Actor and director Mark O’Brien casts social impact as the star in Canada’s next 150 years.
By Jennifer Lee
Photography by Jessica Haye and Clark Hsiao
Art has triggered great shifts across the globe. From the canvas to the stage; from individuals to movements; from expression to censorship—the medium has inspired and captivated makers of history.
To a young boy in St. John’s, Newfoundland, art opened up the world and invited him to explore. “It changed my life,” recalls Mark O’Brien. He found the artistic community at age 19 through acting and has been entertaining film and television audiences ever since. But, as the Halt and Catch Fire star shares, being an actor, writer and director entails more than helping people find enjoyment; artists have a duty to use their platforms as tools for change. “I think I have a responsibility to communicate something positive and thought-provoking through my work,” he says. “If I can do that… spur the mind and ideas of others, or even just make them laugh or bring people together, then I think that can help open up doors and make way for new ideas and acceptance—however small that may be.”
Small actions can seed big change. For Mark, it starts with choosing projects that have a message, like last year’s Oscar-nominated film Arrival directed by Quebec’s Denis Villeneuve. Through the drama of an alien encounter, audiences are left to ponder ideas ranging from free will to the importance of common communication. Extraterrestrial analogies aside, Mark thinks we must strive to forge connections and appreciate differences in order to strengthen our society. “There is so much hatred and intolerance of the views of other people,” he says. “How can the population be a ‘we’ if people don’t respect the various views of other people?”
Diversity is a cherished trait of our identity as a country, to protect this and the culture of those who make up the Canadian mosaic, Mark suggests getting out into the world and meeting people—a feeling shared by wife Georgina Reilly, an actress and fellow “WE are Canada: Future 50” honouree. As she commented in her interview with WE, “Even when you’re watching TV, you are in communication with the people who created it, you are being effected by them in some way, even if it’s small.”
Film and television offers a glimpse into the lives of others. The power of movies and shows lies in their potential to educate—sometimes even galvanize people into action. As Diana Barrett, former Harvard Business School professor and founder of The Fledgling Fund (a private foundation that supports media and film projects with social impact) said to audience members at 2010’s inaugural Gleitsman Social Change Film Forum, a good film can be a “platform for a more complicated strategy for bringing about social change.”
Mark echoes this sentiment and highlights connectedness among the rewards of impactful art—documented experiences and woven stories that touch one’s humanity. “All joy, inspiration, excitement and challenges in life are direct results of our interactions with one another,” he explains. “That’s why it’s vital to look outward as a group, as opposed to inward as an isolated individual.”
The arts bring people together—the best work does so with purpose. A champion of the arts and a believer in its inherent social impact, Mark—who can next be seen in Amazon’s The Last Tycoon this July—is committed to opening up audiences to the possibility of change-making through acting, writing and directing. Read on to learn how he would like to see Canadians take part.
Why is “we” stronger than “me?”
We don’t live alone in this world. If everyone only looked out for themselves exclusively, mankind simply wouldn’t have made it this far.
What is the kindest action you’ve been on the receiving end of, and what about the gesture touched you personally?
I remember when I was 12 years old, living in Newfoundland. At that time my parents had very, very little money. We had one TV in the house and one day it broke. My parents couldn’t afford to get it fixed or buy a new one and for a 12-year-old that is extremely upsetting, not so much because I couldn’t watch my favorite shows, but because it was a punch in the face of just how bad my family was doing at that time, financially. We couldn’t even afford to fix a TV and the stress was mounting and mounting in our household. At this time, my best friend in the world (and still to this day) was my buddy Jeff Lawlor. He was a year older than me and we spent just about every day together, hanging out and playing sports. Finally, one day I unloaded and told Jeff how my family were in a very rough financial situation; I broke down about how embarrassed and worried I was about the situation. About two days go by and my mom is picking Jeff up to come over to my house to hang out. When he came out of the house, he was carrying his own 13-inch TV that he had had in his bedroom. He got in the car and said “That’s yours now.” He was giving it to me, asking for nothing in return… not even asking for it back. It was mine for good. What touched me about this wasn’t the television or watching my favorite shows again, what touched me was that that’s not something your typical 13-year-old is willing to do, especially without being asked. He took it upon himself to do whatever he could to make me feel better about what I was going through with my family. His kindness helped me forget all that. It was a tiny gesture, but it was the thoughtfulness beyond it. I’ll never forget it.
Fill in the blank: Moving forward into the next 150 years, our country needs [blank] in order to build a more caring and compassionate Canada.
More art. More art. More art.
It’s very difficult to get the funding needed to make art. But, I honestly and truly believe, the more art you have in any country, the higher the morale and the greater the possibilities. Art inspires and provides an escape and when I see (or create something personally) that will never see the light of day because there was no funding available, it always touches a nerve because the possibilities that can grow from a beautiful piece of creativity are incalculable.
Describe the core values of your ideal Canada.
My ideal Canada is kind, welcoming and supportive. That’s what makes me proud to be Canadian. I’ve personally witnessed so much kindness and support throughout my career as an artist. I don’t believe that happens everywhere. As a Newfoundlander, I feel like it’s a real community, we have each other’s’ back and are proud of our successes and ambitions.
What small action have you taken in present day to help secure a brighter future for our country tomorrow?
I’m an artist and sometimes it’s a ruthless business. I always make sure to acknowledge others in their artistic pursuits. I believe the arts have a tremendously positive and powerful influence upon everyone, and when you can support and acknowledge other artists, it breeds creativity on a higher plane. In the future, I’d really like to start creating arts programs for young people. I believe there’s nothing more powerful than art, and I’d love to give young people an opportunity to start flexing those muscles.
What’s one action you want people to take in order to build a better country?
I think accepting and respecting the views of others is a necessity for any country. This isn’t primarily a Canadian concern for me, it’s a worldwide one.