It’s hard to find a more sterling screen icon of Canadian virtue than Paul Gross. He became famous in the 1990s as a mild-mannered Mountie in the hit series Due South, squeezed romance from curling in Men With Brooms (2002), and cast himself as a heroic symbol of Canadian military sacrifice in Passchendaele (2008). Resisting the lure of Los Angeles, Gross has devoted his career to Canada as our star-in-residence, while serving as a tireless CanCon advocate in the trenches of cultural nationalism. So it comes as a bit of a shock to learn that Captain Canada has sold his soul to the Great Satan.
Gross is playing the devil, or a version of him, in Eastwick, a new ABC series based on the John Updike novel Witches of Eastwick and the 1987 movie of the same name. In the show, which premieres Sept. 23 on CTV’s A channel, he plays Darryl Van Horne—the lecherous tycoon portrayed by Jack Nicholson in the movie—who shows up in a small town and draws a trio of women into his sulphurous sphere of influence. It’s Desperate Housewives meets Sex and the City at a craft fair.
Leading the harem/coven, Amazonian beauty Rebecca Romijn (X-Men’s Mystique) is cast as an oversexed ceramic artist named Roxie who longs to “meet someone dark and dangerous and exciting who moves here in a cloud of scandal and everywhere he goes he stirs up sex and trouble.” Gross makes his entrance buck naked, stepping from an indoor pool in Darryl’s playboy mansion and offering himself to Roxie, who says, “You are vain, charmless, creepy, pretentious, arrogant, your hair is from 1982. And you aren’t nearly as handsome as you think you are.”
So how did this clean-cut Canuck get cast as the devil? “Well, we’re not calling him the devil,” laughs Gross, speaking by phone from Los Angeles. “When I met Rebecca, she said, ‘We were so looking forward to meeting you, but we don’t really understand how a Canadian can be a devil. Ooooh scary, a Canadian devil!’ ” Gross was the only member of the cast who didn’t have to audition. He has been turning down offers for American TV pilots for years. “It’s not that I was playing hard to get,” he says. “I was busy doing other stuff. But in Hollywood, if you say no it seems to increase your value.”
Gross, who now divides his life between his Toronto home and a hotel in Santa Monica, says Los Angeles has changed a lot since he was last there in the ’90s. “The fear is palpable. There’s an earthquake under way in film and television. The bottom line has shrunk to insignificance. And the era of giant network TV is coming to an end. Everyone knows it, but nobody knows what to do about it.”
Whether Eastwick survives beyond 13 episodes remains to be seen. But Gross hasn’t abandoned Canada. He plays an American gunslinger in Gunless, a western movie spoof shot in B.C. last spring. CBC is negotiating to air a sitcom pilot based on Men With Brooms, which he won’t be starring in. And he’s developing a Canadian heist movie.
Meanwhile, he welcomes the change of pace. “Passchendaele was a long haul, and I needed something where I wasn’t carrying the can for everything. I swim in the Pacific Ocean every morning before work, and then just put on some clothes and act.” Or take them off. He has a number of nude scenes, all chastely concealed. (It is, after all, a network show.) Playing an American devil “is a blast,” adds Gross. “It’s a strange part because it isn’t entirely human.” And there’s no escaping the shadow of Jack. “I can’t help that there’s a little bit of Nicholson banging around in me,” he admits. “He’s like one of the faces of Mount Rushmore. When I find myself doing things that are similar to him, I sort of back off.”
Paul Gross is no Jack Nicholson, but his straight-arrow image as a Mountie in Due South or a soldier in Passchendaele (a film that was as much a mission as a role) is misleading. As a pure actor, he’s done some of his best work as the half-mad, demonic theatre director in the Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows, which gave full rein to his subversive wit. As a Lothario-lite, he brings the same air of playful mischief to Eastwick, though in a more conventional format. “Virtually everything I say has a sexual connotation,” says Gross. One day the studio, which he calls “the Brothers Warner,” interrupted shooting to drag the crew into a marathon meeting about sexual harassment. “And I’m thinking, that’s what I’ve been hired to do—how can I meet their guidelines and still fulfill my contract obligations?” In deals with the devil, there’s always a catch.