Actress Karine Vanasse of Québec is now an international star and a role model for Canadian women. Motherhood is her best teacher.
Karine Vanasse is no longer in her 20s, and she’s happier for it. “As you get older, it’s good to remind yourself every year is new, and you can reinvent yourself a little bit,” says Vanasse, who plays detective Lise Delorme on CTV’s award-winning dramatic crime series, Cardinal.
Vanasse won the 2019 Canadian Screen Award for Lead Actress in a limited series for her portrayal of the French-Canadian detective opposite partner John Cardinal, played by Billy Campbell. She embraces the opportunity to redefine herself and her limits.
“You might have old dreams, but you realize that those dreams are not really your dreams anymore,” she says. “They belong to the past. It’s good to make a new list of what it is you want now.”
When we spoke, two days after she turned 36, she tells me about her acting coach in LA, and how she spent her birthday there (“It was a really great day”), with a small group of fellow actors, writers, and directors learning and pushing boundaries.
“It’s good to get older,” she says.
THE WONDER YEARS
Vanasse caught the performance bug early. After winning a lip-sync contest at the age of nine, she began booking commercials and supporting roles in French Canadian TV movies, with the help of her mother, her manager at the time. Her first break came at 13 when director Léa Pool cast her as Hanna in Set Me Free (Emporte-Moi), after seeing her on Les Débrouillards, a French- language science show for kids.
Garnering critical acclaim and awards, the role of Hanna and her experience working with Pool helped set the tone for the rest of her career—so far. “She was so good, and she gave me so much space,” says Vanasse. “She believed I had the emotional intelligence to really get to the truth of the character. And that was very powerful at that age.”
In 1989, when Vanasse was six, a gunman walked into a mechanical engineering class at École Polytechnique in Montreal, separated the women from the men and, in the name of “fighting feminism,” proceeded to shoot and kill 14 women, injuring another 14 people (including four men) before turning the gun on himself.
Twenty years later, Vanasse (as producer and actor) helped spearhead the telling of the story of the massacre in the film Polytechnique. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, the film reenacts the events of December 6, 1989—still the deadliest shooting in Canadian history —through the eyes of two student witnesses, Valérie and Jean-François, played by Vanasse and Sebastien Huberdeau. Featured at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, Polytechnique won many honours, notably nine Genie Awards, including Best Actress for Vanasse and Best Motion Picture.
“What a journey,” says Vanasse of her experience on the film.
“It’s the most defining moment I’ve had to experience in my career— professionally. On a human level, the effect it had on me, what it represented, and the seed it planted—I don’t think I realized then why it was so important.”
Decades on, Vanasse is still involved with the healing. In a ceremony commemorating the 30th anniversary in Montreal on December 6, 2019, Vanasse is also the narrator of a new documentary by Judith Plamondon: Polytechnique: what remains of December 6 which debuted this past December on ICI TV, CBC’s French Canadian video-on-demand platform.
“You might have old dreams, but you realize that those dreams are not really your dreams anymore. They belong to the past. It’s good to make a new list of what it is you want now.”Karine Vanasse
In recent years Vanasse has made in- roads on American TV, playing French stewardess Colette Valois, on ABC’s Pan Am, and French businesswoman Margaux LeMarchal on the third season of Revenge. But it wasn’t until she landed the role of Lise Delorme that she was able to realize a longtime dream of playing a French Canadian role on English language TV.
“One of my goals was to find great projects in English Canada—to make a name for myself there, to work as a French Canadian,” says Vanasse. “And then Cardinal happened. So, professionally, Cardinal is still the big dream. To have a successful show, a show that travels. And I feel like TV in Canada—there’s momentum right now. I feel Cardinal was just the start. So hopefully, professionally I can keep aiming in the same direction.”
Outside of work, Vanasse is careful to carve out time for her son, who was born over Easter weekend in 2018. While balance can be a challenge for anyone juggling kids and a career, she considers herself lucky to be in a position that allows for flexibility.
“One of my goals was to find great projects in English Canada— to make a name for myself there, to work as a French Canadian.”Karine Vanasse
“I’m glad I was able to take a lot of time with him—to be in a place in my career where I can choose my projects,” says Vanasse. Now she’s looking forward to having him with her when she works and spending more time with him when not on set.
“Just for him to see what it’s like to have a mom who loves her job,” says Vanasse. “I want to make sure that he knows me in that environment—how I’m doing my best to make it all work and give him a place.”
That’s not to say Vanasse doesn’t still get overwhelmed at times, especially when it comes to our habit of measuring our lives against others, and the inevitable guilt that follows for many parents.
“It’s the comparisons that drive me nuts,” she says. “Of course, it’s important which school he will go to— his friends, the daycare. But eventually, it’s who he is in that environment. It’s the values that you’re going to share with him.”
When Vanasse feels pressure begin to build, she finds release in her community of other parents.
“It’s important to talk about your experience,” she says. “Sometimes, you’re tired. Sometimes you just wonder, should I have sent him to daycare? Am I a bad mother because I’m trying to work while having a kid? To talk with other mothers and to be honest about the guilt, I’ve found that very important.”
As for staying on top of her own mental and physical health, Vanasse focuses on cultivating her friendships, her love of contemporary art, and prioritizing time in nature—which is easier to do when she can escape Montréal for her cabin in the Eastern Townships.
When it comes to fueling her body, Vanasse feels she’s been coming into her own in the kitchen since having her son (“I can get much more creative and efficient than I thought”). She tries to eat less sugar, more fat, and keep a balance between proteins and fibre. When eating meat, knowing where it came from is essential. Her go-to meal is a big salad, ideally with grilled root veg and a drizzle of a quick dressing made from tamari and nutritional yeast.
Recently Vanasse started taking ballet classes as a way of reconnecting with her body after becoming a mom. “It’s been very healthy for me. Just to make sure that I have that kind of moment with myself. I’ve found it liberating.”
Vanasse has also been practicing breathwork as a way to access inner peace. Every Sunday morning, she joins a group of nearly 200 people in an online guided meditation and breathing exercises.
“You don’t need anything,” she says. “It takes just a few seconds. You feel the tension building up, you do a few exercises, and you breathe. It calms you down and takes you back to reality. We forget about the breath, but it’s so easy. It’s all in you.”
Vanasse has also got back into reading books of late, after allowing the hobby to lapse in her 20s. And she credits her costar, Campbell, for the push. “Billy Campbell reads multiple books at once,” she says. “That was very inspiring. She is currently working her way through Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers. “I’m glad to have books back in my life.”
With the next season of Cardinal set to air in 2020, Vanasse is excited for fans to see what’s coming for Delorme and John Cardinal. “Season four is our last and what’s been building between Cardinal and Delorme since season one is addressed, but in a very Cardinal-like style,” she says. “I feel like we’re respecting the dynamic and relationship we’ve been presenting. It feels true to who they are and the story we’ve been telling.”
Ending the show after season four was the right choice. It was a strong finish, she says. “I think the audience will be satisfied with what we’re offering.”
As for the future, Vanasse is shooting a movie in Québec over the winter and expects several other projects to land in the coming months. In the meantime, she’s still the face for Canadian skincare brand Marcelle and is part of the campaign for RW&Co’s, “These Women who inspire us,” fall collection.
And she hopes to continue to have the chance to work on English Canadian TV. “There’s momentum right now, and I feel there’s such a demand for content,” she says. “But what are the stories that are ours, that talk about our reality? I hope to be part of those stories we tell in the future.” She also hopes to work with Villeneuve again. And, fingers crossed, Sarah Polley.
“One thing that I would love, and I’ve been saying it for years, but
I’ll keep saying it until it happens: I really hope to get to work with Sarah Polley—whether to say the words that she’ll write or to be directed by her.
I know she acts less and less, but I’ve been a fan since the beginning of my career, and I hope to cross paths professionally. She’s a very inspiring artist, and I hope to get to know her on a creative level.”
More Inspiration: Check out our interview with Canadian music star Jann Arden from November 2019.
Author: Robyn McNeil is a writer, editor, and bartender based out of Halifax, NS. She’s all about her kid, her cat, her people, good stories, strong tea, yoga, hammocks, and hoppy beer.