Jay Baruchel BlackBerry Best of MTL interview

Jay Baruchel talks BlackBerry, Best of MTL and Canadian anglo dysfunction

“The idea I would ever get mentioned in the Best of MTL… I’ve had a good streak. It’s everything. I pay an embarrassingly close amount of attention to it.”

Over a decade ago, people laughed when they heard David Fincher was making a movie about Facebook. But The Social Network, improbably, turned into one of his most successful films. More than a depiction of the inspirational rise of a tech company, it felt like a treatise on the culture at large. With BlackBerry, director Matt Johnson makes the Canadian equivalent. 

Johnson takes us back to the mid-’90s when two techie Canadians, Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Doug (Matt Johnson), meet the more ruthless, business-savvy Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton) and begin work on the world’s first smartphone. 

Johnson is known for films like The Dirties and Operation Avalanche, as well as the cult TV series Nirvanna the Band Show, and BlackBerry is his most polished project yet. Drawing from his previous work’s raw aesthetics and spontaneous style, he streamlines it into something prescient and hilarious. Whether or not you’re interested in BlackBerry phones, the film touches a Canadian nerve: the lines between politeness and manipulation, the limits of the Canadian dream and our American neighbours’ overwhelming weight. 

Montreal’s own Jay Baruchel steps into a starring role to portray Lazaridis, the demure perfectionist turned Silicon Valley (or, more accurately, Windsor, Ontario “Valley”) CEO who imagined a new way of communicating. With many twists and turns and an inevitable downfall, BlackBerry is a warning for what happens when you give up your values.

Justine Smith: You’re a regular feature in Cult MTL’s Best Actors list. How does that make you feel?

Jay Baruchel: I know! It’s not like I don’t check every year. 

JS: This interview is being published in the Best of MTL issue, so let’s hope you make the list again.

Jay Baruchel: I’ve had a good streak. It’s everything. I used to call in to the Rant Line (in the Montreal Mirror), hoping they would print it. I was printed once. I left a message saying I was in love with this girl I saw the week prior, and I imagined her voice to be like alabaster porcelain. I was really psyched. The idea I would ever get mentioned in the Best of MTL was… like, I settled for NDG being named as the “Best Place to Be Jumped,” which was one (of the questions) for years. Back then, it was a bit Vice-y. And I thought, well, I’ll take that. So I pay an embarrassingly close amount of attention to it. 

BlackBerry movie film Jay Baruchel intereview

JS: In BlackBerry, you play Mike Lazaridis. Over the years, Lazaridis transforms from a perfectionist nerd type into a bit of a business shark, becoming increasingly like Jim Balsillie.

Do you consciously shape that part of the performance based on what Glenn Howerton does with Jim? 

Jay Baruchel: It’s more about being truthful to the script. Any success with the character arc is like 99.9% because MJ and (Matthew) Miller wrote the hell out of the script, and MJ directed the fuck out of it. I just got to follow (Matt Johnson) and trust that he knows what he’s doing. However, I’m terrible at subtle pivots. I am okay at big landing pieces. So the big transition from grey wig to white wig and then from white wig guy to guy fixing everything in the end, those little nuanced inches towards that, I don’t have a brain for it. I assume that and trust. That’s the danger, and that’s the risk. You’re asking about whether I start referencing what Glenn is doing. Yeah, to an extent, absolutely to an extent. That’s how it’s built. The larger zoom-out is that I’m trying to play a character from one ecosystem dropped into another and what it does to him. It rewards only strength, it only rewards sharks. 

I like to think that (the film) is a mythological version of a very unfortunate Canadian truth, which happens when good faith Canadian innovation and entrepreneurship is faced with the yawning carnivorous mouth of laissez-faire American capitalism. Because we (Canadians) are not them. We’re not Soviets either, and there is a sort of well-trodden soil of Canadian small business that’s part of the Canadian dream that you can make something of yourself, and that itself should be the inevitable end. But then there’s the infinite growth until you consume the entire fucking world — that’s their thing, right? To me, I’m trying to play out many things as Mike. How earnest creation here will — if it gets to a certain point that it blips on anybody else’s radar — inevitably turn into the other thing. 

JS: Matt Johnson is known for a very unusual filmmaking practice emphasizing spontaneity, very little rehearsal and even breaking the line between documentary and fiction. How is it working in that environment for you?

Jay Baruchel: This is as close to slick as he gets. It’s fucked up a lot of the time, and he knows how I feel about it. It wasn’t an easy movie to make because we tell a lot of story, with a lot of production value in a short amount of time. If this was an L.A. studio counterpart, our budget would have easily been five times what it was, and we would have twice as much time. We were making, by Canadian standards, a big-budget movie and had 35 days. 

There were times I was ready to kill him and Jared Raab (director of photography) because if it were up to Matt and him, we’d still be doing takes for a scene from a year ago, and Jared Raab would still be setting up. They can tweak forever, and both shit on each other for the same thing. They will both say a version of “perfectionism is a disease,” but they just inform each other. Here’s the thing: I can get super annoyed, and it can drive me up the fucking wall, but there’s a ceiling of how mad I can get because every time I’d see what they were doing, I was like, “It’s really good.” I know what we’re doing is good, and I could feel something else on the ground, but I’d see the rushes or the playback, and I was like, “It’s really special.” I hated how special it was in the moment because I just wanted to be right. I wanted to be right about being crabby. But, I was like, you know what? I won’t even care about this a year from now. All I’ll remember is how good the movie is. It fucking sucks, but it’s also exhilarating. 

Forgive me, but it’s pure cinema, and you don’t always get that. You don’t always get to be directed by a guy that can nerd out about movies like you can. You don’t always get to work with people who only want to do two things: talk about other movies and make movies. This is special, and what’s the word? Punk rock. As scotch-taped together as their process can be, it’s guided by this fucking big radiant fucking light and a voice of honesty and truth, and they can’t steer you wrong. These guys know what the fuck they’re doing, and their hearts are all in it, ready to risk it all. On the day, it drives me up the fucking wall, but at the same time, I’m like, “Yeah, we’re making something good.” 

Cary Elwes, Jay Baruchel, Glenn Howerton, Matt Johnson at the Berlin Film Festival premiere of BlackBerry

JS: One thing I find cool about Matt is how he talks the talk. He’s a huge advocate for improving Canadian cinema. He isn’t a tech guy, but he relates to the story of BlackBerry as the story of the Canadian film industry. As someone who works in Canada and the USA, do you also see the BlackBerry story as connected to Canadian cinema? 

Jay Baruchel: Absolutely. I could name George Beurling, who should be a household name, but most people have no idea who he is. If you’ve been to Verdun, you’ve seen Rue Beurling and Beurling Academy. This is Canada’s most successful fighter pilot from the Second World War. This man shot down 33 German and Italian aircraft, 20 of which were in a two-week period. This man died at 27, murdered, he died mysteriously. This man applied to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. They turned him down. The Brits took him in, and he became a star. Then the RCAF was like, well, bring him back to boost recruitment because now he looks good. I was reading about him and was like, “Oh, it happens to all of us.” This dysfunction of anglo Canada. This is our demon to exorcise. 

So (Matt Johnson) saying that early RIM is a stand-in for independent English-Canadian cinema is spot on, and that’s why I love this story because it dovetails with me, and I’m someone who’s done pretty good. If you ask most people, I’m one of the Canadians who’s done well down there and let me tell you, I’ve never been treated worse professionally than in Canada. I would be working with Clint Eastwood in Hollywood on a movie that will probably do pretty good and I couldn’t get casting directors to let me audition for a $500,000 indie film. But then, when L.A. started to dig me, then I was Canada’s Jay Baruchel. I’m asked about this shit a lot, like I was brought to Banff a few years ago to talk, and I started saying, “It’s really nice that you guys were talking to me, but I know if I weren’t still doing things in America, you wouldn’t ask me to be here.” When that’s not a thing anymore, we’re good. ■

BlackBerry opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, May 12. Read our review here.

This article was originally published in the May 2023 issue of Cult MTL.

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