As Anne Shirley on Anne of Green Gables and two sequels, there was a time when Megan Follows was the face of Canadian culture. She's been recognized on safari in Tanzania and on the Yangtze River in China. Now 42, Follows still divides her time between Toronto and Los Angeles, between theatre and television. She's in Vancouver for the Canadian premiere of This by Vancouver-raised playwright Melissa James Gibson. Follows plays a recently widowed woman trying to make it through middle age as a single mother.
How much of your own baggage do you bring to this role?
I guess one man's baggage is another man's treasure chest. I've certainly been touched by a few of the themes in this piece. And I appreciate the combination of the subject matter and humour. Not a guffaw kind of humour, but the way humour can help us survive and navigate through periods of huge transition. It certainly speaks to me in that I'm definitely in a period of transition myself. I'm recently single and my children are growing up, going off to college.
I just watched your audition for Anne of Green Gables on YouTube. What do you remember about that day?
I remember that the day before we had spent hours doing the audition. I had flown in from Los Angeles. I was one of the first people they had seen in the previous year and they'd since seen 3000 people and they hadn't found who they were looking for. And I got another crack at it. I think I was there 3 hours working on the scenes and if I recall, doing some of them with nobody in the room with me, to a plant in the office. Then the next morning just before we were going to the airport, this frantic call came in. Mysteriously, the tape had been destroyed. I had 45 minutes to get back down there, and do the whole thing again if I wasn't going to miss my flight. Then I thought okay it's in the hands of the fates. So that's the audition that you see on YouTube.
Does the continued interest in that role irritate you at all?
No. It's kind of obvious, so I'm really proud of it. I know how hard that was and I know how well it was done, so I take it as a compliment.
Is there a particular fan encounter that has stayed with you?
I was at a clothing store in Beverly Hills, this trendy clothing store, and this young woman was helping me out and then she kind of took a good look at me and she said 'do I know you?' I said 'you might' and then she just burst into tears and started to shake. 'You were Anne. I love you. I grew up with you.' She was this L.A. girl, all done up, and I thought 'wow, that character meant something to her as a young woman.' And I can't forget that; the experience for girls of having a role model whose essence was the quality of her character. She wasn't defined by the men in her life. That still stands out because it's still rare.
What do you think of the roles available to female actors today?
There are some fantastic roles for women and women of a certain age on television, whether it's Medium or The Closer or Damages or Saving Grace. And the theatre - certainly in the last several hundred years, once women were allowed to perform - has offered excellent roles for women to grow into. And that is, of course, the complete opposite of what happens in cinema.
When you were playing Anne on TV, things were very different in terms of media scrutiny. How do you think you would have handled the world that young actresses have to live in today?
It must be a nightmare. That whole thing: the paparazzi, a gazillion magazines. You can't lie on a beach. God forbid your bikini rides up too far or you've eaten too many doughnuts and they catch you wiping your mouth. That must be exhausting, that lack of privacy.
How much did you learn about navigating the world as a young actor from your parents [actors Dawn Greenhalgh and Ted Follows]
My parents were working performers so obviously I saw that there wasn't a lot of fairy tale going on there. It was a precarious world. One that they were deeply committed to and deeply loved, but one that required a lot of hard work. I think that grounds you, because you also see the heartbreak. You understand that and there's a lot of it in our business.
Do you still experience heartbreak?
Oh, sure. Absolutely.
Roles you wanted but didn't get?
Sure. That still happens, definitely.
How do you deal with it?
It depends. It's a sting. And then you kind of pick yourself up and you look towards the next one.
This is at the Vancouver Playhouse Jan. 8 - 29; opening Jan. 13 (vancouverplayhouse.com).
This interview has been edited and condensed.