When you’re upstaged by a highway

Joshua Jackson’s stardom takes a back seat in the most slavishly Canadian movie of all time

When you’re upstaged by a highway

For Joshua Jackson, it was supposed to be a triumphant homecoming. After spending a dozen years in the U.S.—half of them coming of age with Katie Holmes and Michelle Williams in the cast of Dawson’s Creek—at the age of 30, this Vancouver-born actor was finally making his debut as a Canadian movie star in a Canadian movie. He had got time off from his Fox TV series, Fringe, and was flying from his home in New York to attend last fall’s premiere of One Week at the Toronto International Film Festival. Then he lost his passport; he had to cancel the trip. Making matters worse, his wife, actress Diane Kruger, had flown in ahead of him, and had to wait five hours to catch a flight back to New York. “I completely screwed the pooch,” Jackson told me sheepishly in a recent interview. “Rarely have I been so embarrassed.”

What’s ironic is that this émigré actor who somehow misplaced proof of his national identity is starring in what has to be the most slavishly Canadian movie of all time. He plays Ben, a frustrated Toronto teacher and novelist who learns he’s dying of cancer. Impulsively, he buys a vintage Norton motorcyle, ditches his brittle fiancée (Liane Balaban), and heads west. Shot along the Trans-Canada Highway, en route to Tofino, this bittersweet road movie turns into a virtual souvenir shop of Canadiana, from the roll-up-the-rim message on a Tim Hortons cup that lifts Ben’s spirits to the kitschy roadside monuments that serve as his stations of the cross—including the world’s biggest Muskoka chair, Inukshuk, hockey stick, paper clip, fire hydrant, nickel, teepee, dinosaur, goose and muskie.

Along the way, Ben smokes a joint with a sage played by the Tragically Hip’s Gordon Downie. And his epiphanies range from planting a kiss on the Stanley Cup to having sex with a folksinger after a campfire duet of Un Canadien errant in the wilds of Banff. As the landscape rolls by like a commercial for Canadian tourism, the narrative hums along like a music video, showcasing a playlist of Canuck bands from Sam Roberts to the Great Lake Swimmers. But the script is self-conscious about cliché. When Ben survives an accident and does a little roadside jig, he stops himself—unable, as the narrator explains, “to recreate one of those movie moments, the kind where the hero dances uninhibitedly, to throw off the shackles of convention through the transformative power of a pop song.”

Written and directed by Michael McGowan (Saint Ralph), One Week is a slim story that gets by on Jackson’s considerable charm, yet flaunts Canadiana as its main selling point—the hero is upstaged by the highway. “But I gotta hope it’s not just a Canadian story,” says Jackson. “For the same reason Dawson’s Creek was broadcast in Israel, my hope is its themes would be universal. A Canadian movie shouldn’t just mean it’s about Canada.”

The more Jackson talks about the film he’s trying to promote, the more he ends up arguing against the blatant cultural branding that it seems to embody. “My hope is that we, as a Canadian film community, stop making Canadian movies,” he says finally. “There’s no reason why American filmmakers should corner the market on The Iliad. America long ago told itself, ‘we can tell every story in the world.’ Canadians can do that too. But what makes us decent as a populace is hampering us in the world film markets. We’re not the most comfortable touting ourselves.”

Despite the long absence from his native land, Jackson still harbours a healthy suspicion of Hollywood, and considers Vancouver his home. “I’ve never had the experience of going back there and feeling distant from it,” he says. And until he got to know Katie Holmes—his Dawson’s Creek girlfriend on- and off-screen—“I didn’t realize there were people who didn’t want to go back to where they came from,” he adds. “She knew she didn’t want to go back to Toledo. I’ve always known that I’m going to end up in Vancouver. Maybe not the city, but on the island.”

While Jackson has kept up with some Dawson’s alumni, like Michelle Williams and Busy Philipps—“it’s a bond that can’t be broken because you’ve shared that experience”—he’s lost touch with Holmes, who now lives in Beverly Hills with a noted Scientologist. “In the last couple of years, her life has become remote to me,” he says. Then he laughs. “I mean, what do you say about that? I haven’t talked to her in however long she’s been with Tom Cruise.” And why did they split up? Jackson looks genuinely mystified. “We were 19. I’m sure there was a reason at the time.”