TORONTO — Looking back on her five decades in show business, Toronto character actor Jayne Eastwood can’t help but rhyme off a tsunami of famous names she’s worked with.
“Just the cast of ‘Godspell’ alone, with Martin Short and Eugene Levy and Gilda Radner and Andrea Martin; and Victor Garber was our Jesus, Paul Shaffer was our bandleader,” Eastwood recalled in a recent phone interview, noting she’s still close with her former co-stars.
“Then Second City, where we met Dan Aykroyd and John Candy. Then my brother-in-law is Joe Flaherty, who brought Second City to Toronto. I ended up marrying his brother David, who was also a comedy writer, a good one, too. And John Belushi was part of that gang, and Harold Ramis.”
Eastwood’s star-packed sentences aren’t an exercise in name-dropping but simply a reflection of her prolific body of work, which will be honoured with an Award of Excellence from the Toronto chapter of Canada’s performers’ union ACTRA on Saturday.
“I didn’t want them to give it to me but then they said I had to take it,” Eastwood said with a laugh.
“Stuff like that makes me kind of like a nervous wreck.”
The Gemini Award winner has been an onscreen mainstay in Canada and the U.S., racking up more than 200 roles to her name — from geography teacher Miss Wimsey in the film “Hairspray,” to the neighbour across the hall in “Chicago” and the foster mother Mrs. Hammond in “Anne of Green Gables.”
“I just hopped in and out of so many friggin’ things, it was unbelievable,” said the 72-year-old, noting she sometimes worked on two series at the same time.
“I could have worked every day of my life and been happy. I never wanted to have time off. That was my happy place, being on a set.”
Born and raised in Toronto, Eastwood started her career as a painter, which she still does to this day. She got into acting when a fellow commercial artist suggested she audition for a local production of the play “Suddenly, Last Summer” and she was recruited by a New York acting teacher who was in the audience.
Her older brother was a successful entrepreneur who inspired her hunger for jobs, telling her: “Make sure you work harder than the other guy.”
“And I’ve never been a complainer,” Eastwood said. “If you’re on a movie set, to me, you’re about the luckiest person in the world.”
Eastwood’s first film role was Donald Shebib’s seminal 1970 Canadian drama “Goin’ Down the Road,” starring Doug McGrath and Paul Bradley as friends who leave Nova Scotia for a better life in Toronto. Eastwood played one of their girlfriends who becomes pregnant.
The film was a critical hit on both sides of the border and marked a new era of Canadian cinema, said Eastwood.
“All of a sudden everybody was making movies, after ‘Goin’ Down the Road,’ because it just opened the door for grants … and people saying, ‘Well yeah, we can do this,’” she said.
That led to a dozens upon dozens of projects: ”SCTV,” “King of Kensington,” “This is Wonderland,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” parts 1 and 2, “Train 48” and ”Slings and Arrows,” to name but a few.
Her roles have often been supporting ones, on shows that sometimes ended their runs too early.
But she got to work with “a lot of big people,” she marvels, listing off more names including Paul Newman, Ben Kingsley, and Bette Midler.
And she always stayed in Canada, partly because she had three children and partly because she was simply so busy she didn’t see a need to leave.
These days Eastwood, who splits her time between Toronto and Hamilton, is gearing up for a tour with the all-female sketch comedy troupe Women Fully Clothed.
The onscreen work has slowed down, she said, but she’s learning to embrace the change of pace and hopeful it will pick up again.
“Betty White had a slow period in her 70s and then she exploded back on the scene again, so there’s hope for all of us,” Eastwood said.
She then chuckled as she remembered she’s also worked with White.
“She came to Toronto to play Mrs. Santa Claus on our show ’Noddy’ and she was adorable. She was really fun.”