft spot. When we opened the play, we had been unable to rehearse because of the constant rain, which had caused the roof to leak. There were buckets placed all around the stage and rehearsing was pretty futile. Nevertheless, we opened to wild enthusiasm and rave reviews. The second night people were turned away because the theatre couldn’t accommodate the numbers. They were lining up for tickets and had to come another night. It was very exciting and very gratifying. Invitations came from the radio networks for interviews, the newspapers sent their photographers down for front page pictures and the toughest critic in town named myself as Best Actress of the year. In a life of huge frustration and difficulty, the attention and appreciation I received for the role of Louise Rafi made up for the many years of disappointment. To this day, it makes me happy to have had the chance to play such a vital, challenging and tremendous role.

5) What do you think about Italian cinema?

It seems to me that Italians are natural actors. It’s in their blood. Even listening to Italians have a conversation seems highly dramatic and alive! I feel that Italy should be turning out more films than they currently do. I wonder where their film world is? I loved Il Postino, a sensitive film about the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. Why isn’t Italy producing more films of this kind? Where are they? But the Italian actors and actresses were marvelous. Marcello Mastroiani, Anna Magnani, Gina Lollobrigida, Sylvana Mangano and others – so full of life! So talented! La Dolce Vita – unforgettable. I would like to see Italy get back in the game, that’s what I really think of Italian cinema.

6) And about American cinema?

What a question! American cinema has turned out magnificent motion pictures. Casablanca, Gone With The Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Chicago, Dr. Zhivago, The Apartment, Some Like It Hot, To Catch A Thief, Jezebel, Singing’ In The Rain – the list is endless of superb films done through the years. They’ve done their share of second-rate films too, but what a contribution they have made to the world. So many great actors and actresses have had careers in Hollywood. Think of Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Ronald Colman, George Sanders, Meryl Streep, Barbra Streisand, Gene Hackman, Judy Garland – the list goes on and on. I personally, am grateful for the great films turned out. They have been and are an important part of my life.

7) What is the difference between Italian and American cinema?

Briefly, I think Italian cinema deals with reality more than American cinema does. They see life as it is, not as fantasy, as so many Hollywood films have done. But, as I said in the question about Italian cinema, I was so impressed with Il Postino and found it so sensitive and moving. Perhaps the most outstanding feature of any Italian movies I’ve seen is how incredibly alive they are. Anyway, I don’t really think I’m qualified to answer this question in depth, as I haven’t seen all that many Italian films.

8) A plan for your future?
I wrote a play called Sister Annunciata’s Secret in 2009 and spent the year re-writing and cutting and re-writing. It was a work that was extremely important to me, based as it was on a true story. It had to do with a 37 year old nun back in 1937 who was a piano teacher in a convent in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She finds herself drawn to a 13 year old boy and tries to stop the lessons but to no avail. The relationship becomes sexual and totally guilt-ridden, she tries to kill herself. She has a total breakdown and after being in a psychiatric ward, begins her life as a civilian. I managed to put the play on for three performances in 2010, and plan to re-mount the show in 2012. It is a worthwhile piece and audiences found it riveting. For myself, it was and is one of the greatest challenges of my career, as the play has roughly seven characters, all of which I play. Of course the sexual abuse in the Catholic church was one reason I wanted to put this play together and I think it brings a few things to light. It’s very important for this reason (to me) but also from a human point of view it speaks of simply the depth of suffering of a fallen woman.

9) Wish something to you and to the world

There is something magical in a true expression of our deepest agonies and longings. I would like to think that the world is drawn to this kind of beauty and that theatre will thrive and give strength to its audiences. We need theatre and cinema to relate to what others go through and to know we’re not alone. I feel I have the empathy and skill to move an audience and it gives me happiness to share what I have with others. It’s communication that we need, and it’s not always there for individuals. We who are actors and actresses have the chance to fulfill this need, although as performers, the chance to really do so isn’t always in our grasp. For myself, it’s number one, and pretty well all that I do is aimed towards this goal. It’s what gives meaning to my life and I can pass it on to the world in my own way.

I am very sorry about the knowledge of new Italian cinema around the world! When I meet foreigners, they talk only about “old actors and actresses”…Why? Don’t we have good artists in Italy now? Don’t we have beautiful movies now? Maybe not….But it’s certain that American cinema is better and more popular than ours at this time. Certainly Italy once had more ideas and produced amazing movies that influenced the world in that better time long ago!