Nerd of Honour — As a techno-savvy crime buster on CBC's The Border, Jonas Chernick makes geeky look good
By Brad Oswald
Winnipeg Free Press — January 10, 2008
In his first big Canadian-TV series role, in the CTV drama The Eleventh Hour, Jonas Chernick played a disarmingly geeky techno-genius who influenced the show's story direction from the confines of the fictional news-magazine's control room.
Oh, how times change?
In the stellar new CBC drama The Border, the Winnipeg-born actor/writer plays an appealingly nerdy cyber-whiz who contributes to the series' crime-busting stories from behind a bank of computer monitors.
"I definitely don't get cast as the cool guy very often," Chernick says with a laugh when confronted with the comparison. "And I think I'd be uncomfortable with it, anyway."
In conversation last week, during a break from rehearsals for WJT's upcoming production of David Mamet's Speed-The-Plow, the 34-year-old performer said there are definite differences - and hard evidence of continuing career evolution - between that earlier TV role on the CTV series and his current work on The Border.
"The similarity is that they're both surrounded by technology, but The Eleventh Hour was a really small part... less of a character and more of a function, really," explains Chernick. "In The Border, this guy's an integral character."
The Border, which premiered this week and airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on CBC, is an action-driven thriller that follows the national security-obsessed efforts of Canada's Immigration and Customs Security (ICS) agency. While the squad's field officers are careening across the country in pursuit of terrorists and other anti-Canuck threats, Chernick's character - computer guy Heironymous Slade - uses his seemingly limitless cyber-skills to provide them with identities, backgrounds and probable whereabouts of the bad guys they're trying to catch.
What appeals most to Chernick about the show and his character is how closely they reflect the real-life fears that many folks have about terrorism, travel and border security.
"Canadian television, in general, is not very political or action packed," he offers. "There have been a few shows - like Intelligence, which I thought was great - but there really hasn't been a lot of smart, fast-paced political drama in this country.
"The border between Canada and the U.S. is the largest unprotected border in the world; obviously, the possibilities it offers for stories are limitless. And a lot of the stuff in our show is inspired by actual events and headlines. It's very topical - we would get the scripts, and then a week later something very similar would be in the news. So we felt like we were doing something really urgent and relevant."
Chernick adds that the series' gritty realism has a lot to do with the fact its creator, Peter Raymont, had a lengthy career as a documentary filmmaker before trying his hand at scripted drama.
"He built a career on exposing truth and telling real stories about real people; the stuff on our show is fictional, but it has a very documentary, very real feel to it."
After more than a decade spent working in film and television, the idea of being on a show with serious hit potential is very appealing to Chernick. Even more significant to the now-Toronto-based artist, however, is the fact that this success could happen on Canadian TV.
"The No. 1 priority in Canada right now - with all the networks, and all the producers - is to make good television," he says. "Not just good Canadian television, but good television, period, that can compete with all those (U.S.) shows.
"The promos CBC is running for The Border just blow me away - I've never seen anything like them on Canadian TV. They look fast and furious and exciting, with high stakes and explosions and F-16s and everything. It's high-stakes, high production-value drama."
Despite having spent the past few springs in Los Angeles for U.S. television's pilot season (a process that likely won't happen this year because of the ongoing writers' strike), Chernick says he much prefers to take acting and writing gigs at home when he can find or create them.
"I love Los Angeles, but it's not Canada, and I would never go south if I didn't have to," he explains. "You need to go where the work is, and there have been times when there just wasn't enough opportunities in Canada for actors, so I've been forced to go down there and mine that territory. But I would never leave voluntarily; I love to work in Canada."
In truth, Canadian TV has been pretty kind to Chernick in the past few years. Since breaking in on The Eleventh Hour in 2004, his list of Canuck tube credits has grown to include This is Wonderland, Ken Finkleman's At the Hotel, 'Til Death Do Us Part and, most recently, a two-episode guest spot on Little Mosque on the Prairie.
But Chernick's homebody inclinations extend beyond his adopted home of Toronto; he also actively pursues projects that will bring him back to Winnipeg as frequently as his schedule allows.
"I am unabashedly aggressive about trying to find work that I like to do and that I can do in Winnipeg," he says. "I love this city... and because I spent so many years here, finding myself and figuring out what I wanted to do, career-wise, I met a lot of great people and have a lot of great collaborators here in Winnipeg (most notably, local filmmakers Sean Garrity and Gary Yates). And the result of having so many people to collaborate with is that I get to work here a lot, which is great. I have definitely pursued that."
A self-confessed film and TV geek who has spent much more time focused on the screen than the stage, Chernick says he leapt at the chance to take part in WJT's production of Speed-The-Plow because Mamet's has always been the one theatrical voice with which he feels a deep connection.
"I took a peek at what the theatre companies were doing in Winnipeg this year, and when I saw WJT was doing Speed-The-Plow, I jumped on it," he says. "I first saw it when I was studying at the Black Hole Theatre in the early 90's... it was the first time I'd seen a Mamet play, and I just totally responded to it. It was such a visceral, exciting piece; when I saw WJT was doing it this year, I knew I wanted to be part of it.
"It's a great play; it's very, very fast, very hard and relevant. Mamet is one of the few contemporary playwrights who has managed to create a language all his own. You can recognize Mamet from a mile away."
Speed-The-Plow might be the only production in this winter's MTC-inspired MametFest in which Chernick appears, but it won't be the only one of his favorite playwright's works that he'll experience during his latest hometown foray.
"This is the first of the Master Playwright Festivals I've been able to attend," he says. "What are there, 16 different shows? I'm going to try to see all of them."