Actor John Dunsworth discusses his well-known role on the cult classic Trailer Park Boys and life on the coast of Nova Scotia
The tiny town of Southwest Cove, just outside of Halifax in Nova Scotia, holds the most sentimental of places in the heart of actor John Dunsworth.
It’s the location where he built his own house along the Atlantic Ocean in the early ’70s. It’s the place he and his wife raised four children. And it was the place he called home as he rose to cult-like status playing the character of Jim Lahey on the Canadian mockumentary TV series Trailer Park Boys.
What began as a short comedy film in 1998 by director Mike Clattenburg has grown into an international hit, spawning three feature-length films and the current filming of its 10th season of the show following the misfortunes and blunders of the residents of the fictional Sunnyvale Trailer Park in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.
Dunsworth, who has played hundreds of characters on both the stage and screen since the 1960s, says he’s still not sure how Trailer Park Boys became so popular – whether it’s the zeitgeist of the moment in society or some other factors. But he says he knew from the moment he read the first script of the show, it was going to be something special and unique.
“When I first read the first Trailer Park Boys script, I was just so happy to be a part of it all,” Dunsworth says on the phone from his home in Nova Scotia last month. “I think it’s fair to say I was very hungry to play the part.”
(Caution: this video is not for the faint of ears – some harsh language contained within.)
A CAREER IN ACTING
At the age of 69, a majority of Dunsworth’s life has revolved around the pursuit of acting. In 1970, he created his own theater – Pier One Theatre – on the waterfront in Halifax, which would go on to become the city’s original and most successful alternative playhouse. He created one of the first casting companies in Nova Scotia in the early ’80s, Filmworks Casting, which supported the burgeoning movie and TV industry.
Dunsworth would also record his run for provincial candidate for the New Democratic Party in the funny 1988 short documentary John Dunsworth: The Candidate.
“The characters we play are the sum-total of our experiences,” Dunsworth says. “You realize quite quickly that it doesn’t really matter what you have on the inside – it’s what you show to the camera.”
But it is Dunsworth’s role as the antagonist you love to hate in Mr. Lahey – the rather drunk, foul-mouth trailer park supervisor who is out to ruin the lives of the show’s three main characters – Ricky (Robb Wells), Julian (John Paul Tremblay) and Bubbles (Mike Smith). Lahey is continually surrounded by his helper (and apparent gay lover) Randy – the ever-shirtless, big bellied, cheeseburger-eating character played by Patrick Roach.
As the show’s popularity started to build by the late 2000s, Dunsworth and Roach decided to take the characters of Mr. Lahey and Randy on the road, performing at bars and clubs across Canada with a variety of comedic gags from the show (including a cheeseburger-eating contest). Since the early days of touring, they’ve expanded their act to clubs around the U.S. and the world and serve as emcees at music festivals.
THE LIVE SHOW
During their live show, Dunsworth typically avoids drinking (he says he’s only been drunk a half-dozen times in his life), while he says his cohort Roach routinely gets drunk each night.
“Give me one beer, and I might be woozy – and wine puts me to sleep,” Dunsworth laughs. “I have to be sober, because Randy gets pissed every night. And funny enough, I like cheeseburgers more than Randy does. And I’m not joking. I could eat a cheeseburger right now.”
The crazy interactions with fans, Dunsworth says, are equally memorable to the performances themselves. He’s been stopped by the police doing double the speed limit driving down the mountains in British Columbia, only to have the police officer call in three additional troopers who were looking to get his autograph (and they let him go with no fine).
Dunsworth also says lately he’s been going up to unsuspecting diners at restaurants with impunity, asking them what they’re eating and if he could try some (an act that thoroughly embarrasses his grown children).
“People think that I’m going nuts, but it’s not true. I’ve always been like this,” Dunsworth says. “It’s just that now I get away with it. People say, ‘Ah, it’s just Lahey.’”
Dunsworth brings Mr. Lahey back to Pennsylvania for the second year in a row, performing at the Peace of Mind Fest 5 in Elizabethville, just north of Harrisburg. The jam-centric festival held at Camp Muckleratz in the Weiser State Forest featured a weekend’s-worth of Lahey’s drunken and comical exploits last year, with Dunsworth serving as the emcee of the festival and even performing on stage to sing with several of the bands.
“Of all the festivals that I’ve been to, that was one of the coolest because the people were wonderful – they were the hippies,” Dunsworth says. “They were loving and interesting and unconventional. I love people who are unconventional.”
It’s Dunsworth himself who has been unconventional throughout his career, playing offbeat roles on both TV and film. On top of Mr. Lahey, he currently he plays the role of Dave Teagues on the Syfy supernatural drama Haven. (Dunsworth had just found out was cancelled by Syfy and will air its last season this fall.) Teagues is the co-owner of the Haven Herald – the fictional newspaper in the dark world of Haven, Me., which is based on the Stephen King novel The Colorado Kid.
Not to be outdone, Dunsworth is also currently playing the part of Prelate – a priest – on the critically-acclaimed Canadian drama Forgive Me. Packing an all-star cast of Academy Award-nominees and -winners Olympia Dukakis, Jane Alexander and Brenda Frickler, Dunsworth says his Catholic upbringing has played a significant role in the interpretation of his character on Forgive Me, calling the show “one of the most incredibly beautiful pieces of theater or film that I’ve ever been in.”
The role has also led to Dunsworth reminiscing about his days as an altar boy, learning to say Catholic masses in Latin without understanding the language.
“‘Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam,’ which means, ‘To God, who gives me joy in my youth,’” Dunsworth recites from the Catholic Mass of the Catechumens.
It also has led to his memories of getting kicked out as an altar boy because the church discovered he was swimming nude at the YMCA.
“That was good because I’ve always been negative – I’ve always been harping,” Dunsworth says. “And it’s only because I’m anti-patriarchal society, I guess. I don’t like the rules. I rankle at authority.”
WATCHING THE OCEAN
Back at Southwest Cove, Dunsworth drives around his close-knit neighborhood as he heads to his haircut appointment at the local barber shop. He stops to talk to his brother-in-law, Kelly, who was driving up the road in the opposite direction, taking tome to compliment him on how nice his boat looks in the water. He waves hello to his brother, Billy (one of his seven brothers and sisters remaining), who sits outside drinking a beer.
Dunsworth then proceeds to made a detour from his haircut appointment to join “the local dope dealer” in a mid-afternoon toke of Nova Scotian marijuana. He’s an outspoken proponent of the legalization of weed and smokes to ease the pain from his sciatic nerve.
When asked how the weed in Nova Scotia compares to the legendary marijuana coming from British Columbia, Dunsworth is quick with an answer.
“It’s just as good – different strains and different kinds, different grass for different maladies,” Dunsworth says.
The Renaissance man also uses the calming effects of the weed to ease his aching body after he spent five hours earlier in the day working on his master project – an amphitheater built into the rocks along the coast at his home. He had already poured four loads of cement and moved several hundred pounds of rock and sand that day, coming ever closer to completing the project he’s been building for four years (he’s even built his own pool out of stone and concrete).
Dunsworth says he’s been working “like a diligent little ant” in an attempt to something for posterity with his stonework. And as he looks out at the ocean with a fog lifting in the afternoon sun, Dunsworth becomes the consummate philosopher.
“Someday [this amphitheater] is going to be washed apart, but parts of this, my friend, are going to last for 100 years – that’s pretty cool,” Dunsworth says. “And people will come, and they’ll say, ‘Look at that. That theater right there – that was built by Bill Dunsworth. And I won’t care, because it’s the thing that counts – it’s not my name,” he added with a laugh.
Mr. Lahey and Randy appear at the Peace of Mind Fest 5 at Camp Muckleratz in Elizabethville on September 5, performing their comedy hour at 2 p.m., along with introducing bands on stage throughout the day. The festival runs from September 3-6 and features more than 30 local and touring bands – everyone from New York’s progressive rock and fusion jazz band Consider the Source and Virginia’s psychedelic progenitors People’s Blues of Richmond to Central PA’s Mysterytrain and Aaron Daniel Gaul. Tickets to the festival are $75 at the gate for the entire weekend.