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Being Brian Mulroney takes a lot of makeup

Stephanie Anne Mills, left, as Mila and Rick Miller as Brian Mulroney in Mulroney: The Opera.

Steve Wilkie

"I have the chin, I'm not afraid," Rick Miller sings in the title role of Mulroney: The Opera. Except he doesn't have the chin, and it's not him singing - challenges that, in fact, made the actor a little afraid.

To ham it up as Canada's 18th prime minister in the campy flick, Miller had to be caked under makeup and mouth words actually sung by Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch.

"The challenge for me was double, because not only was I playing underneath this mask, but I was also playing underneath a recorded performance," says Miller, 40, over the phone from his home in Toronto. "It was a very, very different kind of experience for me."

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The idea for Mulroney: The Opera grew out of Canada's preoccupation with political satire, says director Larry Weinstein. Initially reluctant to pursue the project, Weinstein had a change of heart after reading Peter C. Newman's The Secret Mulroney Tapes. The outsized egos and drama of the book would make for perfect opera fare, he realized. But bringing such a movie to life presented a huge set of technical challenges, especially when it came to having the cast learn to lip sync.

"It's really hard, because the singers of course have a conductor, [but]the actors didn't," Weinstein says. On the advice of Mark McKinney, who starred in two of Weinstein's previous, much shorter operas, the singers were videotaped so that actors could study "how their mouths move, and the way their facial expressions are," Weinstein says. A lip-sync coach also worked with the actors.

Faking it to make it may sound easy, but it's not.

Miller spent hours singing in front of a mirror to get his facial expressions and timing just right.

"It was very specific preparation to lip sync properly, and it was something that I've never done," he says. "But I do know how to sing, so I really had to convince people, or at least make them forget that this was a lip sync and have people just slip in to the story."

Miller also studied "reams and reams of Mulroney's words," including as many of his speeches as he could get his hands on, "trying to literally get under his chin."

Actually, in order to get under Brian Mulroney's chin, Miller would sit in the makeup chair for more than three hours each morning, getting tricked out with a prosthetic chin, nose and hair. The film was shot in less than three weeks last fall in Toronto.

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"It really was quite an ordeal every morning," Miller says.

Caking Miller in so much makeup was a tad cruel, jokes Weinstein. After all, Miller has proven to be a gifted impersonator, particularly in MacHomer, his one-man mash-up of Shakespeare and everyone's favourite cartoon family, in which he does impressions of more than 50 voices from The Simpsons.

"It's such a terrible thing to do, especially an actor who's famous for impersonations and who does these incredible vocal impersonations," Weinstein says.

But even though he was buried under prosthetics and lip syncing, Miller was able to compensate thanks to what he calls "schmacting," - an over-the-top style that he felt the material demanded.

"It's essentially ham acting and the kind of thing that one can do on-stage in a silly performance like MacHomer, but I don't really get to do often, especially on a big screen," he says. "Opera is so big and it's so grandiose, and these politicians are so big and so grandiose as well."

Humorous as the movie may be, Miller hopes audiences may learn something about the man and his times.

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"It's a cartoon, but I think it was a really interesting portrait, and a really interesting story," he says.

And what does Miller think Mulroney will make of his performance?

"Thus far, it's really hard to say. I think he might have told Ben not to interview me," Miller says. "But he has been quite silent."

Mulroney: The Opera will be shown in 72 cinemas across the country this Saturday at 1 p.m. (all times local) and on April 27 at 7 p.m. ( mulroneytheopera.ca).

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About the Author

Dave McGinn writes about fitness trends for the Life section and also reports for Globe Arts. Prior to joining the Globe, he was a freelance journalist, covering topics from trying to eat Michael Phelps' diet to why the Joker is the best villain in comics history. He's working on improving his 10k time. More

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