Cover Story: Ken Welsh
By Cece Scott www.cecescott.com
Acting is in his blood.
Just as I am about to knock on the white door of Ken Welsh’s country home, my eyes spot a sign that epitomizes his wry sense of humour – Out of my mind. Back in five minutes.
At the age of 75, Welsh’s career has spanned a half century. He’s played countless roles, onstage and on screen, and is the recipient of many awards, including fi ve Geminis, a Genie for the best supporting actor in Margaret’s Museum, the Earle Grey Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2004 Welsh received the Order of Canada.
Born and raised in Edmonton, Welsh graduated from the University of Alberta with a degree in drama, and then attended Montreal’s National Theatre School. Not many actors can claim that they spent the first seven years of their career at the Stratford Festival. Following this stint, Welsh left in 1973 and went on to appear at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and then spent many years on Broadway.
At the age of 26, while at Stratford, Welsh was cast as Hamlet. Other plum roles include starring in Piaf on Broadway, and the 1987 production of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune with Kathy Bates.
Touted as one of the hardest working actors in Canada, Welsh wrote and performed the celebrated off-Broadway cabaret musical Standup Shakespeare. “My favourite characters are ones that have heart and play to a complicated range of emotions. I like to find the soul of the character, where the sensitivities lie,” says Welsh. “Humour is definitely an important element in any role I play. If you can’t have a good laugh, what’s the point? I laugh out loud to myself all the time – of course that could be senility.”
In 1989, Welsh’s performance in Love and Hate: The Story of Colin and Joanne Thatcher, about a former Alberta rancher and politician who is convicted of killing his wife, won him a Gemini.
Welsh’s favourite Hollywood movies were all made in Canada, and include Loyalties, 1987; Margaret’s Museum with Helena Bonham Carter in 1995; and a hilarious flick about opera and hockey with Robbie Coltrane called Perfectly Normal, 1991. A compilation of Welsh’s work wouldn’t be complete without highlighting one of his favourite parts, the villainous Windom Earle in the 1980s hit series Twin Peaks. “Windom was one of my favourite television roles,” says Welsh. “People remember the character because he was so evil.”
During his illustrious career, Welsh has performed alongside many well-known actors, but especially enjoyed working with Stockard Channing, Kathy Bates, Olympia Dukakis, Glenn Close, Meryl Streep and the late Ron Silver.
In his 50s and 60s Welsh says that he was still in top form when it came to memorizing his lines, but concedes that he’s finding it a bit more challenging in his 70s. When it comes to physical endurance on stage, he says that it hasn’t been a problem, because the audience’s energy gives him the adrenaline charge that he thrives on to outperform himself.
“There aren’t as many roles available for actors my age, and what roles do come up are being filled quickly. Guys my age are dying off, but not quick enough,” says Welsh drolly. “Whenever I am asked, I will act. I just did an episode of The Blacklist in New York. It really only took me a couple of days to learn the lines.”
Welsh is also committed to helping out young directors, and those who are up and coming – often appearing in independent films for very little gratuity.
The pride and joy of Welsh’s life is his son Devon, now 28. With his then wife, Corinne Farago, they moved to the rural Ontario property where he has lived for the last 28 years. It was here that he brought up his son, often on his own.
After living in New York for 12 years, a small community appealed to Welsh. “My neighbours are all really great people. I like watching the kids play as the generations roll out. Certainly, I enjoy being a part of it all. I read poetry with the choir and sometimes I perform Shakespeare,” says Welsh. “In fact, ever since 1974 when I was in Chicago, I’ve done exclusive Shakespearean performances. I have a big sign that has 30 characters on it and I let the audience choose. Sometimes I do a soliloquy. Sometimes I do the entire first scene with all the characters in it.”
Welsh is an avid gardener and has planted more than one hundred trees of assorted varieties on his pastoral property. This year, his vegetable garden is expected to yield beans, potatoes tomatoes, asparagus, broccoli and herbs. “I have always loved gardening,” says Welsh. “I need to have things growing around me.”
Welsh has no plans on slowing down. Part of his ongoing regime includes going to the gym on a regular basis, walking 5,000 steps a day, practicing yoga, eating properly and meditating. “I’m in pretty good shape for a guy my age. I don’t ever plan to quit.”
He also has a few things that he still wants to check off of his bucket list, which have to do with singing and playing the trumpet. “When people have a birthday, I play Happy Birthday on my trumpet. It’s become a tradition,” says Welsh with that mischievous twinkle in his eye.
The minute I got on stage and got a few laughs, I knew that acting was my destiny. – Ken Welsh
Welsh would love to make an album of jazz songs that feature the melodies of his favourite musical icons like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney. At the top of his list would be the opportunity to sing the anthems at a major league baseball game. “I love sports and I go to the batting cage. And, yes, I hit the ball. I’ve still got it.”
Good health, good friends and, in particular, his son, Devon, are the things that Welsh cherishes. Devon is a musician and currently lives in Montreal. His hit song, Downtown, won him a Juno. Regular visits, which include the odd Raptors’ game, keep them connected. “I love my son very much. We maintain close contact and I see him as often as I can. He has a beautiful voice and works very hard. He is a lovely man,” says Welsh in his melodious Shakespearean cadence.
Welsh appreciates all that life has bestowed upon him and spends no time bemoaning his youth. “I don’t miss anything about my youth – youth was youth. I did a lot when I was young, so there is nothing to regret. My youth was fabulous, but I certainly enjoy what I do now.”
In one of his more serious moments, Welsh says that spirituality is a key component in his life. “It gives a great respect as to why we are here. I’m not a philosopher – I just live life.”
And with that he turns to the photographer and agrees that a photo shoot in the backyard would definitely work. “It’s breezy out there, and my hair looks good blowing in the wind.”