Friday, May 27, 2016

Zerha Leverman: X-Men's Ms. Maximoff

X-Men: Apocalypse opens today and I had the opportunity to interview Ms. Maximoff herself, Zerha Leverman.

Ms. Maximoff is Magneto’s (Michael Fassbender) baby mama and Quicksilver’s (Evan Peters) mom. Leverman and I talk about her experience in both Days of Future Past and its sequel, plus her twenty-year theatre and film career.

TorontoVerve: You began your film and theatre career in the 90’s. When did you know that you wanted to be an actor? 

Zerha Leverman: I was 18 when I admitted it. That’s when I had the guts to say it out loud, but I always knew I wanted to perform. I didn’t get into actual acting until I was 24 years old. That’s when I went on my first audition. As a teenager, I was inspired by Sissy Spacek’s great performance in Carrie and I loved that funny high school movie, My Bodyguard. I remember watching television shows like M*A*S*H, All in the Family, Barney Miller and Three’s Company with my dad. He’d always say, “They’re just actors. Real people don’t act like that.” [Laughs] That’s what I always heard because I was so enthralled with what was on the screen.

TV: What did your dad think about you wanting to become an actor? 

ZL: My dad is a visual artist and his query was, “Of all the arts, why acting?” He was least interested in performance art. My grandfather in England was an actor. When I was a kid, my dad would wake me up late at night to watch my grandfather on TV. He did an episode of Fawlty Towers and TV productions of I Am a Camera and Cleopatra.

TV: Did you get the acting bug from your grandfather? 

ZL: I may have. I didn’t grow up with his part of the family. I definitely got into the arts because of dad, and he fully supports anything I do – provided that I’m committed and serious about it.

TV: What was your first real part? 

ZL: I was Lady Torrance in a George Brown production of Tennessee William’s Orpheus Descending. I did the professional acting program at George Brown. It was an exceptional program — probably the best three years of my life. The first time I auditioned for the school, I didn’t know what I was doing. I remember I was memorizing my Shakespeare in the parking lot and then I walked out on stage in this dark black box theatre with the panel in front of me. After I completed all of my pieces, the panel asked, “What have you done?” I said, “Nothing,” and they replied, “Go away, get some experience and then come back.” So I did a SummerWorks Play and took a night course at Ryerson. I went back to George Brown the following year and auditioned my pants off and this time they told me, “Alright. You’re in.” That’s where it all began. I love the stage.

TV: What do you like about the stage? 

ZL: The ability to fully articulate yourself. You just lose all sense of space and time, and you’re able to be your entire self. The cast and audience are taken on a journey together. There’s nothing like it.

TV: You co-starred with one of my favourite actors, Mario Van Peebles, in HBO’s Valentine’s Day (AKA Protector) in 1998 so I have to ask, what was it like working with him? 

ZL: [Laughs] He was lovely and very funny. I knew he was a bit of a director then and his dad was famous. He was a sweetheart. I remember him doing a lot of push ups between takes. [Laughs]. He did a sweet thing and I can’t believe that I didn’t get in the habit of doing it myself. After the shoot, he asked me to sign his script. I guess he collected signed scripts from all of his co-workers on film projects. I remember his script had all these cute little drawings on it. I couldn’t believe that he was asking me to sign it because I was brand new to the business. What a gracious thing to do.

TV: Last year, Variety reported on a study that found that there are fewer lead roles for women in Hollywood, and I would assume that that number dramatically drops for women over 40. What are your thoughts about that? 

ZL: [Laughs] I fully agree that it drops over 40. It drops right off the map. I can’t believe that I’m still poking around this business. I think it’s women’s responsibility to write projects too. Yeah, Hollywood is predominately male, but it’s also up to me to write something that I want to be in, and get it made. Women can’t complain that it’s not being done if they're not doing something about it. Yeah, it’s rough, but men aren’t interested in hearing that because they don’t have our story. Of course, there are extraordinary male writers who are connected with their feminine side, but there are very few.

TV: Are you writing? 

ZL: I am. Finally. I had this idea for a while and who knows if it’ll ever get made. I ask myself, “What do you want to do if this acting thing doesn’t pan out?” I could manage my dad’s artwork. That’s a massive project. I could go back to school and start a new career. I could do those things, but I would still feel the need to tell this story that's in the back of my head.

TV: How did you first get involved with the X-Men films? 

ZL: I auditioned. The film was under a pseudo name at the time, but my agent knew it was X-Men. The character break down was that she wasn’t a great mom and she drinks too much. She’s kind of a jerk. That’s why I really like her [laughs]. I don’t drink much or have any kids, but I love this woman. She’s fierce, but her self-destructive habits get in the way of her being all that she can be. Anyone can relate to that. I love the underdog. Those are the kinds of roles you fight for.

TV: Were you familiar with X-Men prior to getting the Ms. Maximoff role? 

ZL: No, but here’s a really cool story. A week before my audition, I bought my first smart TV and it had Netflix. It took me three days to choose a movie because there were just too many to choose from. Finally, I told myself, “Zerha, why don’t you just…,” and this is so ridiculous, but it’s true, “…why don’t you just pick a movie you think that you could be in.” So I chose X-Men: First Class. I didn’t know what it was. 

TV: What a minute — this is before you knew about the audition? Wow! 

ZL: Right. This happened a week before I got the audition. So, I watched it and I didn’t understand it at all. And that was that. Then a week later, my agent told me about the sequel, and I was like, “Wow! That’s very serendipitous!” Before the audition, I went to Fashionably Yours vintage boutique on Queen West and bought a 70’s wrap-around. I’m still meaning to go back there and thank them for it [Laughs]. Three weeks later, I found out that I was Ms. Maximoff. I screamed. I was so happy. I couldn’t believe it.

TV: Did you do a lot of research on her? 

ZL: Not a lot. I knew that she was human, but I didn’t want to over-think it. They didn’t tell me much about her nor did they tell me the story. All I knew was that I was going to be opening the door to some cops. So the day before filming, I was in wardrobe getting fitted and I was telling the wardrobe person that I was playing somebody who opens the door to some extras. That’s when she told me, “She’s not anybody.” She was talking about my character. “She’s Magneto’s baby mama and Quicksilver’s mom for Chrissake.” I said, “What?! I have a child with Michael Fassbender’s character?!” And she said, “And the guys who come to the door aren’t extras, they’re Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy and Nicholas Hoult.” I was like, “What?!” I found all this out just the day before shooting. Thank God I had the rest of the afternoon to myself. I rented a Bixi bike and rode around Montreal for six hours to get rid of all that excitement and energy. I wanted to show up like a normal human being the next morning [Laughs].

TV: Describe what that day of shooting was like for you and opening the door to those guys. 

ZL: It was a long day. There were multiple takes in and outside the house. I opened the door and they entered the house over and over again. I remember director Bryan Singer telling me, “Ok, you can’t be gobsmacked when you open the door to them. You have to open the door like you’ve opened the door many times before.” I needed to get rid of that ‘deer in headlights’ look [Laughs].

TV: You must be excited about seeing X-Men: Apocalypse. 

ZL: Yes, I still don’t know where the story is going to go. I don’t know any more than anybody else does. I’m still a little bit in the dark about who Marge (Ms. Maximoff) is and what happened. I remember going up to Evan [Peters] (Quicksilver) and asking him, “Did you read the script?” And he said, “Yeah.” [Laughs] He chuckled, but he still didn’t tell me anything.

TV: What does it mean to you to be a part of such a massive franchise like X-Men? 

ZL: It’s really awesome. I just can’t believe it. The best part for me is I’m playing a character that I love. I adore flawed characters. They’re what I relate to the most. I love seeing them work hard to figure things out. Their constant struggle is fascinating to me.

TV: I shot your street style back in 2013 and I saw your play, Anton in Show Business. So when you first appeared on screen in Days of Future Past, I immediately recognized you. Do you get recognized on the street often for playing Ms. Maximoff? 

ZL: No. Maybe after people see X-Men: Apocalypse. Who knows? People who know me, definitely identify me in the film. It’s kinda cool that I’ve had a taste of this crazy thing and been able to keep my anonymity. It’s not intrusive or bizarre. I really love my life and love my responsibilities. I’m happy for it to change, but I prefer a slow and gradual change.

TV: We were talking about the amount of roles for women over 40 in Hollywood. When I learned that you were back as Ms. Maximoff in X-Men: Apocalypse, I was so happy for you because that doesn’t happen often. Even leading ladies in major film franchises are rarely asked back for sequels. 

ZL: My agent called me and he wouldn’t stop laughing. He said, “You’re not going to believe this, but X-Men want you back!” I thought that was crazy. I always thought that if anything ever happens with this character, they’ll recast her [with a big star]. So it’s really nice to be brought back.

TV: Now that you’ve appeared in two X-Men movies, how do you feel about superhero movies overall? 

ZL: I’m definitely more interested in them. I want to know how they are made, what the actors are doing in them and who the fans are. I’m also fascinated with Comicon and Fan Expo.

TV: Those are in your future. 

ZL: That’s what my friends tell me. Fans are very passionate about their superheroes. It’s charming to see them dressing up as their favourite characters. The connections they have [with comic heroes] are real. Any art that transports you to a different world is vital and necessary.

TV: Jackman personally told you on the set of Days of Future Past that he was thinking about retiring from Wolverine. Did you get a sense of how he felt about that?

ZL: Not really. I was surprised that he shared something about his professional life with me. I can imagine the amount of effort it takes for him to put on that kind of muscle. I’m sorry to see him go as Wolverine. I would think that he could do it for a while longer.

TV: What did you say after he told you? 

ZL: I don’t think I said anything. Honestly, I was just happy that he was talking to me [Laughs]. I was like, “Yeah, whatever you say, man. That’s great!” Hugh Jackman is talking to me! I couldn't believe it! [Laughs]

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