Mary Walsh Opens Up About Her Life, The Industry, Mental Health, The LGBT+ Community & More…

ThrowBack article by Sarah Furlong

Photo Provided By Mary Walsh

This article was published in the August 2015 edition.

Known for her countless characters on TV, in movies, in theatre and recently for her characters on ‘This Hour Has 22 Minutes’ including Marg Delahunty, Mary Walsh has been a household name across Newfoundland and Labrador and Canada for many years.

For a woman who has worked on such a long list of productions, on and off camera, Walsh doesn’t have a typical backstory. She grew up in downtown St. John’s with dreams of becoming a journalist.

“I didn’t have any interest in the performing arts, but I didn’t have the grades to be a journalist,” Walsh tells The Outport.

Walsh procured a summer replacement position with the CBC and was approached by the Newfoundland Travelling Theatre Company (NTTC) founder Dudley Cox. Cox asked that Walsh accept a role in one of his plays, having heard her voice over CBC radio and taken a liking to it. Walsh eventually went on tour with NTTC.

“I kind of fell into it because I wasn’t that good on the radio,” says Walsh.

“The only mail we ever got at the CBC was from someone asking ‘who’s the mad giggler on from 10:00 to 11:00 in the morning?’”

Though Walsh had wanted to study journalism at Ryerson University, she studied theatre instead. While attending Ryerson, Walsh lived in a house with several people, including Tommy Sexton and Diane Olsen.

In 1973, Sexton and Olsen were commissioned by Theatre Pass Muraille to write a play about Newfoundland and Labrador. The duo created “Cod on a Stick”, which was a comedic show about Canadian stereotypes of Newfoundlanders. The cast included Walsh, Sexton, Olsen, Greg Malone, Cathy Jones, and Paul Sametz.

Walsh later left Ryerson and started work at a Toronto bar called Le Coq d’Or.

“I quickly realized that I wasn’t good behind the bar,” says Walsh. “I wasn’t good on stage at that time either, but I was a little bit better on stage than I was in the bar.”

Walsh describes her eventual involvement with performing arts as somewhat atypical.

“Tommy [Sexton] wanted to be a performer since he was three. It wasn’t what I wanted to do until I was 27,” Walsh tells The Outport. “I always wanted to be a journalist, that’s why ‘This Hour Has 22 Minutes’ was so good for me; I got to pretend I was a journalist on TV.”

Like many artists, Walsh has had many influences throughout her personal and professional life.

While working on a production, Walsh met Andy Jones, whom she says had a lot of routines worked out that were heavily based upon Newfoundland.

“I had known that Newfoundlanders were funny, but our family was ‘mean funny’; I didn’t know you could be ‘kind funny’.”

Canadian film producer Denise Robert is also among Walsh’s professional influences. Walsh met Robert while writing and directing a film for Cinémaginaire.

“She couldn’t hear the word ‘no’. It was like a revelation to me,” says Walsh. “She thought there was no way you couldn’t get the answer you needed if you just went far enough, which is not in fact the case, but it’s a great way to go about things.”

Walsh says Shirley Douglas — daughter of Tommy Douglas, ex-wife of Donald Sutherland, and mother to Kiefer Sutherland — also played a huge role in both her personal and professional life.

“Over my long life I’ve had many different answers. I used to say it was because we’ve had so much hardship, but I don’t believe that anymore. I believe four or five funny people settled here and got at each other.

“People always talk about her as if those three men make up her life, but she is the most extraordinary woman, and I wouldn’t have gotten through my 40s and 50s if it wasn’t for her.”

Prior to all of that, Walsh says her influences were Monty Python, and Andrea Martin and Catherine O’Hara of SCTV.

When asked why Newfoundlanders seem to have so much success with comedy, Walsh says it’s because we’ve learned that being funny is useful.

“Over my long life I’ve had many different answers. I used to say it was because we’ve had so much hardship, but I don’t believe that anymore. I believe four or five funny people settled here and got at each other.

“Even if you’re not naturally funny in Newfoundland, you learn to be funny and you use it because it gets you places.

“Accounting might get you somewhere really good in Toronto, so if you’re skilled with numbers, you learn how to be better at that. We’ve all learned to be good at comedy because it’s worth something.”

Walsh says one of the reasons she’s so fond of Newfoundland is that we’re a close, tightly-knit province.

“I like knowing who people’s parents and grandparents are and I like having a connection. Other people – it’s important for them to be anonymous and be in the middle of New York City and not know anyone,” says Walsh.

“Being on ‘This Hour Has 22 Minutes’, people in Vancouver would say ‘hello’ to you. Stars in America have fame at a level that is probably uncomfortable and disturbing but that doesn’t happen here. People say ‘Oh my God, I love you” or “Mom loves you” and you feel at home in the country. I’ll always be a Newfoundlander first, but because we did that show, I feel at home in Canada.”

Walsh says that growing up in Newfoundland has helped prepare her for a performing arts career.

“I travel a lot, even doing ‘This Hour Has 22 Minutes’. My father went to sea from the time he was ten and some of us go out to work and come back and some of us go out to work and stay and it’s been a long history in Newfoundland to leave to go to work. To a certain degree, it’s still our history in the performing arts. We have such a small population that we can’t support as large a group of artists as we have.”

We asked if there was any advice Walsh would like to give to our young readers.

“’To thine own self be true’ is the best advice, but it’s hard to see that when you’re young. There is only one you and whatever success you’re going to have is going to be because you somehow are comfortable with yourself. You’re the only person you’re with 24 hours a day, so you have to achieve that. I would have advised my younger self to come to that earlier. I don’t regret anything; it’s just the way it is.”

As an advocate for mental health, Walsh says she’s delighted with the progress society has made in an effort to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness, but there’s still a lot of work to do.

“We’re afraid. Fact is, people with mental illness hurt themselves rather than hurting someone else. The fear is deeper than that, though. We feel so near the edge ourselves – we get so fragile, anything can throw us off. In that primal way, we are afraid of people who have fallen off; if we go near them, we may go over ourselves.

I just have to tip my cap to [The gay community] because they’ve just done an extraordinary job, and so fast.

“’Bell Let’s Talk’ has made a major impact. As we lessen our ignorance, the stigma lessens. One time, we were afraid of the dark. Now, we just turn the lights on. Things like ‘Bell Let’s Talk’ are turning the lights on. We need to recognize that it’s only one bit; the head is connected to the neck bone and the back bone and we’re only one unit and we can’t keep cutting the head off and pretending that it’s something else.”

With the legalization of same-sex marriage across the USA recently, Walsh joked that those who are upset and angered by it should “get a job or volunteer at the hospital.”

“In 1973 when Tommy Sexton marched in the Gay Pride Parade in Toronto, they all got arrested. I was there in 2011 and spoke at a Pride dinner and the mayor was there – the mayor before Ford – and the Premier was there, the member of parliament was there; it was like the way that the gay community has changed society has made people come around and see them as human beings as opposed to the other. I just have to tip my cap to them because they’ve just done an extraordinary job, and so fast.

“When I was going to university, it was completely different; things have changed. I know there is still a pocket of people who want to live in the dark ages, but what can you do? It’s like when they get in power, it’s scary, like they have in our country, and you see all these things turn bad. But, I don’t see that happening in our lifetime. ”

Walsh says that in her downtime she likes to read, garden, and hike. She does a lot of volunteer work and she admits she likes to binge-watch television.

Keep an eye out for Walsh’s upcoming novel with Harper Collins called “Crying for the Moon”, as well as a TV series with Rhonda Buckley called “A Sweet Ride”.

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