July 15, 2013

Big Picture: Switch to comedy no laughing matter

Michael D. Reid / Times Colonist

With funnymen like Eugene Levy and Harland Williams on board, no wonder Randal Edwards felt like a fish out of water rehearsing and taping episodes of Package Deal, his new sitcom premiering on Citytv this fall.

“Eugene can do more with his eyebrows than most people can do with a teed-up punchline,” said the Victoria-raised actor, recalling his experience working with Levy. The veteran Canadian funnyman guest-starred on the series, which features Edwards as bright young lawyer Danny White, whose intrusive brothers turn his love life upside down.

Williams (Rocket Man) plays older brother Sheldon, a bossy, politically incorrect salesman. Standup comic Jay Malone (Struck By Lightning) is Ryan, a metrosexual meddler and former house husband. Julia Voth plays Kim, Danny’s exasperated new girlfriend, who didn’t realize her new relationship was a package deal.

In three of the 13 half-hour episodes of the series, created by Andrew Orenstein (Malcolm in the Middle), Levy plays a shady, unlucky-in-love client of Danny’s whose three wives died under mysterious circumstances.

Although Edwards, 31, has a solid track record, notably as Noah Jensen in The Best Years, Mr. Townsend in Degrassi: The Next Generation, and Ray, the police tech, in AMC’s hit series The Killing, he says Package Deal was a comedy trial by fire.

“It was my first big jump into comedy and I didn’t know what to expect,” he admits. “Andrew was so great, though. Right from the beginning, he said, ‘Let’s make this the funniest show we can make as a team.’ He opened it up creatively for us, and it allowed me to do things I didn’t know I could. There were moments when there was just so much craziness going on.”

While it didn’t take long to hit it off with his castmates, hanging out and indulging Williams’s passion for badminton, he admits it was initially daunting being around comedians who impulsively improvise.

“I’m sure part of the reason they hired me is because they thought I could hold it together the longest,” laughs Edwards. “Harland came up with lines that only somebody who is actually insane could come up with.”

The lunacy was worlds away from the orderly routine of the insurance-agent job the Calgary-born actor landed at age 18 at Allan Tolsma Agencies Ltd.

Edwards sold insurance there for three years after attending Pacific Christian Secondary School and completing Grade 11 in Nairobi, Kenya, where he volunteered with missionaries who ran support programs for street kids.

“I said, ‘[Insurance] can’t be all there is,’ ” he said. He and roommate Daryl Visscher, now a successful New York-based photographer, impulsively decided to move to New York, where he pursued acting.

“I didn’t even know what I was doing,” the actor recalled.

“My sister Robyn was the actor in the family. She did plays at the Mac and standup in Vancouver. I grew up watching her do it. I played soccer. I admire her so much.”

Shoehorned into a tiny apartment with four other wannabes, Edwards studied at New York’s Herbert Berghof (HB) Studio, where the Viennese actor and director and his wife, actress Uta Hagen, had trained top stage and screen stars.

After he moved to Toronto, it took a while to get going until he landed The Best Years before relocating to Vancouver.

“I wasn’t good-looking enough to be a quarterback on a CW show, but I wasn’t nerdy enough for the sci-fi shows Vancouver was very heavy with,” he recalled. “I fell through the cracks.”

As exhilarating as it was doing Package Deal, it was “fast and furious” and the toughest work pace he’s experienced, he said.

Before taping in front of a live studio audience in Burnaby each Friday, a week-long process included an initial readthrough, blocking and rehearsals, many rewrites, and further revisions once network executives were teleconferenced in.

“They will cut things so quickly,” Edwards said. “I learned if you don’t want it to change a lot, hit it out of the park.”

As well as getting a “free comedy education” from Levy, a surprisingly “quiet, serious guy,” Edwards got to work with Pamela Anderson. The Ladysmith-born actress guest-starred as Ryan’s new therapist.

“She oozes this sexuality she’s so acutely in control of at all times. She’s incredibly smart and so aware of what she is in the business,” he said, confessing: “I was reduced to my 14-year-old self every time she was there.”

While Edwards awaits Package Deal’s fate, he’s the envy of his peers for landing a recurring role in The Killing, AMC’s acclaimed crime series, based on the Danish original, chronicling the investigation into a Pacific Northwest teenager’s murder.

“Doing an AMC show in Vancouver is one of the best opportunities to get noticed,” he said. “The calibre of leads is something I’d never been around before and they have directors who’ve done Mad Men, The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire.”

The direction that accounts for The Killing’s distinctively muted tone couldn’t be more different from that on Package Deal.

“Less acting … no acting … just be real,” Edwards was told. “It was amazing.”

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