Ian Tracey: Canadian Actor, Jack of All Trades

Canadian actor Ian Tracey is a performer of great acclaim in his home country and lots of credits appearing south of the border, too, especially in genre fare. At 42, he’s best known in the U.S. for playing tough cops, dumb rednecks and psychopathic criminals. But he still has a following in Germany for a series he did when he was 14, playing the world’s best-loved juvenile delinquent, Huckleberry Finn. Tracey has been around a long time and he’s done a lot of different roles. The name “Ian Tracey” should be as famous as Brad Pitt or David Caruso, but hailing from Vancouver, he’s still relatively unknown. That may be about to change.

Ian Tracey’s series, Intelligence, is the most prominent of CBC’s scanty drama lineup this fall. Intelligence is about a Vancouver pot smuggler who agrees to turn informant for the local Organized Crime Unit and CSIS (Canada’s equivalent, more or less, to the CIA or MI-5). Tracey plays the smuggler, Jimmy Reardon. Tracey’s performance has caught the favorable attention of most of Canada’s critics (though some apparently thought they were watching a Canadian version of Dukes of Hazzard). He plays Jimmy as tough, paranoid and charismatic.

Tracey doesn’t do ill-defined characters, just very complex ones. Even in his lesser roles, he injects subtext and depth where there really isn’t any. Independent filmmakers have used this to their advantage-for example, in Canadian indie film Lola (2001), Ian Tracey plays a mysterious plumber who meets the female protagonist of the title (Sabrina Grdevich) on a train. We never learn his name, where he’s coming from or going or why he’s on the train. But Tracey, in one improvisational scene with Grdevich, gives the character a solid blue-collar personality and a life philosophy that puts him at direct odds with the flakier Lola. He establishes the character with little gestures (chewing on a hangnail, sharing a battered photograph of his son that he keeps in his wallet). “I’m a plumber,” he says in a self-deprecating way, as if he knows Lola will laugh at such a “low” profession. And he’s right. But that’s because he knows who and what he is and he’s okay with that.

Ian Tracey began his acting career very early, at the age of 11. His first appearance was as a shoeshine boy in the horror flick The Keeper (1976). His second role established his later penchant for edgy roles. He played a disturbed young boy who escapes a reform school and seeks refuge with an old shaman and his mute friend in Claude Jutra’s film Dreamspeaker (1977). Tracey did a variety of roles through his teen years, most notably his turn as the title character in the 22-part series Huckleberry Finn and his Friends (1979). The series eschewed the usual light approach to adapting Twain’s two novels, choosing the darker tone of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn over the light tone of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Tracey won praise for his portrayal of a young, outcast Huck living in the dangerous world of 1840s Mississippi.

When he graduated from high school, Ian Tracey worried that he was living in “a bit of a fantasy world” (as he put it in a later interview) and decided to take a break from acting. Though he continued to take small parts from time to time over the next few years, he took more mundane jobs in the restaurant business and trades to pay the bills. One fun byproduct of this experience for someone watching his work is his knowledgeable attitude around engines. This has added a little spark to otherwise downright bad flicks like Survival on the Mountain (1997), where Tracey plays an overworked helicopter pilot in Nepal.

Rather than go straight back into acting full-time, Ian Tracey decided to try working on crews for a while, doing lighting. This gave him a chance to watch other actors from behind the scenes and get a better idea of filmmaking as a whole. It also contributed to his firmly anti-star industry persona, giving him an attitude that makes him popular with the crews on the films and series in Vancouver where he works.

Tracey had to make a hard decision in 1987 when his role in Stakeout as villain Aidan Quinn’s dumb-but-loyal cousin brought him to the attention of Hollywood. He ultimately decided to stay in Vancouver, working in the new but growing industry there. In some ways, staying in Canada has hurt him by cutting him off from the high-priced and high-profile roles down in Hollywood. But as an actor, Ian Tracey has had a chance to do a much greater variety of roles than most actors could in their entire careers. He can believably play boisterously stupid adventurers like Mustapha in The Adventures of Sinbad (1996), sociopathic criminals like Ray in Dirty Little Secret (1998), downtrodden rednecks like Dale in Rupert’s Land (1998), victims of injustice like the title character in Milgaard (1999) and tough cops like Mick Leary in Da Vinci’s Inquest/City Hall (1998-2006). Tracey won a Leo for Rupert’s Land, a Gemini and a Leo for Milgaard and a Gemini nomination for Da Vinci’s Inquest. He has even played a drunken Vancouver real estate developer onstage in Soulless.

Though he can shoulder most roles, Ian Tracey shines particularly as characters that are not quite in step with society. He also can make normally unlikeable characters extremely sympathetic. He makes self-harming gambling addict Trevor in Ice Men (2004) the sensible and kind one in a cabin full of confused Yuppies. His perpetually enraged, quadruple amputee Gulf War veteran “Rappo” in The X-Files episode “The Walk” (1995) is a black shaman who appears to be taking long-distance revenge on his superiors, but ultimately just wants somebody-anybody-to put him out of his misery. In Desolation Sound (2005), Tracey plays a duplicitous husband who tries to be tame for his family’s sake, but is more like a wild animal than a “civilized” human being. In Da Vinci’s Inquest, Tracey’s character, Mick Leary, matter-of-factly goes to work every day while suffering a psychotic breakdown and ending up living homeless on the beach.

Ian Tracey’s career might have been more lucrative if he’d moved to Hollywood, but it’s doubtful he could have made it any more creative. Canadian film, particularly independent Canadian film, is more experimental than American film. After 31 years in the business, Intelligence could be Ian Tracey’s breakout role in the U.S. as well as Canada. It’s currently being sold down south as if it were a Vancouver version of Miami Vice and Tracey were a 21st century criminal version of Sonny Crockett. But even if it doesn’t make him famous, there will always be another part. Ian Tracey is one of the busiest actors around.

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