This past Friday I had the opportunity to sit down with Canadian actor and comedian, Ennis Esmer, to chat about his participation in the Live Below the Line challenge. Some of you may know Ennis from his work as Oz on CTV’s The Listener, or as Eddie on The L.A. Complex, or even as his job as co-host of Wipeout Canada.
I was first introduced to Ennis’ work when I rented Young People F***ing a few years ago. In this Canadian flick, which was the official selection of TIFF 2007, Ennis plays the role of Gord, a man who, aside from other things, has an appreciation for cookie dough. I haven’t been able to look at cookie dough the same since. If you haven’t seen the movie, I’m not going to provide a spoiler, so watch it (I will tell you that I brought with me a roll of cookie dough as a gag gift, and also so he could treat himself with cookies once the challenge was finished).
Ennis and I chatted outside in the sunshine. The weather was perfect, the setting relaxed, and the mood slightly celebratory as Ennis was nearing the end of his challenge. Despite him having lived off nothing but oats, some apple and water over the past two days, Ennis had a sense of calmness and pride to him. From his efforts, Ennis has raised $4,145 ($1,645 over his fundraising goal). I’d say that’s something to be proud of.
AM: So how did you become involved with Live Below the Line?
EE: Erin Deviney (Campaign Manager of Live Below the Line Canada) and I know each other through weird connections. I met her first like 20 years ago, when I was the only boy in this summer month-long theatre workshop that we both enrolled in. Flash forward to years later and now she’s married to my friend’s cousin. We’ve kept in touch through Facebook and stuff over the years, and one time I got an email from her telling me how she was in Cambodia on a volunteer placement with Cuso and got dengue fever. She was in hospital, all drugged up and recovering, and the TV there only had one channel, and The Listener was on, which is pretty fucking hilarious if you ask me. Later on, she reached out to me about Live Below the Line, as she had just taken on the role of Campaign Manager for its first year in Canada. She thought “Hey, you’re on TV. Maybe you could help with the visibility of the campaign, recruit some more people to be on it, raise some funds.” If anybody thinks that I’m recognizable to the point that it’ll help, then why not use that. It seemed like a new way to look at this sort of thing. I thought it would be a great way to help. I’m in a job that’s relatively fun and I’m very fortunate that my job has challenges that I look forward to. This was something that was outside of that world that I could sort of use whatever comes from being on TV to help. It’s also challenged me in a way; the not living who I am for a week part was really appealing as well.
AM: Do you do a lot of charity work?
EE: I’ve worked with friends and peers in the arts on a few things. Through The Listener we’ve worked with Big Brothers in the past. Shaftesbury (who produces The Listener) has been generous with donating to anything I’ve worked on before, and I mean I have the time as there can be a lot of down time with acting, so this feels like a good use of that time.
AM: Why did you choose to support Raising the Village for the LBL campaign?
EE: Their goals aren’t just about providing food and medical supplies. It’s about enabling and empowering people in a remote village to learn how to fend for themselves and take care of themselves; to move past just sustenance and existing day-to-day, like having a life where you can pursue goals and work on things and build community. We’re very lucky here. Even if that’s all you can think of is how fortunate you are, then the charity did its job. The whole campaign did its job.
AM: When did you officially sign up? How long have you been campaigning for?
EE: Beginning of April, possibly a little earlier. Once I came on board I wanted to see who we could recruit, so we got a bunch of different actors involved, put stuff up on the social networks, that sort of thing.
Adam Urquhart, who co-owns this great restaurant called This End Up at Dufferin and Dundas [which, might I add, has a burger called “The Esmer”], and who used to be in film and TV and was actually the set decorator for The Listener, got in touch with me and wanted to do something based around a menu item. We had a few meetings and then set that up [they even offered LBL participants special menu items, such as curried potato and chick pea wraps for only $0.75 during the challenge].
Then Derek Horn, who was the director of one of the first commercial campaigns I did (which was for Direct Energy, I was the face of a fireplace), took to this right away and was like “What can I do? How can we get involved?” [Derek has also been involved in activism and directed a documentary titled Rwanda Rises Up], so we came up with this idea to shoot a bunch of shorts and try to find a way to ring humour out of this concept. Honestly it’s been great because as soon as I tell people that I’m doing this challenge it immediately launches into a conversation, and once people hear about the budget they make jokes and ask “What are you going to do? Eat at your mom’s house all week?”. It makes people think, and they offer suggestions, which are not all useful but it’s fun and provokes conversation. Questions are asked like “When you do this how do you get nutrition?”, “How do you stave off hunger?”, “What do you do if you have to work?”, “What are some ways to avoid temptation”, things like that. So with that in mind we came up with doing a series of videos for the campaign. My friends Matt Baram, Naomi Snieckus, Colin Doyle and I got together and sort of riffed of these loose ideas. We were talking about “What if I bought a lottery ticket?”, or “What if I walked up to a stranger at a restaurant and just took the food off their plate?”, and then somehow hunting came into it then we liked that as an idea [The result: the LBL Braintrust videos, which are hilarious]. It just became about the idea of how do we present these concepts to people without making them sad? It’s a lighthearted way to present the challenge and our participation in it. There’s something very direct about it, you’re not just giving money to something. You’re actually partaking in it.
AM: How are you feeling right now?
EE: My throat’s a little sore from that answer I just gave you; I talked a lot. It’s been great. I developed a relationship with CHUM FM over the last little while because of The Listener, and I did this thing for them for Valentine’s Day. So when this came up I contacted them and then we did this whole thing where I did a phone-in beforehand, then I went on-air with them afterwards. CTV.ca was really good with press; it turns out it’s easier to get attention for this sort of cause then you would think if you have a foothold, so I thought why not take advantage of that and try to spread the word as much as possible. So, I’m feeling good about that stuff.
I feel like the sense of accomplishment is starting to take over my actually being hungry right now. I ate too much the first three days, and over-budgeted, and have been going off of very little besides oatmeal for the last two days, but I don’t feel “off”. I think the perspective of the fact that this is an anomaly in my life and not a thing I have to face every day with no choice is outweighing everything else. My head is in the right place and as such I’m not too hungry. Having said that, I was trying to find a way to have sex with the smell coming from the Pizza Nova by my house, if that’s possible. I had just biked home, and I smelled it, and I was like, “If you could have sex with this smell I would do that right now. I would just wrap myself in this odor of fresh pizza coming out of this building, and just, uh!” The smell of it was like the greatest thing in my life!
AM: Do you find that you take better notice of the restaurants and patios in your area now that you can’t go?
EE: Oh, you’re toast! I’ve been watching sports playoffs and Blue Jays all week and every second commercial is about food! And all that stuff is starting to work on me, like the way they shoot the burger, and that Boston Pizza commercial for the pizza burger? It’s a burger wrapped in pizza dough with pepperoni and cheese. I WANT ONE. I just want to slather it all over myself. I don’t even want to eat it, I just want to use it for whatever else, as clothing, as cologne. I want to smell like pizza burger from Boston Pizza. The commercials, the advertisements, the restaurants, it’s insane how many places in the city make and serve delicious food. I mean, I’ve noticed them before but I’m not usually this hungry! I tip the cap to everyone who participated. I really planned poorly for this because I think I was worried about the fundraising and stuff. I underestimated how much I would actually like to design a proper menu to eat. The lack of variety in my food is what’s killing it for me. Eating the same thing is pretty brutal.
AM: Can you break down for me what you actually bought for the challenge?
EE: I didn’t really have a plan. Naomi Snieckus, Matt Baram and I did our shopping on Monday. We went to Dollarama, Bulk Barn and Chinatown. I bought a 900g bag of pasta, a can of diced tomatoes, a can of beans, 120g of rolled oats, 150g of split peas, red lentils, five bananas, some loose spinach, a can of tuna, and two packs of Mr. Noodles. Then Matt, Naomi and I split a jar of peanut butter three ways, a bag of zucchini, a pack of four red peppers, a dozen eggs, and some tea. I didn’t end up eating three out of the four of the eggs, the lentils, half of the spinach, half of the zucchini and red pepper, three out of the five bananas and the tea. I had an overage in my spending because I didn’t pre-plan my meals, so I put food aside on purpose to account for this.
AM: Did you find it easier going in on it with two other people?
EE: Oh yeah. If I do the challenge again next year it’s all about the flavours, establishing some sort of variety and maybe focusing on vegetables first. Honestly, my pattern of eating was flush with my regular pattern of eating: the vegetables would go last, I would eat the pastas and beans first. Before this I had gotten into the ritual of taking vegetable supplements, so I would get all my greens from that in the morning, so you know, it has made a difference. I do feel lighter and I got a good night’s sleep the first night. I don’t feel terrible. Aside from the Mr. Noodles, the food I’ve been eating hasn’t been terrible nutrition-wise.
AM: So if you were able to pre-plan more beforehand?
EE: You know, I was talking with one of the guys from LBL and he was telling me how he bought some pork bones, roasted them, scooped the fat out to use as cooking oil, and then used the bones to make stock afterwards. That’s pretty brilliant. I wish I’d gotten more from Bulk Barn. My friend Tommie-Amber Pirie, who’s an actor and did a great video for LBL, told me how she found a muffin mix that made two dozen muffins for $1.00. I mean, she could have just lived off of like, five muffins a day with that! I wish I had done a better job of searching out one or two gold mine deals that could last the week. I would also have portioned out my food. I normally graze on my food here and there, and that’s what I did with the bag of pasta that I cooked, but because of that I ran out of the majority of my food by Wednesday. I would have specifically set out my meals. I think I took for granted how long the food I had gotten had to last.
[Takes a big chug from his glass of water: “This water is DELICIOUS.”]
AM: What’s the first thing you’re going to eat once the challenge is over?
EE: That cookie dough. I’m going to take a big, honking bite out of that cookie dough. I’m not lying to you. That and have one of the beers currently sitting in my fridge. Then I’m meeting with Matt and Naomi later to have a toast. This has really opened my eyes to what I take for granted and how much I spend. I’d like to hope that this challenge better informs me on how I shop for food moving forward. That and how much I eat at restaurants just out of sheer laziness and not wanting to cook on my own. My mother’s a great cook, like a professional grade cook that could own a restaurant. My dad’s good as well, but my mother’s fantastic. We’ve even done a few dinner parties here at my place that my mom made Turkish food for. My parents are going to read this and I don’t want either of them to get offended because my dad did a lot of the cooking. But yeah, it’s just something I sort of lost interest in and now I can see the value in it, and making your own meals and doing things with people. It becomes a social thing; a community thing.
AM: Have you ever considered volunteering with Raising the Village abroad?
EE: Unfortunately my work schedule doesn’t really accommodate that sort of thing. I was being a bit of a suck on Wednesday, after realizing I had gone through most of my food already, so I called these people I know at the Yonge Street Mission and ended up working at one of their downtown shelters, the Evergreen Centre for Street Youth. I helped prep and serve lunch today. So while I was watching these kids eat, a lot of whom live on the street and have no place to go, it made me step outside of myself. Like, who am I going to complain to that I don’t have much to eat today? Those people I just served? [In a voice similar to Adam Sandler’s] “Oh, I ate too much pasta. I’ve had to eat oatmeal for the past two days, in my home that I went to from my job that I work at. Oh, poor me!” I think I needed to get out of “poor me” a little bit and volunteering at Evergreen really helped me do that. I did it to remind myself how fortunate I am. And I’ll go back next week and do it again. It’s not complicated. People need help and this organization exists almost solely on donations. The perspective that you need and the opportunity to help is there if you look for it. This has definitely made me want to try harder to look for ways to help people who are in less fortunate situations.
AM: What’s currently going on with The Listener right now?
EE: We just wrapped up shooting thirteen episodes for season four, and also a series of thirteen webisodes for the fans that have a Pink Panther sort of feel to them. Our ratings are getting better with every season, so I’d love to be able to do a season five. That would be fun.
We then got onto the topic of Jewel Staite, one of his fellow actors on The L.A. Complex, who helped spread the word of Ennis’ fundraising campaign through her social media channels (“Everybody follows this woman.”) I mentioned to him that I remembered Jewel from my childhood because I used to watch two shows she was on: The Odyssey and Flash Forward (which also starred Ben Foster). This led to Ennis looking her up on IMDB (I think because he didn’t believe me), finding out her character’s name on The Odyssey (Labelia), him misreading that character’s name (think female body part), then him immediately texting her, calling her said body part. In the true character that is Ennis Esmer, it was a great way to end the interview.
The season four premiere of The Listener will be airing later this year with an announcement of the air date coming soon from CTV. In the meanwhile, if you’d like to see some online clips of Ennis doing other work, check out the Angels: Local 437 series on YouTube. Bloody hilarious. Ennis is definitely an actor that you’d want to keep your eye on.