Jonathan Torrens Has a Ticket to Ride
By Jennifer Wood
Photographs By Tyler Warren Ellis
How the Multi-Talented Entertainer Has Crafted His Career on His Own Terms
When the parents at Charlottetown’s Sherwood Elementary School were enjoying their smoke break at intermission for the play The Rabbit Who Wanted Red Wings, they were so impressed by Jonathan Torrens' performance (who was in grade one at the time and played the rabbit) that they said to Jonathan’s mom, “This kid could write his own ticket!” Write his own ticket he did. Today at 46, the actor, director, producer, writer, podcast host, musician and television personality has carved an eclectic career path for himself that rivals those of the most talented in the industry.
At 15, Torrens cut his entertainment teeth when he was cast as the host of the popular teen-themed, consumer affairs–oriented program, Street Cents. Seven years later, he created, wrote, co-produced and hosted Jonovision, a wildly popular teen talk-show program that aired for five years and received seven prestigious Gemini awards.
Perhaps he is best known for his impressive 10-year run with Trailer Park Boys (TPB) when he played J-Roc, a want-to-be rapper whose lack of talent and overly confident disposition make him a cringe-worthy character who was incredibly fun to watch. Torrens was later a leading cast member on the popular show Mr. D, where he played Mr. Cheeley, the vice-principal of a prep school, whose quirky and desperate personality traits made him less than popular among his colleagues. He has also played roles in Jason Priestley’s hit show Call Me Fitz, Degrassi: The Next Generation, Game On, and most recently, he wrote seven episodes for Letterkenny.
His success has also translated to the podcast world. Jeremy Taggart (former drummer for iconic Canadian band Our Lady Peace) and he created the Taggart and Torrens podcast, which has been downloaded more than 4 million times. It received a Canadian Comedy Award for best audio program in 2018. Among other things, the podcast delves into their shared nostalgic affection for their Canadian upbringing. The show is part silly, part sweet, part serious as they speak about topics that range from their parenting experiences and careers to drinking and their favourite television shows. The pair try to tour the country once a year to perform live shows and connect with their growing fan base. Their love of touring spawned their hit book, Canadianity: Tales from the True North Strong and Freezing, which takes a deeper dive into their experiences on the road and offers insights on the best restaurants, local heros and watering holes the country has to offer. Readers have described the book as “like being in the back seat of a car on an epic road trip!” And it seems that their fans can’t get enough of anything the pair produces. They will release an album in fall 2019 that will feature original songs based on characters they have created from their favourite Canadian musicians (think Barenaked Ladies, Bruce Coburn, The Tragically Hip).
[EDIT]'s senior editor, Jennifer Wood, met with Jonathan at his home in rural Nova Scotia to learn more about his incredible life and career to date, his upcoming role as host of the East Coast Music Awards, his criteria for choosing work, the importance of diversifying your skill-set, creating new opportunities and knowing when to leave the party.
[EDIT]: Your career as an entertainer has spanned over 30 years with very little down time. Can you tell us about your early days and how you became interested in the industry?
JONATHAN TORRENS: There is no one in my family history who would suggest that this was an obvious path for me. I just kind of fell into it. I started hosting Street Cents when I was 15. Before that I had done a musical at my high school. I played a bit of guitar, so it wasn’t completely out of nowhere that I wanted to perform. While I was doing Street Cents, I always wrestled with needing some type of validation to legitimize this career path. I had a conversation every year with a professor at Ryerson University: I would tell her that I wanted to study radio and television arts, and she would say, “Why? You are working in the business!” She told me to show up early, stay late, take criticism, ask questions, and that could be my schooling. This was incredibly valuable advice. In the end Street Cents was the best TV school I could have ever asked for. It was straight hosting, parodies, impressions and original characters. It was also the kind of environment that if you wanted to pitch in and write a script or produce a field item you could. It was a hard decision to finally leave the show, but I have always found it philosophically better to jump before you are pushed, or to leave before the audience does. This sounds obvious, but it is not always easy to do. It’s important to know when to leave the party!
[EDIT]: What do you look for when you are presented with a new opportunity?
JONATHAN TORRENS: Fun. Money. Challenge. Now any job that I consider must meet two out of three of these criteria. My definition of fun has changed over the years. Fun for me is now about being able to drive home after a day of work and sleep in my own bed! When I shot Mr. D in Halifax, I worked with people I liked, and I could go home every night. A fun challenge can’t be overrated; these are the areas that give you more oxygen while exploring new territory. You can’t just take things for money. I think that one of the great things about living in the Maritimes is during the quieter times you can coast longer and achieve a work-life balance that isn’t obtainable in other areas. Rent is so expensive in Toronto or in Vancouver that if you are not booking gig after gig, you are probably working another job to make ends meet. I am lucky enough to be at the stage in my career that I don’t have to do that. This is how I define success: being selective, being able to say no and working on my own terms. In this part of the country we are self-deprecating by nature, and the worst thing you can be or seen to be is cocky, a show-off or ”getting above your raisin.” The perception is that you should take what is offered to you, say thank you and be grateful for any opportunity. It’s very out of character for us to say that we want or deserve more, or we want something different or better. We tend to think that confidence and arrogance are interchangeable, but it’s OK to be confident. I think there is a way to maintain your East Coast humility while standing up for what you believe in.
[EDIT]: Where would you say this confidence comes from, that you can be choosier in your decisions and be OK with saying no?
JONATHAN: I think at its core it’s being married to someone that I am crazy about and finding so much joy in my children. Worst-case scenario is my wife, Carol, is still married to me, and we can have dinner together with our children every night. Not too bad. Anything that happens work-wise is just gravy. Being happy in my personal life has also allowed me to be more selective. I am also very conscious about how we spend our time. People put so much thought into how they spend their money but very little thought into how they spend their time. But I don’t regret my workaholic twenties. I now get to make up jokes, play weird characters, wear funky clothes for a living and, most often, come home each day. That’s pretty cool.
[EDIT]: Were you always comfortable with leaving an opportunity for a new one?
JONATHAN: When I look back on my career, leaving a job to start or create a new opportunity is a pattern for me. I think the plight of the freelancer is to think that every gig might be your last. In my twenties I vacillated between work and worry, and I didn’t have or create any time to just be. If I wasn’t working, I was worrying. And if I was worrying, it was all-consuming. When I was working it was intense, and then when I wasn’t working it was a different intensity. It took until I was in my thirties to realize that if history dictates, something else will probably come along. But when I say I have no regrets, this might not be completely true. I know that when I lived in California, I did a lot of pacing in my furnished sublet waiting for the phone to ring. But really, I should have gone to the Joshua Tree [National Park] more and cared less.
[EDIT]: What was your time like in Los Angeles? Was it difficult to be surrounded by so many people who were hungry for the same dream?
JONATHAN: When I moved to L.A., I honestly didn’t expect to be surrounded by so many like-minded people. Sure, the flakes and clichés are everywhere, but it was an eye-opener for me to realize where people in my industry go to get a break. They go to the show! And that’s L.A. I was under the misconception that there was this open-door policy for Canadians — you know, the Jim Carrey or Mike Myers principle of when a Canadian arrives in L.A., they are like, “Oh, thank God you are here!” It wasn’t like that — it was less sexy and more mundane than I would have expected. But I liked the lifestyle and the people more than I thought I would. I faced a huge challenge in L.A., and that was how to work and live in the same place. My heart was in the rural Maritimes. And at that time, it certainly didn’t seem that TV could be made in the hotbed of bucolic Nova Scotia. For the first several years that I was in L.A., I spent a lot of time travelling back here to work on shows. Sometimes it was simply to make money to throw on the fires of the dreams I had created for myself in L.A.
[EDIT]: Your skill-set and experience are so varied: actor, director, producer, writer, podcast host, emcee, musician. Did you fall into these other roles, or were they something you had always wanted to try? It seems like many artists in the entertainment industry — especially in this part of the country — aren’t just one thing today.
JONATHAN: Answering the cocktail-party question “What do you do for a living?” is difficult for me. I am not a comedian, I am not really an actor — there are lots of better actors than me, so I call myself a spork! I’m not a spoon or a fork, but rather I’m someone who can do a couple of things. I think it has to do with my short attention span! I couldn’t be happy doing any one of those things for long — it just wouldn’t fulfill me. Plus, because of the size of this industry in Canada, and in this region, you must diversify. If you don’t generate opportunities for yourself, others aren’t going to do it for you.
[EDIT]: Your character, J-Roc, on Trailer Park Boys was so incredibly well written. Was the show the success story that you thought it would be?
JONATHAN: Trailer Park Boys landed with a thud when it first came out. Critics felt that it had missed the mark, and they weren’t even sure what the mark was. It was before The Office, so the “speak-to-camera” conceit wasn’t widely accepted. It took a while to get some traction. Many don’t know this, but Our Lady Peace, Rush and The Tragically Hip were instrumental in pulling TPB off life support. They were the ones who started sharing DVDs with other bands or with sports teams, who then started watching the show on tour or on the bus and then talking it up and sharing it with other people.
TPB came along when I was finishing up Jonovision, when people couldn’t see me as anything but a “teen-talk-show guy.” J-Roc and the opportunity with TPB was perfect timing really. J-Roc was a garnish on that show — he wasn’t the main dish. I just had to show up every four or five pages of dialogue and throw out a few jokes. I liked that. I wouldn’t want to see a J-Roc spinoff. I wouldn’t want to see him as the main character of a show — I think he would get tiresome. I was always just involved enough with TPB that I reaped the benefits of its increasingly high profile, but I wasn’t so associated with it that people couldn’t imagine me doing something else. On the surface, J-Roc and my character on Mr. D, Mr. Cheeley, are very different, but they are both my favourite comedic nexus, which is overconfident and underqualified.
[EDIT]: Congratulations on being asked to host the ECMAs for the third time, and in your home town, Charlottetown. Having hosted several television shows, how is hosting a live show different?
JONATHAN: Thank you! I am pumped to be hosting. It’s a fun gig, largely because I had long suspected that musicians from this part of the world are funny in addition to being great musicians. Prior to hosting the ECMAs last year, I shot several videos with Classified, Rose Cousins, Jenn Grant and Joel Plaskett, and they were hilarious. It was so fun to see them in a different light. I think when it comes to hosting a live show, the best-case scenario is people say you did a great job. Still, an optimal scenario is no one is talking about you because the host’s job is really like a traffic cop who makes the event feel seamless — just keep it moving! The worst-case scenario is that you overstay your welcome, try too hard and hurt people’s feelings. Then people are really talking about you the next day! The organizers of the show have it the hardest. They take this massive pool of talent and whittle it down to a two-hour show. Last year we had 16 performances, and when choosing them they had to consider geography, language, gender, genre and every possible angle to make sure that every province feels that they have been fairly represented.
[EDIT]: Who are your favourite East Coast musicians?
JONATHAN: There are so many! I am partial to Fortunate Ones, The Town Heroes, David Myles, Ria Mae, Reeny Smith, Classified — to list them all is too daunting. There are artists in every province that are just crushing it.
[EDIT]: Your podcast, Taggart and Torrens, resonates with so many people. Can you tell us how you met Jeremy and how the podcast came to be?
JONATHAN: Jeremy and I became friends when he was a fan of TPB. I always found him hilarious. We are similar in that we both started our careers young, we are both family-oriented, and we have very little tolerance for B.S. The difference is when we were 18, Jeremy was opening for Van Halen with Our Lady Peace and I was questioning the air in chip bags on Street Cents! We used to spend a lot of time on the phone riffing, and we decided to record our conversations. Our only motive for the podcast was to create something that felt good. It has been so fulfilling to hear from people who have said things like, “I am a cancer survivor, and your podcasts helped me get through my chemo treatments. I laughed until I cried!” It’s incredible how much our conversations and our shared experiences of growing up in the time that we did is resonating with people. It’s the purest thing I have ever done, and I’m really proud of it.
Jonathan's Atlantic Favourites
Chives Canadian Bistro, Halifax, NS
Sugar Moon Farm, Earltown, NS
Canton Café, Charlottetown, PEI
Blue Mussel Café, North Rustico Harbour, PEI
Bistro 22, Truro, NS
King of Donair, Halifax, NS
DesBarres Manor Inn, Guysborough, NS
Facebook: Taggart and Torrens
taggartntorrens.ca | ecma. com
Follow Jonathan on Twitter @torrensjonathan
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