Home, sweet… movie set. Winnipeg-born actor and screenwriter Jonas Chernick lives in Toronto and finds TV work in L.A., but keeps coming back for more than a visit.
By Randall King
Winnipeg Free Press — November 28, 2004
"Just when I thought that I was out, they pull me back in." — Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III. That line comes to mind when you spy the Winnipeg-born actor Jonas Chernick in a locally shot movie. God knows, it's not because he physically resembles Pacino. As actors, the guys share a certain intensity level, but Chernick is taller, more angular, blue-eyed and, well, Canadian.
It would be difficult to imagine, under any circumstances, Chernick putting a death sentence on Fredo or spraying bullets with his "little friend."
No, it's the sentiment of the line. Chernick, like many a Canadian actor, currently resides in Toronto for most of the year because that's where most of the film work is. For a few months each year, he also joins the thespian migration to Los Angeles for "pilot season," the annual rite of auditions for network TV series and movies.
And this strategy has generally benefited the Grant Park High School graduate. He has enjoyed decent success in mid-profile TV projects. He was a French tutor who benefits from a young girl playing Cupid in the Disney TV movie Eloise at the Plaza. He played New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan opposite James Spader's Vietnam whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg in the 2002 TV movie The Pentagon Papers. He's also had lower-profile stints in Toronto-centric TV fare from The Eleventh Hour to Queer as Folk. Still, Chernick never seems to be able to stray from Winnipeg for long. Not that he would complain. The bulk of his film credits, and indeed, his most substantial roles, have been on movies shot here.
He was at his most un-Pacino-like as a neurotic, lovelorn Joseph, literally baring his pain, longing and, um, his manhood to estranged lover (Sarah Constible) in the opening moments of local filmmaker Sean Garrity's first feature, the ensemble comedy-drama Inertia.
A few years later, Chernick was back in town playing the polar opposite of the needy Joseph, a feral would-be grifter named Sonny Salo who resorts to drastic and dirty measures to pay off a $100,000 debt in Gary Yates' con artist Christmas movie Seven Times Lucky opposite Kevin Pollak and Liane Balaban.
In the past two months, Chernick has been back with Garrity again, playing an unbalanced psychotherapist whose fate intertwines with that of his post-trauma-suffering patients (Callum Keith Rennie, Lindy Booth and Michelle Nolden) in Lucid, which wrapped production earlier this week.
And this time, Chernick has upped the ante of involvement with the project. He co-wrote the finished script of Lucid with Garrity, a five-year process that has resulted in an unexpected but welcome second career. He's got Telefilm Canada development money to finish another script -- a high-concept teen comedy, with two more scripts in the works.
"I actually made more money this year as a writer than as an actor," he says over a coffee at the Fyxx coffee shop in the Exchange District. "It's very rewarding and exciting. It's miraculous to get paid to do things you love."
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Chernick shouldn't have had to do all that much research for the role of a psychologist in Lucid . He once intended to go into that field.
But those ambitions were quickly dispelled when he went to the University of Manitoba in 1991 and promptly began devoting himself exclusively to courses in drama and film studies, at the expense of Introduction to Psychology, which he tended to skip.
His true calling was in the field of acting, a result, he acknowledges, of growing up an unfettered movie nut. Even now. Especially now.
"More than an actor and more than a writer, I'm a film lover," he says. "I'm obsessed with movies. I see everything that opens in theatres. I love movies. I have a huge DVD collection at home. My favourite thing to do in the world is watch a movie."
Fortunately, his passion was indulged.
"When I was nine or maybe 10, I convinced my mom to let me take the bus downtown on the weekends to see matinees," he says. "My brother would draw me a map on how to get on the Grant bus and get off in front of Birks Jewellers on Smith and Portage.
"I knew where all the theatres were: the Metropolitan, the Capitol, the Odeon, the Towne and I would go both days with my three bucks, once on Saturday and once on Sunday, so I'd get to see two matinees.
"And I would go see the kinds of movies -- not the kinds of movies you'd expect a 10-year-old to see. I specifically remember going to see a movie called Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, because it was rated PG. It starred David Bowie and I thought it was a science fiction movie, and it turned out to be a concert movie but I didn't even mind."
His passion forged a bond with his mother, Erla Glesby, who could stay awake through a dusk-to-dawn marathon at the drive-in while his dad and brother nodded off. In fact, his first artistic collaboration was with mom, he says.
"My mom was a visual artist. When I was a kid, she was taking fine arts at the U of M, so I'd get to go down and watch her do sculptures at the sculpture studio.
"When I was 11, she had taken a video class at U of M and you'd have to do a short video and she couldn't come up with one. And I remember staying up late with her one night writing a script with her," he says with a laugh.
"I began writing so I could star in it," he says. "I had this hilarious idea about a kid who would wake up every morning and go to the dictionary and look up a different dirty word... and she graduated with that."
Chernick's parents put him in acting classes when he was seven years old and certainly his mother, now the president and CEO of "a pretty big company called Westco Storage," continues to support his efforts to the point where she actually came to the rescue after Chernick tearfully told her the Lucid project was threatened with a budget shortfall of $100,000.
"I was so disappointed and a week later I went to Winnipeg for a visit and she sat me down and said, 'I want you to know that since we spoke last week, I've been talking to my accountants and my lawyers and I think I want to invest in this movie and help you make the movie you want to make.'"
Chernick has put down more roots in Hogtown. He's engaged to Toronto graphic designer Nicole Kagan. Evidently, Jonas's passions have rubbed off on her.
"After two years with me, she knows more about Canadian film than most Canadian filmmakers, I think," he says.
But he is also in discussions with local producer Kim Todd and director Norma Bailey on a comedy he co-scripted titled Highball for 2005.
He'll be back.