Mark O’Brien interview: Goalie brings Terry Sawchuk to the movie screen

Goalie is a sports film, but it’s not like any sports film you’ve seen before. The biopic tells the never-say-die story of Terry Sawchuk, as portrayed with incredible poise by Mark O’Brien. Terry wasn’t just a hockey goalie; he was a man who sacrificed his body and so much more to be one of the best in the sport. And Goalie isn’t just a hockey movie; it’s as much a human story as a sports one.

I recently spoke with Mark to discuss why Terry Sawchuk is an NHL legend, what it took to portray him in the film, and how much it meant that his wife Georgina Reilly played Terry’s wife Pat.

Learn more about Goalie in my interview with Mark O’Brien below, then rent or purchase the movie now on iTunes.

Brittany Frederick: How were you introduced to the story of Terry Sawchuk? What made his story resonate with you?

Mark O’Brien: Being a Canadian, most people play hockey, or their brother plays hockey, or their sister plays hockey, or all their friends play hockey. It’s like football in the States, really, and he’s a legend. He was always known as the greatest goalie of all time. So growing up I knew so much about Terry Sawchuk. I was very aware of who he was.

My dad always told me…I’d be like, who’s the best goalie? And he was like, Terry Sawchuk. He was just always known as that. I didn’t know anything about his personal life, but I always knew that Terry Sawchuk was the best. That was the greatest goalie. So there is a lot of knowledge about him as a great goalie. I don’t think a lot of people knew what he was like as a person, but he certainly is a legend if you’re a hockey fan.

BF: Where do you start when portraying a real person, let alone one who has that sort of venerated status? How does your acting process change?

MO: It’s really just finding out who the person is. Famous or not, special or not, everybody’s just a person and everyone has something that makes them tick. Trying to find the crux of who they are is the most important thing. And really the big thing for actors is always why. Why did they do what they did? Why did they feel that way? Why did that upset them? Why were they scared of that? Why did they want that?

Terry was tough [to play], because he wasn’t really an extroverted kind of guy. He didn’t really talk about himself that much. He died pretty young. So you’ve kind of got to fill in the blanks a little bit yourself there. But I got to know his son very well, and I talked to a lot of goalies and talked to a few people who knew him, and you kind of just go from there.

Whatever result you end up with is kind of hard to articulate. It’s just a feeling you have, and then you just go with it. So that’s what I did. I certainly thought about it a lot and ruminated on it a lot, and then you just kind of let that bleed into the performance.

BF: It’s important to articulate that Goalie isn’t only for hockey fans or sports fans. What would you say to those movie viewers who don’t like sports? Why would it appeal to them?

MO: You don’t need to know anything about sports or hockey to appreciate the movie. I’m an avid film watcher and a lot of times I like to see something [where] I have no idea about that world. I don’t know anything about it. And I find that a lot of times would be the most interesting. Also movies and themes and stories are cyclical. They’re all kind of similar things, just in different worlds. No two movies are exactly the same, but they’re all kind of similar in what draws you in.

And I think in [Goalie], the emotion of this man and his wife, and his coaches and his [fellow] players and what they went through, is very singular. Everyone I know who’s seen it, whether I know the people or not, the comments I always get are like, “Wow, I didn’t know how brutal that was.” It’s a pretty eye-opening scenario of how hard it was to be a goalie physically, mentally, emotionally, and psychologically.

It’s an odd position to begin with, because you’re by yourself. There are very few team sports where there’s one person who’s by themselves. Every other player, they’re on the ice together, and they’re on the bench together. The goalie is completely isolated, and if he lets in a goal, it’s all on him. I know that, playing hockey myself, when the goalie lets in a few you’re like “Oh God, I wish he could give us a break.” And goalies know that. They know that pressure and that feeling.

And then you have to think back, this was a time when there were only six professional NHL teams, and there were no backup goalies. They played every single game, so there were only six [goalie] positions in the world. And then on top of it, they didn’t wear masks, they didn’t have proper gear, and they didn’t get paid a whole lot. So the amount of pressure to remain in your job, as well as to remain good at it, and to be relevant enough to keep playing, is just insane. What they did and the physical toll that that took on this guy is really brutal.

And I think that it surprises a lot of people. A lot of people I know who are hockey fans and watch it are really surprised. So I think for anyone, just challenge yourself. Go watch something that you’ve never seen before about a subject you don’t know much about.

Mark O’Brien stars as Terry Sawchuk in Goalie. Photo Credit: Courtesy of October Coast PR.

BF: On a happier note, Goalie sees you once again acting opposite your wife, Georgina Reilly. Were you intentionally cast together?

MO: It wasn’t right away a part of the plan. I’d been talking to Adriana Maggs, the co-writer and director, for a little while about it, probably about a year or so. And then she called me along the way and she was like, “We really want Georgina to play Pat.” I just thought it was a great idea. It came together in a way that I think it worked. Georgina is a great actress and Adriana just capitalized on that.

BF: When you’re going to those brutal places Terry has to go, was it a help to have that existing familiarity with Georgina, especially since she’s portraying your wife?

MO: One hundred percent, because you already know their working methods. I love working with new people. I love working with old friends. There’s a benefit to both. And the benefit of working with old friends is that you already trust them. You already know that they know what they’re doing, you know how to speak with them, you know how to receive communication from them to be able to give them what they want, and you also have a lot of fun, because you have a frame of reference…There definitely is that trust that’s really strong, and I trust Adriana so much I’d do anything with her. I thought it was a great benefit.

BF: So many sports films lose the human story in between the games. How does Goalie balance Terry’s professional life with his personal one?

MO: This whole movie is not building to the big game. It’s not building to this big opportunity. And I think that kind of is what the movie is about, really. It’s about that it’s just a long haul and there are peaks and valleys. Terry won several Stanley Cups, but it doesn’t mean anything, and I think art kind of reflects that in a way, too. One day you’re being lauded as something great, and the next day everyone’s forgotten your name and they wonder where you are, and it’s not by any choice. Sometimes it’s a matter of circumstance, and I think you just have to keep working and keep going through.

And that’s what the movie does. The movie straddles that line. It’s more a real take on what it’s like to be an athlete, as opposed to being like, and then he won the championship at the end and everyone was happy. What did he do the day after he won a championship? What did he do the next season when they didn’t win the championship? Adriana and her sister Jane, who wrote the script, did such a good job of tracking the whole thing. It’s the big picture of the life of an athlete in this time period, in this sport, in this position, that doesn’t sugarcoat anything, because there’s no just ultimate victory. Not every team wins every game every year, and not every team wins every championship every year. So it makes it more real in that particular way.

BF: Is there a particular scene from Goalie that resonated with you as you were shooting the movie?

MO: There’s a major emotional scene for Terry in the film that, I don’t know if it’s my favorite scene, but I think there’s only one time he really kind of talks about himself, fully opens up about his past. It explains where he’s coming from and who he is, and how hard it is for him to talk about that. It’s one thing to watch someone go through something that’s psychologically and physically exhausting and challenging. It’s also when they find it hard to speak about it.

That’s always interesting, and we see that a lot today. We’re starting to become more accepting. At the same time we’re being more accepting, we’re also scrutinizing one another more in society today. It’s a funny time, and I think that scene kind of encapsulates that. It’s like I want to talk to someone, but if I do, I feel like I’m going to be judged or I don’t know what to do with that amount of vulnerability. And I think that comes across in one of the scenes about halfway through the movie.

BF: You mentioned earlier that Terry wasn’t very open about himself. In many ways, he’s a bit of an enigma. So is there something particular that you want viewers to take away from Goalie? Some part of him that you really want them to understand better after they’ve seen the film?

MO: There’s so many famous people, whether they’re an athlete or they’re a politician or they’re an actor or they’re a singer, whatever it is, and we just judge them. You’re walking down the street like, I hate that player, and you don’t even know them. And I know sometimes it’s off the cuff, and it’s kind of casual and you don’t really mean what you say. But a lot of times we do. Being in the entertainment industry, I see it all the time.

There’s a lot of hate spewed about people we don’t even know because we heard something someone said that their friend read in some other magazine two years ago. It’s this weird kind of viral thing that we do to one another, and I don’t think it’s helpful. And I think you see [in Goalie] how hard it is to be in a position like that [and] to maintain a position like that.

Goalie is now available on iTunes.

Article content is (c)2020 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr.

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