Mature female actors sometimes find it difficult simply to stay employed in their field. But a few have managed to transcend ageist barriers in their way. Over in the U.K., Maggie Smith, Judy Dench, and Helen Mirren are three examples. Stateside, actor Jessica Tandy was the oldest Oscar recipient for a female in a leading role. She was 80 when she won for Driving Miss Daisy. Here in Vancouver, the charismatic Barbara Pollard is also going against the grain.
The Mom’s the Word playwright’s career continues to flourish after acting for four decades on stages and large and small screens.
“I had my busiest year ever,” Pollard tells Pancouver over Zoom. “I’m just going to keep going as long as I can because I love it so much.”
Currently, Pollard is playing a widow in Our Ghosts at the Firehall Arts Centre. Written by Sally Stubbs, it’s inspired by the disappearance of her father, Comox Air Base Flight Officer Gerald Stubbs. He and Flight Officer James E. Miller flew away in an RCAF training plane in 1956, never to be seen again.
Produced by Our Ghosts Collective in association with Western Gold, the show will preview at the Firehall Arts Centre on Tuesday (March 21) evening and Wednesday (March 22) afternoon. Opening night is on Wednesday evening.
Pollard says that she’s particularly impressed by Stubbs’s script, saying it leaves her in tears every time she reads it.
Yet the actor emphasizes that Our Ghosts is not just a heartbreaking mystery filled with loss and grief. There’s also a great deal of romance.
“The trick with doing any performance is that you have to say the words like you’ve never said them before—the idea came to you in that moment,” Pollard says. “And that’s the challenge in making it fresh.”
Improv comes easily to Pollard
In addition, Pollard played Dot in the Bobby Farrelly–directed feature film Champions, starring Woody Harrelson. It was filmed in Winnipeg in 2021 and released earlier this month.
Despite her vast experience, she felt some trepidation because it was the first time she had boarded a plane since the start of the pandemic. As with all of her roles, she devoted tremendous attention to the script.
However Pollard learned upon her arrival that Farrelly loves his actors to improvise. Fortunately, she has a ton of experience as a cofounder of the Vancouver TheatreSports League.
“I get on set and Bobby comes up to me and says ‘Just think of the script as a jumping-off point.’ And I’m lucky I’m so comfortable with improv,” Pollard says. “So I’m like, ‘Okay, how about this—blah blah blah.’ And Woody would go, ‘Yeah, I’m going to say that.’ I put a lot of words in his mouth.”
However, she’s definitely not responsible for putting an anti-vaccine joke in Harrelson’s mouth in a Saturday Night Live monologue around the time Champions was released. It generated considerable backlash online.
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Meanwhile, Pollard will return for her second season as Melissa Montgomery, on the Netflix series Virgin River.
“That was the biggest part I’ve played in network television yet in my career,” Pollard says.
The videotaped segment above suggests that her character could be the most menacing villain of all on the hit TV show.
“She’s really nasty,” Pollard says with a smile. “Like a snake. Or a scorpion, I suppose.”
Then there’s an audiodrama called Supreme, which she recorded this spring. It’s about the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion ruling in the United States.
“William H. Macy is playing the judge and I play his mother,” Pollard says.
Coincidentally, two of Pollard’s earliest influences are among the relatively few female actors who continued performing into their 80s. Pollard was only 20 when she worked alongside Smith and Tandy at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in the 1970s.
“For the start of my career, I was on-stage with Oscar winners,” Pollard recalls. “Maggie was so vulnerable. And Jessica was 68—she had the best figure in the company.”
Pollard, like Tandy, has kept herself in shape through yoga. And like Smith, Pollard has long appreciated the importance of opening oneself up emotionally on-stage and on-screen.
“Your vulnerability is one of your greatest commodities as an actor,” she maintains. “But making yourself vulnerable over and over and over again—there’s a cost.”
It’s a message echoed by Smith in her 2020 book Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change. “Vulnerability is strength,” Smith declared. “Do not compound your pain by being ashamed of it. Be vulnerable. Be strong.”
Teaching, directing, and acting
Pollard attributes her lengthy career to good fortune and lessons like this learned at a young age. Moreover, she notes that Smith and Tandy were both “unbelievably generous”, helping her understand the nuances of acting.
“I was extraordinarily lucky to hit the ground running,” Pollard says. “I started earning money for acting at 15 and I’ve never stopped.”
Remarkably, she was able to put herself through university while working as an actor. But when she moved to Vancouver in 1978, there wasn’t much of a movie industry. Director Robert Altman had shot McCabe & Mrs. Miller in B.C. in 1970, starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. It took more than a decade after that before Sylvester Stallone came to B.C. for the first of the John Rambo movies, First Blood.
Pollard worked at Studio 58, teaching and directing many shows. Her stage career took off, with performances in a long list of productions, including Taming of the Shrew, Amadeus, The Real Talking People Show, and Lie of the Mind. She’s also appeared in Da Vinci’s Inquest, The X-Files, Danger Bay, The Beachcombers, and other locally shot TV shows. Along the way, Pollard won Jessie Awards for acting and directing.
She continued working after having a daughter and a son, who are now adults.
“I think a lot of people back off when they have kids,” Pollard says.
Writing extends acting career
She decided, on the other hand, to co-create Mom’s the Word with five other women: Linda A. Carson, Jill Daum, Alison Kelly, Robin Nichol, and Deborah Williams. It premiered at Vancouver’s Women in View Festival in 1994. And it’s been a smash hit with three other versions created over the years.
According to Pollard, it’s now been performed in 17 countries and in nine languages.
“We just wrote our fifth show,” Pollard says. “This is our 30th year together.”
Here’s the kicker: “We wrote that because we stopped getting work. And we wrote it for ourselves and it’s still going strong. It’s back at the Arts Club next year.”
This leads to another factor behind her long acting career—writing roles for herself. She sees more young people doing this nowadays because they realize the importance of forging their own path rather than being dependent on others.
“The thing about being an actor is you have to wait for permission to work unless you create your own,” Pollard says. “That’s the crux of it. You can have all the talent in the world, but if you’re not given the role, you won’t work.”
The Firehall Arts Centre presents Our Ghosts by Sally Stubbs until April 2. Previews are on Tuesday (March 21) at 7:30 p.m. and Wednesday (March 22) at 1 p.m. Opening night is on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Post-show talkbacks are on March 23 and 30. For tickets and more information, visit the Firehall Arts Centre website. Follow Pancouver editor Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.