Back to Frank Black speaks to Cheyrl McNamara

Midnight of The Century was a welcome opportunity for viewers to take a look back to Frank Black’s childhood and to introduce his mother and father to the audience for the first time. The touching story of a woman struggling beneath the weight of her failing health and her growing visionary facility and the man who loved her, but could not cope with the profundity of her experiences, is one of the most touching aspects of the story and one which certainly resonates strongly with viewer’s emotions. BackToFrankBlack was delighted when Cheryl McNamara (Linda Black) agreed to take time from her busy schedule to share her recollections of being part of that story. We hope you will join with all of us in showing your gratitude to her and wishing her a very Merry Christmas in the process.

BACK TO FRANK BLACK: I wondered if we could begin by asking you how you came to play the role of Linda Black in Millennium’s “Midnight of The Century”?

CHERYL MCNAMARA: Coreen Mayrs was the casting director of Millennium and X-Files. She was, and continues to be one, of Vancouver’s top casting directors. I had graduated from my acting training at the University of British Columbia two years prior to playing Linda Black in Millennium. Coreen was absolutely terrific. She was very supportive of actors new to film and TV.

I remember the audition process quite well. The breakdown for Linda Black told the story of a woman in the 1940s dying from cancer. In preparation, I delved into my closet for clothes that fit the era the most (long tapered skirt, etc.). I also hauled out my Halloween makeup to give my skin a grey and sickly hue. This was counter intuitive, of course, as one always wanted to look their very best for auditions. When I arrived at the audition space at Lions Gate Studios in North Vancouver, I panicked. The waiting hall was full of bouncy healthy looking women. I remember sitting there telling myself over and over that I made the right choice. I had no choice. I was made up and ready to go. The audition went well.

When I was called back it immediately dawned on me that I made the right choice because there were very few in the waiting hall and none there suited the role. It became apparent that I got the role when Coreen’s assistant was asking me for specific measurements for the wardrobe department.

BTFB: Do you remember what your first impressions of the story when you received the script?

CHERYL MCNAMARA: The only impressions that I recall was that the story was intriguing – I was very interested in the supernatural – and that it was a great episode to be part of. I was amused by the notion that I was going to be part of the ‘Millennium Christmas Special’.

BTFB: Could you describe for us the experience of being part of that particular shoot, for example, how many hours your were on the set, how long you had for rehearsal time and what your experience was of working with the cast and crew of Millennium? Did you have the opportunity to spend time with individuals like Lance Henriksen, Kristen Cloke and the late Darren McGavin?

CHERYL MCNAMARA: My memory of the shoot is quite vivid. Millennium had a reputation of having a fantastic crew – everyone from the DOP to makeup and hair. They did not disappoint. The atmosphere on set was very positive, supportive and fun. I got along very well with makeup and hair, despite having my eyebrows aggressively plucked for that 1940s look. I also remember having to remind makeup that my character was quite sick. She had to confirm this with the director.

Making anyone look sick on TV seemed an unholy act. I was fully prepared to look awful. My background was in stage. I had plenty of experience making myself look old and even dead and decaying. If Linda was dying of cancer, she should look like it. I think I was also inspired by the realistic-looking makeup in a Movie of the Week I has seen about a cancer patient on death’s door. Personally I don’t think they went far enough with the makeup.

The shoot was the week of American Thanksgiving – end of November. As a Canadian I didn’t realize it was Thanksgiving until they served turkey and the like at dinner break. It was a lovely surprise and I think made everyone feel a bit closer. It was of course important to the Americans on set.

That night may have been the time we shot all the scenes in the house. All my shots were on location in Vancouver, not in studio. We waited for some time into the evening. Darren McGavin was shooting his big scene. I had hoped to meet him, but didn’t even have a chance to see him.

I do recall an Australian family – parents and their young adult daughter – hanging about the honey wagons that night. I learned that they were diehard fans of the show and had flown all the way from their country just to be on set. I thought that was simply quite extraordinary. I passed by them en route to the house when our call came. I remember wanting to stop to chat about their passion for the show.

I met Lance Henricksen briefly. The only moment our characters connect is when he sees his mother in the nativity window display. He seemed nice – a bit taciturn.

The crew rigged me into the angel wings for the nativity window. The window display was full of hay. I was sitting on it. We shot the scene. That went well. Then the crew forgot about me. I don’t know why. They did. I called out but no one came. I couldn’t take the wings off myself and they needed to be removed before I could exit the window. I don’t normally have allergies, but I’d never been around that much hay. I started to develop a full blown reaction. My eyes watered and I was having trouble breathing. I started yelling and finally someone came to the rescue. Really, the crew were nice…just preoccupied and forgetful.

In terms of rehearsal time, they are are very brief. They usually afford us just one pass before tapping. That was the case on Millennium.

BTFB: Linda’s story is particularly melancholy but no doubt beautifully written. What were your own feelings about the role you played and the episode itself? It’s actually something of a tradition to watch this episode at Christmas time amongst Millennium fans, do ever revisit this episode and watch your own performance in it?

CHERYL MCNAMARA: It’s a touching story of the deep connection between a mother and son, and his loss. I always felt it odd that Linda went up to the top room to die, alone. Of course it served to emphasize the solitude of having her gift.

I worked on specifying the cancer she had. It was never suggested in the script (although cancer was mentioned in the audition breakdown). I decided she had ovarian cancer and worked with that.

I believe I have a tape of that episode somewhere. I haven’t seen it since it aired.

BTFB: You shared the bulk of your scenes in that episode with a gentleman who portrayed the young Henry Black. I have been unable to discover who portrayed that role and I wondered if you recalled who he was? You also had screen time with A.J. Adamson as the young Frank Black, does the old adage of “…never work with animals or children..” have a grain of truth about it?

CHERYL MCNAMARA: I can’t remember the name of the actor who played Henry Black. A.J. was adorable. He had some challenges remembering his cues, but he was a little boy and of course everyone cut him considerable slack. The scene with Linda and young Frank looking at the train set in the window took numerous takes because of this issue. He couldn’t remember when to say his lines. It was tricky because of the timing with the train going around. Eventually I had to squeeze his arm to let him know to say his line then. Even that took a number of takes.

When A.J. was wrapped – had shot his final scene – the Assistant Director announced this with a flourish and everyone gave him a big round of applause. I remember him walking away beaming.

“Never work with animals or children” is particularly relevant to stage. They are so unaffected and, let’s face it, cute, that the audience member’s eye is immediately drawn to them. They are the quintessential clowns. TV and film is a little different as the camera dictates what you see. On set, part of my focus was ensuring that A.J. was hitting his marks.

BTFB: I notice that you went on to star in the X-Files in “Zero Sum” and “Folie a Deux”, did you secure these parts through your involvement with Millennium and what was the experience like of working on our sister show?

CHERYL MCNAMARA: You are too kind. I played what is referred to ‘day player’ roles on the X-File episodes. Coreen Mayrs cast both Millennium and X-Files, and she called me in regularly for auditions.

BTFB: If I’m correct, it seems that you left the acting profession shortly after your appearances in the X-Files could you tell us what prompted that decision and if there have ever been any regrets on that score?

CHERYL MCNAMARA: I moved to Toronto a few years later and worked primarily in developing my own stage shows. I was also engaged in local arts activism. Then, after a painful process, I realized that I wasn’t really in love with acting – certainly not so much that I was willing to barely get by. So I left the business.

BTFB: Could you tell us what you have been involved with post Millennium and do you have anything you would like to bring to the attention of the Millennium fans who are reading this interview?

CHERYL MCNAMARA: I’ve been working in the charitable sector and writing. I’m getting back to playwriting and realize that I really do love it.

I’ve also very active in raising awareness on climate change and solutions. That has kept me very busy of late. I write a blog called Carbon Slim (www.carbonslim.blogspot.com) which chronicles my efforts in cutting back on my personal carbon emissions. I am also currently developing an online community with the objective of elevating the public conversation on climate change.