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Digging deep into a character

It isn’t a stretch to imagine Calgary’s infamous Cecil Hotel as a dilapidated drug den.

It’s more incongruous to think of clean-cut Red Deer actor Starlise Waschuk as a heroin addict who lets her boyfriend sell her into prostitution — but that’s the starring role she plays in a gritty yet lyrical new film Three Colours and a Canvas that’s being screened this week at Calgary’s Globe Cinema.

Waschuk is excited about getting the lead in an independent movie that was shot at the Cecil Hotel and is being shown in limited release across Canada this spring.

But the Red Deer College Motion Picture Arts and Theatre Studies graduate admitted she had to look deep to find parallels between herself and the character she plays.

Cassidy is a party girl and pothead, who with her unlikely group of friends, gradually sinks into the seamy world of drug addiction.

“You always try to find how (a character) is like you, and I tried hard not to victimize her,” said Waschuk. “But there were times when I would have liked to turn that girl around and shake her.”

Waschuk ended up explaining her character’s bad choices this way: “We are all lonely.” Cassidy clings to her pimp boyfriend because she doesn’t have anybody else and needs the money for drugs.

Heroin, which caused the recent high-profile death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, is once again getting to be a huge societal problem, especially in larger centres.

Waschuk, who now lives in Vancouver, said the drug has become very popular among 14-to=17-year-olds there, so she believes Three Colours and a Canvas comes as a timely cautionary tale.

While the film, directed by Shailender Vyas, shows what can happen when we live without thought to future consequences, Waschuk believes the film is not as harrowing as Trainspotting, and has a more artistic feel.

“As hard as the subject matter is, it’s approached with a lot of hope. This is more of an art film ... it’s not your usual movie about drugs.”

Vyas and his producer wife, Ritika Anand, an actor who also stars in Three Colours and a Canvas, are graduates of the Asian Academy of Film Training in India, where they met. Both worked on Indian serials, shorts and documentaries. They now live in Calgary and this is their first English-language production.

Waschuk, who almost didn’t drive to Calgary for her 2011 audition because of horrible highway conditions, ended up shooting the film over 30 days in September 2012.

A week of the filming took place at the Cecil Hotel, which has its own notorious real-life history of drugs and debauchery. The boarded-up building stands in for a rundown apartment building in the movie. “It was freaky,” said Waschuk, who recalled crumbling masonry, broken mirrors and inexplicable noises from the upper floors.

There was no electricity in the building, so the film crew had to use generators. “It was freezing cold, even though it was warm outside, and it was dingy ... I didn’t feel at ease there.”

The cast and crew made up for the hotel’s ominous atmosphere by being a fun bunch to work with, added Waschuk.

This film could mean a career break for her, since it’s also being shown in Saskatoon, Toronto and Vancouver. (She hopes for a Red Deer screening but one hasn’t yet been arranged.)

Waschuk was previously featured in such movies as the locally made Year After Year and American Virgins for Showcase TV. Her other indie film project, The Take Away, is expected to be released next month.

She is also shopping the concept for her original science fiction serial Soldiers of Earth to Netflix.

Three Colours and a Canvas is being screened nightly at the Globe Cinema in Calgary until March 20.

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