The Toronto Star
Kris is Hot Stuff, Directors Agree
There were gasps at the TV Gemini Awards last fall when unknown Kris Lemche, looking much younger than his 20 years, beat out heavyweights including Gordon Pinsent to win the best supporting actor award for a weekly series.
Lemche (pronounced Lem-key) walked off with the prize for his role as Perry, the farmhand with the slow-drawl and supposedly back-country Prince Edward Island accent, on Emily Of New Moon.
"Who's this kid from P.E.I.?" surprised Gemini attendees whispered.
In fact, he's the hottest young actor in Canada, with two of the country's most respected movie directors, David Cronenberg and Bruce McDonald, raving about him.
"He has a real star quality," enthuses Cronenberg, who cast Lemche in a small but showy role in his latest movie, eXistenZ, which opens April 26.
"He's a really great actor," says Bruce McDonald, Lemche's director in Emily Of New Moon and new episodes of the offbeat situation comedy series, Twitch City, which is now being shot at an east-end Toronto studio for airing next season on CBC. "He's technically excellent, remarkable for somebody that young."
Lemche looks like a young teen with his peach-fuzz face and slight build (5-foot-6, 130 pounds) and he's not from Prince Edward Island. In fact, he'd never been "east of Scarborough" until Emily began filming in P.E.I. in the fall of 1996.
And he still lives with his parents - his father owns a heating business, his mother is a public school teacher - and his younger brother and sister in Brampton, where he was born.
"He's sparkly," Cronenberg continues. "He's also very smart. And he's got a wonderful, jaggedly edge that comes through really clearly.
"It's a matter of presence and of the way he moves and speaks. It's like he's made for the movies."
Cronenberg, who had not seen Lemche's TV work, called him in for an interview after viewing his audition tape for eXistenZ.
"He just leaped off the screen. He had this great jittery, naturalistic thing. Just a lovely performance."
Once he was filming, Cronenberg says, "he got even better, which is also a sign of a pro."
It was Lemche's first movie role and he admits he was intimidated just meeting Cronenberg, never mind trying to impress the internationally renowned director for whom many Canadian actors yearn to work.
"He was very excited, for sure," Cronenberg recalls. "But he never lost sight of what the scene was about and that's hard to do, especially for a young, inexperienced actor."
McDonald says Lemche "understands how the camera sees him and he's comfortable in that arena."
Marlene Matthews, the creator and former producer of Emily Of New Moon, joins the chorus of praise for the actor. "I saw electricity in his audition tape and fortunately for us that proved to be right. The camera absolutely adores him. He has star potential."
Lemche was to be in only five Emily episodes, but after Matthews and company saw his rushes, they made him a regular.
The same thing happened to the young actor in what was to have been a one-shot appearance in the Nikita series.
His character, a computer geek, was to be killed. But halfway through shooting the episode, the producers, experiencing the same rush as Matthews did, not only kept his character alive but brought him back for most of the season now being taped in Toronto.
Despite their admiration for him, Cronenberg and McDonald do Lemche harm for artistic purposes in their productions.
In eXistenZ, his character tries to kill the movie's star, Jennifer Jason Leigh, with a gun that's made of cartilage and has teeth for bullets. Instead, he gets killed - or so the audience will think. In Twitch City, Lemche's character is pushed out a window and later down stairs.
Rough stuff. And though Lemche says that working with the two directors was a dream, "it was hell, too, because I'm an insecure person."
Cronenberg "made me feel so important and so comfortable - my first film set - and let me do a lot of what I wanted to do. He and the actors, too, could smell my fear."
McDonald, Lemche says, "also basically let me do what I think is right."
Lemche, who says he has always "lived in my own fantasy world," dropped out of Grade 12 at Mayfield, a high school of the performing arts in Caledon, when he was 17.
"I was living in a totally different head space," he says, "and I thought acting would be great for a living."
His mother, concerned about his future, called his attention to newspaper ads placed by talent scouts. Through one of these scouts, he landed his first professional acting job - as a regular on Fast Forward, a Toronto-produced youth comedy-drama series.
From that show, Lemche acquired an agent who helped win him a role in one episode of the Toronto-produced Goosebumps series.
Right after that came Emily Of New Moon, for which Lemche developed a P.E.I. accent that producer Matthews admits "no one in Prince Edward Island recognized - but it works."
Lemche won his Gemini for Emily's first season, after playing in eXistenZ.
He was so stunned when his name was called that his seat mate, Don McKellar, who also appears in eXistenZ and headlines Twitch City, had to jab him in the ribs to get him moving to the stage.
"Even after I'd won, no one recognized me," Lemche says. "At the party afterward, photographers saw me dancing and asked what I was doing there, had I come with my parents who might have been nominated?"
Typically, for Gemini winners, his award brought him very little, not even attention from the Toronto media. There has, however, been some exotic travel.
He filmed the lead of Teen Knight, a Toronto co-produced home video youth movie filmed in Romania, and a brief role in the Canadian co-produced TV mini series, Joan Of Arc, shot in Prague.
Lemche has not yet heard if he will be called back to Emily Of New Moon for the seven new episodes that begin filming in September.
With no confirmed acting jobs due soon, he muses, "maybe I'm all washed up at 20."
That's not likely.
© The Toronto Star