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Jay Baruchel Makes It Click in 'BlackBerry'

The actor, writer and director goes behind-the-scenes on his latest film 'BlackBerry', about the rise and fall of the titular smartphone, and explains his drive to tell Canadian stories.

By: Ben KrizDate: 2023-03-14

​Jacket is custom made by  Harold 

Jay Baruchel has been acting since he was nine years old, and it’s obvious that he’s still intensely passionate about his work.

“I get a profound excitement, joy and fulfillment out of acting, but my raison d’etre is still to direct movies,” he says.

After moving to LA, Baruchel appeared in blockbuster comedies like Knocked Up, Tropic Thunder and This is The End, did voice work in the How to Train Your Dragon franchise and stared in his cult-classic Goon films. But, despite his impressive résumé, he’s remained one of the most ‘un-Hollywood’ Canadian stars. He still lives in Toronto and wants to tell stories about his own country.

“If I was in any other country in the world and somebody asked ‘why you want to make movies here’... well, nobody would even ask. But here there’s a question and a caveat because [Canadian talent] is so used to articulating someone else’s culture for them!”

His latest project is certainly about as iconic as a Canadian story can get. This spring, he stars in a new film about the spectacular rise-and-fall of BlackBerry – the Waterloo, Ontario juggernaut that revolutionized the mobile-phone industry long before Apple released the now ubiquitous iPhone. Along with Glenn Howerton (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) as co-CEO Jim Balsillie, Baruchel plays founder Mike Lazaridis in a wild story about ambition and the tempestuous partnership between the two innovators.

“I was raised to believe that this is the best country in the world.”

The Montreal-raised actor, writer and director sat down with Harry over coffee at his favourite Toronto haunt – the White Lily Diner – to talk about the film, telling Canadian stories and working with Schwarzenegger.

Congrats on the movie! How did you get involved in a film about such a big story in Canadian history?

I’ve known [director] Matt Johnson for a few years and I’ve been a fan of his for longer than that. Our circles got overlapped over time and he got in touch with me a few years ago and said: ‘I’m going to make a movie about BlackBerry and I want you to be one of the two founders.’ I read the script and it checked every box. I want to tell definitively Canadian stories, especially if it’s something that’s in recent history and so profoundly tied to the world we live in now. That’s a story the world should know.

What’s Johnson’s approach when it comes to storytelling?

He does a lot of takes and nobody is more harsh on the script and the dialogue than him. He lets you know when something needs to be in there but the rest of the time it’s like: ‘here are the parameters of where we need to get to and if there’s a more organic character-appropriate moment that isn’t on the page, then we’ll go with that.’

I get along with him like a house on fire but, even if I didn’t, I respect his opinion and I like the way he makes a movie and what he cares about. Even if it’s 40 degrees Celsius in a derelict steel mill in Hamilton in the middle of a heat wave and I’m wearing a wig and it’s taken two hours to get it on and it smells like shit and it’s miserable... I trust him and I know the movie is going to sing!

Did you find that you had a great deal in common with the character?

Indeed, yeah. He was sort of a square peg – an inconvenient man that doesn’t tailor himself to the world. He would rather have been penniless rather than build something he didn’t believe in. Everything had to be a passion project for him.

One of the things I just really vibe on is that the movie is about three patriotic Canadians in a country where that... it’s such a hard thing to put a finger on. They wanted to beat the Americans. Jim Balsillie had this entire thing like ‘fuck them, [the Americans] are going to eat out of my hands they’re going to come to me.’ Not even to Toronto but to Waterloo. That’s something that’s in me in a massive way.

On that note, you hang your hat in Toronto these days and are quite involved in Canadian productions and the scene here. You come across as a guy who flies the flag for Canada a little more than other local actors who work in the US.

That’s fair to say. My dad’s side are proud immigrants who chose this country and this country was quite good to them. And my mum’s side are dyed-in-the-wool Nova Scotia. She grew up on an army base where my grandad was a career soldier. So I grew up around people who pledged an oath to serve this country.

I’ve seen other households where the brass ring was always outside the country and it was only a matter of time before their kids could go to school elsewhere. That wasn’t my experience.

I was raised to believe that this is the best country in the world. We moved back to Montreal in ’93 and my patriotism was tempered in the fire of the ’90s referendum stuff in Quebec. Then I went to the States when I was 18, which forged it even more. There’s a reason I have a red maple leaf tattooed over my heart.

We’ve been conditioned to expect a sort of subliminal Canadianess. We will all watch Wayne’s World and get references that Americans and Brits wouldn’t get, even though takes place in ‘Aurora, Illinois.’

That’s what makes BlackBerry a story worth telling. Canadians are accustomed to seeing a romanticized rural version of ourselves more than the city version of ourselves. We don’t watch the urbane stories, we don’t watch the tech and Bay Street stuff. We are much more at peace identifying ourselves as Letterkenny and Goon and Trailer Park Boys.

When you read the script, what surprised you the most?

The crazy, big, broad stoke stuff they were pulling, like the backdating of the stock options and all these big swings I didn’t know they took. I had a BlackBerry until about four years ago. I only got an iPhone last year. I didn’t know quite how important BlackBerry was in the creation of the modern world. I still personally don’t understand why the iPhone is better. The hard keys were just much better with the satisfying click!

What was it like working with Glenn Howerton?

Most people know his as Dennis in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia but he’s incredible to watch in the role. The best. He’s a machine and he shaved his head for the movie! He didn’t have to do that. That’s what you get when you train with a Julliard-trained stud! He does awesome stuff in this movie. He never complains, will rock with whatever is happening – you put him on the ice and that shift is going to be worth it. Every time the puck gets on the net with him.

What are your go-to inspirations as an actor, director, and a creative?

I know a movie is really good or really bad when I’m inspired to go write as soon as it’s over. Typically you watch one at night and when it’s over you have a cup of tea and go to bed. But when I watch a movie and I have to get to my laptop immediately it’s either because it’s the best thing I’ve ever seen and it triggered me – like ‘that’s why I want to do this’ – or it’s like ‘they ruined it, they had this opportunity and this is what they did with it!’ But it’s righteous either way.

I’m always reading two books at the same time. I go down a lot of rabbit holes on Wikipedia and then also I’m very fortunate that I have a place that we get to escape to in the 1000 Islands near Kingston and just be in the bush. It’s God’s country and it’s hard not to be inspired by that.

I read that you’re a self-professed history nerd as well. Are there any little-known Canadian stories you’d like to tell on the screen?

Big time. I would say the Second World War and the First World War – and also the Middle Ages and the Crusades.

I bought the rights to a book called Malta Spitfire, which is an autobiography written by a Canadian Spitfire pilot that came out in ’46. He was Canada’s most successful Spitfire ace. He had 27 confirmed kills, and 15 or 20 of those are in a two-week period over Malta. He and a few Canadians and Brits got to the island (at the time the most bombed place on Earth), cleared the skies out and saved the day. He is an amazing character by any measure.

We need a little more of that storytelling this country.

Correct. The Great Escape? Every dude in this country watched that movie with their dad and their grandad and most of those characters are Canadian in real life. There were no Americans in that camp because it was only for Commonwealth airmen. Everybody thinks Steve McQueen, the American, saved the day and it was a Canadian.

It seems like you’re trying to tell a lot of smaller stories. What’s your take on the industry these days with streaming and the mass popularity of superhero movies?

When we were kids there were a dozen sizes of movies that could come out. And now there’s basically ultra-low budget indies and Marvel, Harry Potter and Star Wars and nothing in- between. But the standard is the standard until somebody upsets the applecart.

I don’t know how streaming will level out. I don’t know that they have figured out a way for everybody to get a piece of it yet. But I also know that I prefer to watch movies at home. Any cinematographer will tell you: the image at home is better! And I grew up as a poor kid. The romance of nothing like the big screen? Ninety percent of the movies that I watched and great movie experiences I had were at home. It’s just the God’s honest truth. We were video store kids.

Coming up, I know you’re working with Canadian legend David Cronenberg’s daughter, Caitlin Cronenberg on her debut directorial feature?

Yeah! [David] is one of my heroes and I got to be directed by him. I’ve had my picture taken by Caitlin for years, as she’s a very talented and skilled photographer. So, knowing this was her first at-bat and it was an amazing script and she’s an amazing artist, we made this movie called Humane and it’s crazy. I don’t’ want to give too much away but it’s very bloody and... her surname is well-represented on screen.

You also recently worked with Arnold Schwarzenegger when he was filming in Toronto. Must have been surreal.

Yeah, as I was shooting BlackBerry, they were shooting at Pinewood [Studios in Toronto]. So I’d be Mike Lazaridis and then would drive from Hamilton to over here to do a scene with Arnold as his daughter’s fiancé. He’s quantifiably, probably the biggest movie star in the history of the world. To get to work with him – it never gets normal.

Finally, let’s talk style. How do you approach that?

It’s a sort of push and pull between what I like wearing and what my wife wants me to wear. I’m not as much of a Mr. Potato Head as she would like... some men just like to forfeit. If she buys me something, I will wear it, but I also insist on dressing myself. [laughs]

I never know any brand names. Every time I’m on a red carpet somebody asks me who I’m wearing I never know the answer! I just never know. It’s not bad or a good thing. When it matters, I try, but there have been plenty of times where it mattered and I should have tried harder. So, I need to put a bit more effort in.

If you’re directing, do you like to wear something specific?

That’s a fair question. I wonder – I don’t think so, but I know that I try to inject a bit of military into it. I think the next time I get to direct I want to wear combat boots and puttees [laughs].

Photography by Kyle Wilson, assisted by Matt Watkins
Styling by Chunyu Yuan, assisted by Karyssa Paez

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