an acting career in California
Back in the mid-1990s, Hollywood might have looked
like nothing more than a distant star for Kenneth Mitchell.
Sure, he'd taken that one intro drama course as an undergraduate
student at U of G, but he'd spent far less time in Massey
Hall than he had across campus, dreaming up designs as a talented
landscape architecture student or setting up plays as a striker
for the Gryphon soccer squad.
But it's the same Kenneth Mitchell who dons a hockey jersey
to portray a real-life American Olympic hopeful in the Walt
Disney film Miracle that opened in early February.
Speaking over the phone from Los Angeles - his home of the
last 18 months - he traces his path from U of G through a
brief stint as a practising landscape architect in Guelph
to his current role as an aspiring screen actor in Tinseltown.
Drawn more to film than television, he says he's more interested
in character development than in plot summaries. But he allows
there's a theme that knits together those varied experiences,
even his years rooming in an all-male residence at Guelph
and even further back to his early days as a summer camper
near hometown Toronto. Sum up that theme in a single word
suitable for a movie marquee, and it would probably read:
Take his latest role of Ralph Cox, a talented but conflicted
player who was the last man cut from the roster of the U.S.
Olympic hockey team before it performed the so-called "miracle
on ice" by scoring a landmark victory over the Soviet
Union in Lake Placid in 1980. Directed by Gavin O'Connor,
the film stars Kurt Russell as team coach Herb Brooks.
The production company did a North America-wide casting call
in several hockey cities, including Toronto, Boston and Minnesota,
seeing about 2,000 people in all. "You had to prove you
were a high-level hockey player," Mitchell says. Having
missed the initial clinics, he drove from Toronto to Los Angeles
in late 2002 with his hockey equipment, shot a tape of himself
on the ice and sent it to the producer.
He'd initially auditioned for the role of team goalie Jim
Craig. That part ended up going to Eddie Cahill, who had a
recurring role on Friends before making his movie debut
in Miracle. But the casting crew liked Mitchell enough
to ask him to audition for the role of Cox.
They spent six months filming Miracle in Vancouver.
Most of the "team" had played hockey, including
Mitchell, a former AA and AAA net-minder with the Willowdale
Blackhawks. Still, he faced a month and a half of on-ice training
to catch up.
"I had to elevate my game to get up to speed with these
guys. Where they helped me out with hockey, I helped them
out with their acting chops."
Preparing for the part involved meeting with the real-life
Ralph Cox and picking up on aspects of his personality.
"I knew Ralph really loved music," says Mitchell.
"I listened to Led Zeppelin every day before filming
to help me get into character."
He says it was important to him to portray Cox realistically
on the screen, including his reaction to the devastating news
that he had been cut from the team shortly before the 1980
Olympics. A natural response might have been to throw around
a few chairs in a fit of anger.
"The thing I found out was that Ralph was really cool
about it," says Mitchell. "He left with dignity
and pride. I think that shows a lot of character."
One newspaper article after the movie's release described
how Cox's daughter was moved to tears watching Mitchell's
character learn that he had failed to make the team. Getting
that kind of response "is the ultimate compliment in
doing this job," says Mitchell. "That just put the
biggest smile on my face."
He says working with Russell taught him about dedication
to the craft and the importance of being prepared. "He's
a big action star, but he's also a very kind, giving person."
Since completing the movie, Mitchell has been discussing
a new independent film based on a novel by a Toronto writer
that includes the character of a canoe instructor at a summer
camp. If portraying a hockey player was like a homecoming
of sorts for Mitchell, acting on the set of a summer camp
would be like a second childhood.
He spent summers at Kilcoo Camp in Minden, attending first
as a camper before graduating to camp instructor and counsellor.
"That was a big part of my life," he says. "It
taught me many things about people, friendships, love of the
environment, learning to laugh and cry, learning to appreciate
people, love and dance."
The experience also gave him his first chance to perform.
"I loved to do skits in front of everyone. I loved to
play guitar at campfires. That's where I say it all started
- Saturday skit night."
He attended a high school for the arts in Toronto, mixing
up everything from acting to painting. Looking for a way to
combine his artistic bent with something that offered more
secure career prospects - "I didn't want to become a
starving artist" - he chose landscape architecture and
U of G.
Although Mitchell did take that single drama course at Guelph,
he spent much of his extracurricular time on the soccer field.
In his last year, he tore a knee ligament and ended up sidelined
for about half the games.
"That was emotionally draining. I can relate to some
of those feelings about what it would be like to be cut before
the Olympics. When I got to slip on that jersey that represented
an Olympic-calibre team, that was really special for me. My
mother says I got to marry my childhood dreams of being an
athlete with my current passion for acting, and that's why
Miracle was such an ideal job for me."
Anyone attending convocation at Guelph in 1998 might have
assumed that Mitchell's ideal job would have been of a markedly
different sort. He'd spent five years studying landscape architecture,
including a final year in Australia, before graduating with
a silver medal from the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects.
Indeed, he went to work right away in the landscape architecture
department of ESG International Inc., an environmental consulting
firm based in Guelph (since acquired by Edmonton-based Stantec
Inc.). There, he worked on designs of trail master plans -
including the TransCanada Trail - the City of Toronto bicycle
master plan and a multi-use outdoor sports facility for Guelph.
He says he enjoyed the work and appreciated the flexible hours
that allowed him to fit in occasional round trips to Toronto
While still working in Guelph, he had begun to get parts
in television commercials for everything from athletic gear
to potato chips to beer. After transferring to ESG's Toronto
office, he met an agent and began working with acting coach
David Rotenberg, learning to prepare for parts and how to
listen and "be present" in a scene. Mitchell says
he even found himself drawing on aspects of his undergraduate
program, especially presentation and social skills.
Retired landscape architecture professor Walter Kehm recalls
bumping into Mitchell a few years ago in Toronto and wasn't
surprised to learn he was switching to an acting career.
"He always mimicked my mannerisms," says Kehm,
who found out near the end of Mitchell's program that his
student had kept all of Kehm's pen-and-pencil critiques of
his projects. Mitchell gave him a collage of the sketches
and performed a brief send-up of the professor, mimicking
his stance and gestures. "He's a character," says
Mitchell landed his first major role co-starring with Gena
Rowlands in Charms for the Easy Life in 2000. That
led to a part in the sci-fi movie Odyssey 5, which
subsequently became a TV series with Mitchell reprising his
role as a young astronaut. Then came a part in The Recruit
with Al Pacino and Colin Farrell. He also performed in
the short film Why Don't You Dance?, which premiered
at the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival.
Starting to feel like the proverbial big fish in Toronto,
Mitchell headed out to Los Angeles. Now 29, he lives with
his girlfriend, Susan Pratt, an actor he met three years ago
on the set of Charms for the Easy Life. With both of
them busy on the L.A. audition circuit, it's Guelph that is
a remote star today, although one that he recalls fondly.
"I love the smell of freshly cut grass, and I still
love it to this day because it reminds me of soccer and reminds
me of Johnston Green," says Mitchell, who still subscribes
to a landscape architecture journal and works on his parents'
home garden when he visits Toronto.
While at Guelph, he roomed in Mills Hall - then an all-male
residence - with another landscape architecture student who
is still his best friend. Working on Miracle "was like
reliving my university days," he says. "I was living
in an environment with a great group of guys much like I was
His latest on-screen character might have seen his dreams
quashed, but like more than a few neighbours in Los Angeles,
Mitchell's got hopes of his own.
"People are recognizing the film. Now it's a matter
of meeting new producers and directors for new projects."
That means a merry-go-round of auditions, looking for the
next right part. Mitchell says he's cut out less for roles
that call for the chiselled good looks of a Tom Cruise-style
leading man and more for "soulful" characters played
by the likes of Edward Norton, Jeff Bridges or Sean Penn.
"These are guys with great souls," says Mitchell,
whose favourite movies include Shawshank Redemption
and You Can Count On Me.
"I love the feeling I get performing for people. I love
to provoke emotions in myself and have an outlet for my emotions.
I love to see people laugh and cry."