After a lengthy career of largely francophone roles, Quebec actress Karine Vanasse is preparing for her career to take off in English as one of four sexy flight attendants on the new ABC drama Pan Am.
The saucer-eyed brunette, best known in English Canada as the star of Denis Villeneuve’s 2009 feature Polytechnique, says she’s overwhelmed by the marketing machine surrounding the big-budget production, but is whole-heartedly embracing a whirlwind of opportunities she never thought she’d have.
“I’ve mainly worked in Quebec when I was younger and somehow I thought that my career would end in Quebec,” Vanasse said during a recent stop at the Toronto International Film Festival to promote another English-language project, I’m Yours.
“In my early 20s, I focused more on the movie Polytechnique than developing other markets. So when Polytechnique came out I was like, ‘OK well, that was my choice.’ My choice was to work on one specific film instead of developing my career elsewhere. And finally no, it wasn’t the end of everything.”
In addition to Leonard Farlinger’s I’m Yours, which co-stars Rossif Sutherland, Vanasse has a supporting part in Kevin Tierney’s upcoming bilingual ensemble French Immersion, which also features Fred Ewanuick, Colm Feore and Martha Burns.
But it’s a featured role in Pan Am — which debuts Sunday and also airs on CTV — that’s expected to vault Vanasse to new heights.
The ’60s-set series traces the early days of international flight travel through its adventure-seeking crew: Vanasse plays the romantic Colette, a French flight attendant who is sent reeling when she discovers her jet-setting lover is married, while film star Christina Ricci makes the leap to the small screen as the rebellious bohemian Maggie.
Kelli Garner plays the mysterious Kate while Margot Robbie is her sister, a runaway bride who takes to the skies to escape domestic boredom.
Ricci says she’s been blown away by her Canuck colleague and is looking forward to getting to know her better if the ensemble serial takes off. “She’s such an amazing actress, such an amazing actress,” Ricci said.
“She’s so funny, she makes us all laugh and oh my God, she’s got the greatest style. I can’t wait until we all know each other better and I can borrow clothes from her.”
Vanasse says she worked with a dialect coach to get the French accent just right and jokes that it’s now become so ingrained she occasionally lapses into a European — rather than Quebecois — accent in her everyday life.
Her career turn to network television comes after several coincidences, including the fact that Pan Am director Thomas Schlamme’s assistant is a fellow Quebecer who championed Vanasse.
“I would have never guessed that so fast I would be on such a big show, big production and it’s so rare that you have francophone characters as lead in a TV series in the States,” gushes Vanasse, whose lengthy credits include a few English titles including the 2007 TV miniseries “Killer Wave.”
“And she’s more than just the French stewardess, there’s more to her than that. It’s a beautiful, wonderful experience.”
Vanasse’s road to “I’m Yours” was marked by a similar series of crossed paths — she says she met Sutherland at a Genie Awards ceremony where they hit it off and Farlinger remembered her from Lea Pool’s coming of age tale “Emport-moi”, which Vanasse shot when she was just 13 years old.
After deciding on Vanasse for his love story “I’m Yours,” Farlinger rewrote the role of Daphne to incorporate a francophone background.
“It’s interesting because it’s not the kind of role I was being offered in Quebec,” says the 27-year-old. “The character is a bit more mysterious. It’s hard to know exactly who she is at the beginning of the film.”
More significantly, it gave Vanasse the confidence boost she needed to pursue broader horizons. While shooting the film, she says she sought out an agent to help her break into the English market.
“It just sent me the message that, ’OK I could dream and think of a career in English,’ even if I still have to work on my accent,” she says.
Now, the Drummondville, Que., native lives in New York where “Pan Am” is filmed.
It’s actually the second time Vanasse has lived in the Big Apple, but she sheepishly admits that her first go-round was far less successful.
She recounts heading south of the border some eight years ago to see if she could launch an English-language career but found herself doing yoga for six months instead.
Finally finding herself on a New York set has her feeling nervous and intimidated, she admits, even after a decade of experience in film and television.
“It’s a little bit overwhelming to hear all these names that are making all these decisions and are sort of overseeing the entire process,” she says, noting that crew members come from legendary shows including “The West Wing” and “The Sopranos.”
“You just feel that there are so many people involved and that the show costs a lot so that we all want it to work.”
“Pan Am” debuts Sunday on CTV and ABC.