Three years ago, when Corner Gas ended its run as one of the most successful Canadian TV shows ever, star Gabrielle Miller was ready for a brand new project: a family.
“My husband and I got married on hiatus of our last season of ’Corner Gas.’ We finished the series at the end of October and in January we met our son,” explains the actress during a chat about her upcoming film Sisters&Brothers, from Vancouver-based director Carl Bessai.
Miller, 38, and her husband adopted Mthobisi, now 5, from Swaziland. The Zulu name means “he who makes things quiet” (although Miller ruefully admits that’s not always the case).
“I took over two years off working to focus on my son and being at home and I was really ready for that. I needed a break and my son was the most important thing … that situation, becoming a family, is so huge and I was lucky that I could take some time off, so I did.”
Before she became known to TV viewers as Dog River diner owner Lacey Burrows on Gas, Miller had a long list of small-screen credits to her name, including stints on Robson Arms and Alienated.
After the initial time with her son, she eventually got back to TV work, with guest spots on U.S. shows including Cold Case and NCIS.
But Miller says she “absolutely” seeks out Canadian jobs and was thrilled to land a role in Jason Priestley’s raunchy Halifax-shot comedy Call Me Fitz.
“I’m a huge fan of the show … And the character I play is quite a departure from Lacey,” said the Vancouver-bred, Toronto-based actress.
Sisters&Brothers, the final instalment in Bessai’s family trilogy (following 2010’s Fathers & Sons and 2008’s Mothers & Daughters), also offered up something distinctly different from Gas.
Bessai employs a wildly unconventional style as he spins separate narratives about four sets of siblings, including an acrimonious brother duo played by Glee star Cory Monteith and Dustin Milligan (90210).
Working without a script, the director discussed character relationships and a vague story arc with actors and then simply let the cameras roll.
At the Toronto International Film Festival, where Sisters&Brothers screened last September, Monteith said the experience was creatively exhilarating. Miller — long a fan of Bessai’s work — was similarly effusive.
“The approach to that kind of work is so exciting and fascinating and very different from the kind of projects and the way I’d approached my work before that,” she said.
“It was wonderful and scary too.”
Miller’s storyline — a sister who struggles to help her mentally disturbed brother — saw her reuniting with her onetime acting coach Ben Ratner (Da Vinci’s City Hall). Bessai’s freewheeling style meant she was often surprised by what emerged when the pair were shooting.
And coming from a family of six siblings, Miller says she could relate to some of the over-arching themes Bessai was examining.
“That kind of love and concern … I have an understanding of the psychology that can happen when you’re a caregiver,” she said. “And that’s where I started, that she was a caregiver to her brother.”
While Miller looks back on Gas as an amazing time in her life, she has no plans to team up with former castmates, who have gone on to work together on projects such as Hiccups and Dan for Mayor. Instead, the actress is seeking more roles outside her comfort zone.
Next up, for example, is a play in New York City called Psycho Therapy.
“I have been an actor for 20 years and my background is completely in television and film so this is another one of those experiences that I wanted to explore, and that I’m scared of,” said Miller with a laugh. “It’ll be good.”
Sisters&Brothers opens Friday in Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria.