Jay Baruchel admits to enjoying living in enemy territory – Toronto, that is. A native Montrealer and dedicated Montreal Canadiens fan, he moved to Hogtown five years ago primarily for professional reasons although he admits that Quebec politics “did my head in.”
So now Jay has to put up with a resurgent Toronto Maple Leafs team and a Habs team that has never recovered from trading away its star defenceman P.K. Subban: “It was hubris (on the part of then-coach Michel Therrien) that chased P.K. Subban out of our town…It was like Patrick Roy 2.0 as far as I was concerned (recalling the 1995 trade of the world class goalie being traded after clashing with coach Mario Tremblay).”
Hockey aside, the 36-year-old Baruchel is enjoying a successful acting career that has seen him play in the 2017 TV series Man Seeking Woman while dividing duties between Canadian films (Goon, Cosmopolis, The Trotsky) and Hollywood studio fare (This is the End, Tropic of Thunder, Knocked Up).
But one of his biggest roles has come in the form of his voice-over work as Hiccup, the lowly blacksmith apprentice-turned-dragon trainer in the hugely successful DreamWorks animated films, How to Train Your Dragon, and its parallel TV series. Currently family filmgoers can take in the third and final installment of the franchise, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, in which Jay lends his voice and spirit to the lead character Hiccup who is battling F. Murray Abraham’s nefarious tyrant, Grimmel.
“It’s been absolutely crazy and thoroughly unanticipated,” says Baruchel, in reference to the franchise’s extraordinary popularity. “Unless you’re some kind of jerk, you don’t assume a movie like this is gonna be some massive hit — even as good as you know it is. When I auditioned for the first How To Train Your Dragon 10-plus years ago, I certainly didn’t think I’d be here three movies and seven/eight years of a TV show later.”
In the meantime, the still boyish-looking, lean actor is also about to be seen starring in the indie drama, The Kindness of Strangers, directed by acclaimed Danish filmmaker Lone Sherfig (Their Finest, An Education) and co-starring Andrea Riseborough, Zoe Kazan, and Bill Nighy.
The film could well mark an interesting turning point in Baruchel’s career should he convince other directors and producers of his gravitas in a serious role as compared to his usual comic screen personae. In addition, he is continuing on his parallel path as a filmmaker. After making his directorial debut with Goon: The Last of the Enforcers, he recently finished shooting the Canadian horror flick, Random Acts of Violence, which he co-wrote and also plays the male lead opposite Jordana Brewster.
“I’m so incredibly proud of this thing and so eager to show the world,” Baruchel said. “I think it’s going to mess some people up. We went very, very, very hard with it. It’s a horror movie but it’s also very artsy, it’s unique and colourful and vivid and incredibly, incredibly harsh, and hopefully real compelling, too.”
Away from the film set, hockey remains his guiding passion and late last year his book about growing up as a Montreal Canadiens’ fan, “Born Into It: A Fan’s Life,” was published by HarperCollins. Having recently bought a house in Toronto where he lives with his fiancée, Rebecca-Jo Dunham, Baruchel recently revealed that residing enemy territory hasn’t weakened his devotion to the Habs:
“It’s only forced me to double down…as a Habs fan, I’m not really threatened by them… I also like having front row seats for the inevitable collapse of almost every Toronto sports franchise. So, yeah, I’m psyched about it, my fiancée is from here and she has a whole family of Leafs fans, so I get no manner of chirping. But I’m not afraid of the new Maple Leafs. They are fun and exciting and entertaining and I’m glad, and it’s exactly what the city and the league needs.”
Jay, what is your mood now that this will be the final chapter in the Dragon films?
Now, saying goodbye, it’s thoroughly tinged with melancholy. You might as well get your tear ducts surgically removed (when you see the final scenes unfold)… I’m kind of flabbergasted and kind of surprised they haven’t fired me yet! (Smiles)
What are your thoughts on where the last Dragon film takes Hiccup?
Hiccup evolves into the man he was destined to become and the saga ends in a way that it needed to and was inevitable. But what is interesting is how this film leads us to a point that I don’t think anyone would have been able to envision just how everything turns out.
While recording your scenes in the studio, did you ever get to meet the other cast members?
No. For this one it was just me alone in the sound booth and once in a while I’ll be in touch with the director on Skype. We all live in different locations and we’re called in to to the (sound) studio at different times of the year over several years. So it’s impossible to meet except when some of us are doing press for the film.
How much time do you usually put in the studio for each recording session?
It’s usually around 90 minutes, sometimes two hours, and it’s probably the best gig an actor can ever hope for. I’m just glad that my weird nasal voice stood out in a way that drew audiences to Hiccup and I’ll be grateful for having had the chance to play him for the rest of my life.
You’ve been an actor from an early age. Was that always your dream?
My first dream was to be a director. I was 9 when I told my mom and dad that that was what I wanted to do. My parents were really responsible for that because every Friday and Saturday night my dad would rent movies for us to watch at home. We were all big movie fans and that’s how I began to love film and develop a fascination for the form.
While in high school I watched a minimum of two to four movies a week and I would buy as many VHS tapes as I could and built up a collection and then switched to buying DVDs. Movies have really been my life.
What made you get into acting?
Acting was my way of getting into movies and TV. I quickly found out how much I loved being on a set and I enjoyed acting because of how I felt part of the storytelling process. My mom told me when I was a kid that I should try to find something in life that I enjoy doing and stick to that. She said, “Try to look for a job that you would do for free and get paid for it.”
And that’s what acting has been like for me. It’s been the most rewarding experience and I’m very thankful that acting has been able to give me, my mom, and my sister the kinds of advantages that wouldn’t have been possible without this job.
Hockey has long been a big part of your life, too. You were originally born in Ottawa before your family moved to Montreal where you grew up and lived for most of your life. Do you ever wear a Habs’ jersey when you’re working in L.A. or on film sets?
I do. I love wearing it wherever I go. In Los Angeles, though, a lot of people think I’m from Chicago because of the CH symbol. But most of the time it’s my way of showing my pride in being from Montreal and being a lifelong fan of the team.
I’ve also discovered that it’s a great way of connecting with other Habs’ fans all over the world. One of my best memories is the time I was walking through a park in Sydney, Australia, not a city where you’d expect anyone to follow hockey. I was wearing my Habs hat and some guy was walking past and said, “Go Habs Go.” Can you believe that?
You’re such a huge fan of hockey and the Montreal Canadiens that you decided to write a book about your experience?
Yes, I wanted to write a book that captured the kind of experience you have when your life is inseparable from your living and breathing hockey with your friends. It’s a way of connecting you back to certain moments in your life and what you were doing or what was going on in your life while you were watching some games and your memories of those times.
What are your fondest memories as a Habs fan?
I was only 9 when Montreal won its last Stanley Cup (in 1993) and there hasn’t been that much to celebrate since although we’ve had some good teams. As I got older I really identified with Saku Koivu when he was the captain of the team and our best player for a long time.
My biggest memory by far is the standing ovation he got when he came back on the ice after having been away for a long time when he was going through cancer treatment. It was one of the most emotional moments that you could ever imagine.
What made you write the Goon films (he directed the sequel)?
My father had been a fighter on his hockey team when he was a teenager and I grew up approaching hockey from the perspective of my father and how he identified with the game’s enforcers.
We always talked about the league’s best fighters and I especially admired the enforcers who were not just there to protect your team’s star players but who could also skate and score. So the goon films were about seeing hockey from the perspective of the enforcers.
Was this film also your way of exploring something about the Canadian identity and our love of the game?
I made the movie for Canadians who don’t get to see themselves reflected very often in the films or TV series we get to see. There have been a lot of Canadian series that only reflect a narrow part of our culture and I don’t feel that the average Canadian connects with that view of ourselves. The Goon movies are trying to show a side of our culture that most Canadians will identify with. I wanted to show something of what means to be Canadian.
You must be so proud to have finally realised your childhood dream when you directed the Goon film?
It feels awesome to have made the movie and directed it. We took the project very seriously because the country fell in love with the first Goon and it also did well in the States. We wanted to do a story that we felt the fans and the country deserved.
I’m the worst skater in Canada and the only way to get these big guys on the ice to listen to me is to at least project the sense that I know what I’m doing. I came very well prepared for every scene and I think the film accomplishes what we set out to do with it?
You’ve also directed another film, Random Acts of Violence, in which you also play the lead. Do you want to keep on directing movies now?
Directing is all I ever wanted to do, and I’ll keep doing it as long as I’m allowed to!