Lady Macbeth tears into a plate of shockingly rare meat and a goblet of blood red wine.
To tell the truth, it’s just a rather demure bunless hamburger and a small glass of Pinot Noir, being consumed in a deserted Stratford pub on a chilly late spring evening. But Krystin Pellerin approaches everything in her life with such intense vitality that it seems like just the kind of meal the haunted Scottish noblewoman would have downed before sending Duncan off to his death.
“In my real life,” she says, almost apologetically, “everything is usually about health and wellness, but while I’m playing this woman, I’m starting to wonder if everything should be quite so clean. After a day of rehearsal, I’m craving chicken hearts, drafts of blood, and things like that.”
That’s not the way you expect a leading lady at the Stratford Festival to talk, but Pellerin is still learning the ropes.
When artistic director Antoni Cimolino cast the thirty-two-year-old Newfoundland-born actress to play the female lead in this year’s signature opening tragedy at the Stratford Festival, she’d only been in one role here before. It was Mitchell Cushman’s 2015 Studio Theatre production of John Mighton’s Possible Worlds.
And on the strength of that, Cimolino auditioned her for Lady Macbeth.
“It came out of nowhere. I wasn’t expecting it. I hadn’t even wished for it. It was beyond thinking about, in my mind.
“But Antoni said it was very important for Lady M. to have equal parts vulnerability and strength, so that you could see that contradiction going on all the time. He said that’s the only way the ending makes perfect sense.”
She sips at her wine and shakes her head.
“To go from one show on the Studio stage to one of the greatest roles in one of the greatest plays on the Festival stage, directed by the boss… wow! In the very best sense of the word, you feel blindsided by it.”
“It’s something you hope for and dream about and think might happen much further down the road, but suddenly it’s taking place instantly. It’s a lot to take in. How do I feel? I feel anxious and ready at the same time.”
Considering that this same scenario has happened to Pellerin several times in her young life, it’s easy to understand how it holds some anxiety but little fear for her.
Right after graduating from the National Theatre School, she wound up playing leading roles for the Soulpepper Theatre Company. After that, she popped right into the mini-series The Tudors as Lady Elizabeth Darrell, filming in Dublin, only to pop back to her native Newfoundland to find Allan Hawco waiting for her with a leading role in his new TV series, Republic of Doyle, which she saw right through the end of its sixth season in 2014.
“I know, it’s crazy!” she laughs, when presented with the list of her sudden successes in numerous types of productions. “I always wind up saying ‘Shouldn’t there be some kind of warm up?’ I never feel ready for things, but then I’ve learned that I have to be.”
Usually when a performer is handed so many treasures on a silver platter, it’s because they’re being typecast in roles close to their actual persona, but that’s not the case with Pellerin.
“In everything I play, in fact, I’m always asked to be somebody completely different than what I am. When people ask me to play these roles, I always say ‘Are you sure?’ But then you realize it’s all just aspects of yourself you haven’t explored that are waiting there inside you.”
Even the bloodstained woman who wields the dagger, then puts her husband on the throne of Scotland?
“I think it’s very healthy for me to be exploring this. It’s so timely for me to be doing this at this point in my life.”
In an earlier profile I wrote about Pellerin in 2011, I referred to her as “a sunbeam” and she smilingly acknowledges that. “I had an astonishingly happy childhood and I’ve carried that through my life all these years.
“But now I want to be able to get more in touch with myself and more authentic in the world. I want to get in touch with all the real darkness that Lady M. represents. The real darkness. The real ugliness. I’m relieved to finally be asked to go to those places.”
There’s a moment of silence as she looks out the window at the gathering dusk.
“I need to be there. It’s surprising and ugly and tiring and I love it. It drains you but it fuels you as well. Yes, these are dark powers that we’re dealing with, but they are definitely still powers.
“As scared as I feel, I think it’s still extremely healthy somehow. When you don’t hold yourself back in rehearsal, those frightening moments are not draining. They don’t take a chunk out of you because something is being worked out through you.”
She pauses in cutting a piece off her burger and holds the knife in a confident way that shows she understands this woman well.
“You’ve just got to hold on and let it take you. The draining part is if I start holding back. Once I stop doing that and the roof blows off the scene and you get to the place where it really lives, it’s not you doing it. It’s the character, working on you and through you and with you.”
This particular day’s rehearsal has been eight hours straight of just her and her co-star, Ian Lake, working through the Macbeths’ relationship with director Cimolino.
Pellerin views her pairing with Lake as a gift of fate.
“We actually went to theatre school together in Montreal. We’re only a week apart in birthdays. We both turn thirty-three in July.
“I remember seeing him in Crime and Punishment. I just finished reading the book five minutes before I ran to the school to see Ian bring it all to life. It was one of the most incredible experiences in my life.”
But Lake and Pellerin only knew each other “in passing” at school and she admits “we’re getting to know each other now for the first time in many ways.
“That’s very right, isn’t it? Because we only have each other in the play. We have to hold onto each other for dear life the same way that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth do.
“Their sexuality is also very important to them. They’re a young couple, they’re very impulsive and passionate and animal. It’s a huge part of who they are. They are unhealthy, they are toxic, but they’re also incredibly compelling.”
There’s an audible affection for the characters in her voice, which demands asking what she feels about the murderous duo.
“I root for them. Yes, I do. I root for them. It’s very sick and twisted what they set out to do, but you have to understand that she wishes for things and has no idea what she’s wishing for. She has this blood lust that she thinks is adventurous and exciting, but even after the murder she doesn’t realize how it tears her up inside.
“Even when she’s unravelling, she doesn’t realize it until she’s fallen apart.”
Lady Macbeth speaks of having given suck to a child, but there’s no evidence of one in the play. How do Pellerin and Lake and Cimolino explain that?
“They had a child that died. And I think that it’s very new. Back then, people never really dealt with things, they never talked about things, discussed their feelings, grieved in an open way. They just shut the door on it.
“So when she brings it up to get him back , it’s the first time they’ve discussed it since it happened and it cuts right through him.”
Before actually starting rehearsals, Pellerin ventured alone into the famed Festival Theatre late one night and stood on the stage for the first time.
“There was no one around. It was a spiritual experience and I felt that something came into my heart. Something that has stayed there.”
Still, while Pellerin acknowledges all of that, she refuses to allow herself to be freaked out or intimidated by the experience.
“It’s extremely important to keep your wits about you. Any kind of nerves betray you on that stage. You can’t indulge those feelings. They have nothing to do with the play. You have to take it a day at a time. And keep it about the work, the story, and the characters. All that other stuff can throw you in a second.
“Sure, you can’t totally block out those thoughts, but you can’t let them govern you. They rob the story of its power. It’s not about us. It’s about the characters. Otherwise, we rob the audience of the story and we rob us of the experience of seeing the story from the inside.”
A few months before rehearsal started, Pellerin slipped on a patch of black ice and broke her ankle.
“There’s a pin in there now,” she says ruefully. “I hadn’t planned to start rehearsals using a cane, but I just got off it a week ago. I think there were good spirits taking care of me.”
She finishes the last of her wine.
“Of course, if I believe in good spirits I guess that must mean I believe in dark spirits as well. I do. But I’m not afraid of them.”
On the contrary, they should be afraid of her.
Macbeth runs at the Stratford Festival until October 23, 2016.Click here for tickets or more information. Click here to check out our gallery of memorable Lady Macbeth performances.