Being Erica: The Doctor is In - Meet Michael Riley

Being Erica: The Doctor is In - Meet Michael Riley
At the heart of the television series Being Erica – about a woman whose therapy sees her traveling backwards in time to moments of regret in her life, essentially to use the past to help clarify her present – is the relationship between Erica Savage and Dr. Tom. And at the core of Dr. Tom is actor Michael Riley.
Shortly upon graduating from the prestigious National Theatre School of Canada, Michael Riley landed one of the country's most coveted roles -- the lead in "Chasing Rainbows" for the CBC. Ever since, he has performed numerous lead roles in feature films, MOWs and several award-winning series and mini-series including the critically acclaimed "Power Play," "The Interrogation of Michael Crowe," and "Race to Mars." Michael has been nominated for 10 Gemini Awards, including the 2008 Gemini for Best Supporting Actor in a Dramatic Mini-Series in "St. Urbain's Horseman," and has won a Gemini award five times, most recently for "This is Wonderland" in 2005. Feature roles include the award-winning political thriller "Diplomatic Immunity," "Pale Saints," "Perfectly Normal" co-starring Robbie Coltrane, and "Mile Zero." Riley has also been featured in Steven Spielberg's "Amistad," Carl Bessai's "Normal," and Peter Markle's "The Tenth Circle." He will be seen next in Jaco Dormae's "Mr. Nobody."
In this exclusive interview, Michael reflects on two years of therapy.

EARTHS MIGHTIEST: What are your overall feelings about the show?

MICHAEL RILEY: It's funny, when we shot it I knew I liked the premise, the paradigm of the show was really interesting, but then you shoot it in your little Petri dish of creating the thing, and you have no idea as you're doing it if people will like it. Kind of creating in a vacuum, and we were all pleasantly surprised that it's caught on the way it has. And what I really appreciate is how Jana Sinyor, the creator of the show, keeps opening the thing up to continue to explore what the show is. It's certainly unique in terms of anything I'd ever read before.

EARTHS MIGHTIEST: And there’s always an attempt to shake things up. In season one, the episode “Star Child” had Erica traveling back to before she was born.

MICHAEL RILEY: Yes, yes exactly, and that's exactly one of the ways in which Jana kind of broke it open, and there's an episode in the second season where she goes back to being a little girl, and there's another actress of course who played her when she was twelve, I think that was her bat mitzvah episode, and that was interesting too – to play the scene as though it were Erica, but in the body of this twelve year old girl. And then in the second season too, she moves into the future in another episode, so it wasn't even just the past anymore, and of course that opens a whole Pandora's box about what Dr. Tom is, and we kind of got to explore that in the second season, which is fun for me, of course.

EARTHS MIGHTIEST: Who or what is Dr. Tom from your point of view?

MICHAEL RILEY: Well, I'm sworn to secrecy. Before we even shot the pilot of the first season I sat down with Jana and said, “OK, as an actor, who or what is he, just so I can play him?” And she kind of laid out things for me, it was a good news bad news thing – she said the good news is there are answers to those questions, and here they are. And the bad news is you won't be able to show any of that for the whole first season, so you never really get to peek behind the wizard's curtain as is were, until, like, the last episode of the first season, where you start to go, “Oh! There's something terrestrial about him, obviously.” And so that was the big, it was great because it gave me something to play for the season, and also something to look forward to, because I knew there was going to be a time when we would get to peek behind the wizard's curtain and get to learn a little more about him. So the premiere episode of the second season was really fun for me, and even later there's an episode, 210, where he gets to go back, and it's more about his daughter and things. That was really fun to play, and there continues to be more to explore here. The show is about Erica, and her unraveling her psychology through her regrets and so on, and that has to remain in tact, but at the same time, what are some of the other facets, who are these doctors, is there more than one? That whole paradigm she's playing with is becoming richer and richer.

EARTHS MIGHTIEST: I know this sounds bizarre, but something about Dr. Tom reminds me of Willy Wonka. He just knows a little more than he should.

MICHAEL RILEY: Absolutely, and just like Willy Wonka he knows the buttons to press with her – he knows what she needs to do at any given memory, he knows why that regret is going to be salient to her, and what she thinks she's going back for might not be what she's really going back for, but of course he knows. Because that's the other thing we find out – he's been through this process before and I think it’s interesting that he’s been through what Erica is currently going through. That always added something to play.

EARTHS MIGHTIEST: There was a startling moment in one episode where she’s banging on the door to get out of his office, and Dr. Tom really loses it, yelling at her.

MICHAEL RILEY: That was a perfect example, because I knew at the beginning of the season – because Jana and I had discussed it – that even though he's still a "doctor," the journey is never over, and his issues, as we find out at the beginning of the second season, involve a volatility and anger. So those things still crop up, and that was interesting – I think that was episode six, which was a surprise for the audience because we were still episodes away such from revealing where that volcanic anger has it's genesis, but it was fun to kind of throw that out in the middle there as a precursor, a seed of what's to come.

EARTHS MIGHTIEST: How has the show and your character evolved?

MICHAEL RILEY: I knew at the beginning that he had terrestrial origins, that Dr. Tom was Tom Wexler in another life, and he had reached a low point in his life when his doctor arrived on the scene, much like he did for Erica. And like I said, I knew I wasn't going to be able to play any of that until the end of that first season. And so by the time we got to the second season, and for me specifically the episodes, the first one, 201, “Being Dr. Tom,” and then 210 – [where his doctor] Nadia sends him back to the time where he saw his daughter for the lat time. Those are my two favorite episodes to play, because I really got to play all the other sides of him, under the surface. I remember when I read the script, what I loved – this is an analogy – in The Sopranos, when that psychiatrist goes to see her psychiatrist, and suddenly the tables turn – for Dr. Tom, who's all knowing and sitting on that side of the desk, to go into Nadia's office and sit in the chair before her, and to have the tables turned so HE’S the patient now, it was so fun to play, because you got to see so many facets of who he is, and that's he's still so – not struggling, but dealing with unresolved issues within himself. So as the two seasons go on, it's an unfolding of who he is. He has to remain her mentor in terms of guiding her to where she needs to go, because the mantels and the torches are going to be passed and she’s, eventually going to be in his position, and also revealing more about the character himself. And hopefully we'll get to do a third season, and I'll get to explore that – we both will.

EARTHS MIGHTIEST: Where would you like to see him go?

MICHAEL RILEY: I think there's more to mine with the daughter relationship, and with his wife – you see this volatile domestic scene he was involved in – there are things that obviously went on in that house, through his life as Tom Wexler; there's something there to mine as well as the whole hierarchy of who the doctors are.

EARTHS MIGHTIEST: You and Erin have great chemistry with each other.

MICHAEL RILEY: Yeah, it felt good, I'm glad – and a lot of people have pointed that out. It’s not something you can manufacture, and they’re one of the gravities of the show. As an actor it's so funny to do a series and basically for a whole season of television, to go onto set and only have one actor to play with. I've never had that happen before. Her eyes are the only eyes I look into for the whole first season, I'm only playing two-handers with Erin. And I think the chemistry is written, too, much to Jana's credit, but it's also that alchemy of two actors coming together and it kind of works. It's such a dimensional relationship as written, and hopefully on the screen, there's just so many facets to it – there's father-daughter, mentor-student, of course patient-doctor, and because it's rich, and it's continued to become richer, it supports all these smaller brushstrokes about who they are together, and that's great, especially when – from my point of view – you're playing with one person, you want it to be dimensional enough that it gets you up in the morning and there's lots to explore.


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