Q & A with actor Jay Baruchel: on Habs fandom, fighting and being a Canadian in Hollywood - The Hockey News on Sports Illustrated

Q & A with actor Jay Baruchel: on Habs fandom, fighting and being a Canadian in Hollywood

The creator of 'Goon' has a hard-hitting, soul-bearing new book on hockey fandom. He catches up with The Hockey News to talk fighting, family, patriotism and much more in this exclusive interview.
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If you've watched actor Jay Baruchel work, you know he does a great job playing awkward, intellectual underdog characters, usually in comedies such as Knocked Up or She’s Out of My League. More recently, however, we know him for embracing his fiery, Canada-bred passion for hockey. He wrote the 2011 breakout hit film Goon, which chronicled the hard life of a minor-league enforcer and established itself as one of the best hockey movies this millennium.

Now Baruchel, 36, has another contribution for hockey lore: Born Into It, his hilarious, gritty and poignant Habs-fan memoir, which arrives Oct. 30. It chronicles his life growing up as a Canadiens diehard juxtaposted with the backdrop of his rough upbringing, which included a drug-addict father.

The Hockey News caught up with Baruchel for a raw, honest and funny discussion about the book and his opinions on everything from fighting in hockey to his hatred for the Leafs to the Quebec referendum.

THE HOCKEY NEWS: At the start of your book, you paint a vivid picture of the Saturday night viewing experience of Hockey Night in Canada, having your friends over and ordering takeout food as you get ready for a game. It reminded me of how so many Canadians get geared up for a Saturday, waiting for people to come to the door, all that stuff. What made you launch into that as your intro?

JAY BARUCHEL: The whole concept of what the book should be was based on looking at my bookshelf: what Habs books don’t exist? Lord knows we don’t need another history book, and I haven’t played a single shift for the Montreal Canadiens, so I can’t speak to what it’s like playing for them, but I saw an opportunity to create a fandom counterpart or fandom answer to Ken Dryden’s The Game, which is sort of a macro experience of what it’s to be a professional hockey player and more so what it’s like to be a Hab. And I was like, “I think there’s something, if not important, at least worth articulating, about what it is to be so deeply connected emotionally and psychologically to something over which you have absolutely zero control.”

And in every city I’ve been to in Canada at some point I’ve watched hockey in someone’s house or someone’s hotel room or something. And I saw the same dynamic play out everywhere. This experience of having a bunch of friends over and a crowded room with a bunch of greasy food, I was like, “I have a suspicion that this is a thing.” And I felt like it was something that I haven’t heard or read kind of articulated like that. And so, everything I know about hockey and the entirety of my connection to hockey is as a fan. I don’t have the sort of skating-on-the-pond-every-day-of-my-life Canadian hero’s myth origin story. But what I do have is growing up in this country, and if you grow up in this country, for 90 percent of the population, hockey is less a sport you follow than it is just – it’s like breathing or the weather.

THN: This question sort of applies to that experience, but I think it applies to you as an actor in general: if we compare you to, let’s say Seth Rogen or Ryan Gosling or Rachel McAdams, different Canadian actors and writers – you more than others seem to embrace your “Canadian-ness,” and I always wonder if it’s a conscious decision that you’ve chosen to hold on to that more than some. You’ve talked about your love for your roots in Montreal and of course this book and Goon. Is that a thing you think about consciously?

BARUCHEL: I would have to give the annoying “yes and no” answer. I’ll start with the no, which is I was just raised in an incredibly patriotic family. I know that there are families in Canada which are basically just, the households are incubators for future Americans and that the brass ring inevitably lies outside this country. That was never, ever, ever the narrative in my family, it was quite the opposite, and I suspect there’s a bunch of reasons why. Starting with: my granddad and a bunch of my uncles were servicemen, so when you serve this country for generations, the patriotism wasn’t nonsense. So I was raised to believe I was growing up in the best country in the world. But also, as a patriotic Canadian growing up in the '90s in Quebec, you’re smack dab in the middle of the f---king referendum. Your patriotism is a baptism by fire. Especially if you grow up in the neighborhoods that I grew up in and inherited as a kid in Montreal, you are constantly aware of your Canadian-ness. Because it dictates what newspaper you read or where you’re going vote and all that stuff, and for God knows how long, every Quebec election has been dictated by pretty much one issue, pretty much until this last one.

So, when I was 18, I started working down in the States. I started working in Los Angeles in the midst of the Bush-Gore election nonsense in 2000 or whatever, and then shortly after that was September 11 and then the war in Iraq, and it was a very, very tumultuous time in America. To be dropped in the middle of it, it sort of vulcanized my patriotism I guess. This is not to take anything away from people. I’m not trying s--t on somewhere else. I’m just trying to say that I came from Quebec, and then I was dropped into the States, and there was basically one of two options – that I was going to have no patriotism whatsoever or I was going to be as patriotic as a Canadian that has ever been seen.

Then the sort of “yes” part of it or the conscious decision would be – it would come from a lifetime of being proud of Canadians that were in movies and on TV shows and stuff like that but also being painfully aware that I never saw them in Canada or on Canadian television until they stopped working a lot in the States or whatever the hell. And so, it was kind of a crummy takeaway. I was like – I don’t want to be that. I’m 36, and I still believe I was born and raised in the best country in the world, and I still live here to this day. I’m not trying to compare She’s Out of My League to anything my uncles or granddads did, but if I can somehow represent and wave the flag – I’ll do it whenever I can.

THN: It’s funny you mentioned the referendum. I always think of it as, “Did we dream that?” It was so close, the vote! I can’t believe it happened.

BARUCHEL: I try to tell people. People don’t realize. I have a bunch of friends in Scotland, and I was there shortly after their referendum a few years ago, and they were all going on about how close it was, that it was 60/40, and I was like, “That’s not close. Close is 50 percent plus one.” You can’t even say 51 percent! You know what that looks like? That’s not good for anybody.

THN: The book is very raw, very emotional – it feels like you’re bearing your soul a lot, especially the passages where you talk about losing your dad. Was it cathartic for you to share these thoughts? Or was it difficult?

BARUCHEL: It was difficult in that I have a hard time talking about myself. I would just rather talk about something else – the history, or hockey or politics or music or movies. There’s a million things I’d rather talk about with people than me. And so, kind of dealing with that was something I wrestled with pretty much the entire time. But yes, it was incredibly cathartic. I hadn’t spoken to my father in five years when he passed away. So, it goes without saying that there was a s--tload of unresolved stuff, and writing the book, writing the chapter about him – giving him this sort of context of his own allowed me to bury my hatchet and forgive and let go of a lot of stuff. Because up until I wrote that, every thought I had about my father was as his son. And when I wrote that chapter I was able to see him as my father but also just as a man, outside of my connection to him. It is kind of bittersweet, and I don’t let him off the hook, but I also was able to kind of give him the context that allowed me to maybe understand him, at least forgive him.

THN: In the book, you explain that you walked away from Habs fandom briefly and that happened to be when they finally had the window where they won the Stanley Cup, so you felt like you didn’t get to soak in the experience. Them hoisting the Cup in ’93 – does that still haunt you today?

BARUCHEL: It does, but I also don’t mind it, because it would be somewhat disingenuous of me to let that… my Habs are not those Habs. My Habs are very, very hand-to-mouth, fighting to make it into eighth. And that’s been my experience.

THN: The Jan Bulis era, right?

BARUCHEL: Precisely! The golden age. The Jan Bulis era. This might come as a huge surprise, but I see myself as a bit of an underdog or whatever the f---, so it makes sense. It would be hard to root for a team that’s amazing. I would like to, but I also know that to grow up in the ’90s Montreal and then some – this is the team. If the Habs are connected in something of a spirit animal to Montreal, the Montreal I grew up in, it makes perfect sense that we have the Habs we have.

THN: One section of the book that I thought was really creative that made me laugh a lot was the fake emails. The emails to the Leafs, and the emails to the Bruins, to the Nordiques. So I’m curious what gave you the idea – I assume they weren’t real emails that you sent? They were dramatizations?

BARUCHEL: So much of being a Habs fan, and I suspect so much of being a fan of any sports team, but really specific about the Habs, is a real strain of pettiness throughout all of it. And there’s a lot of Habs fans if given the option, “Would you rather win the Stanley Cup but then the Leafs have a high draft pick, or would you rather the Leafs have the worst season ever but the cost of that is you guys having the second worst season ever?” – I think a lot of Habs fans would rather just see the Leafs or the Bruins f---ing implode. We are defined not just by our history and differentness but also by how much we f---ing detest our rivals. And by the way, it’s the highest form of admiration and respect. If we don’t hate you, that means you’re not worth hating. So in the sort of binary adversarial world of hockey, to hate somebody is to fear them is to respect them. There are few sweaters I hate more than the three teams I wrote emails to. But also, really, what’s so stupid is that it all started from me at my computer making myself laugh at a fake email address I came up with. I wish it was something cooler than that, but it was like a ‘fakeemailforthe purposeof ____' at Hotmail or whatever the f--- I wrote. I was like “Eh, I’ll go with that."

THN: You outline in detail in the book the inspiration for Goon. Can you elaborate on why you are generally pro-fighting and what it means to you?

BARUCHEL: There are few things I hate more than liars or hypocrites, and I try my best not to be that. It would be incredibly disingenuous and hypocritical of me to be against it when I found it as exhilarating as I have my entire life. I don’t remember a time where I was watching hockey where the fighting wasn’t a big deal. It was always something that excited the hell out of both my parents. My mother would go way harder and way crazier about them than my dad and all my friends as well, man. I was a season ticket holder at the Bell Centre for two seasons, and I can tell you that when there’s a real tilt happening it’s f---ing electric in the stadium. It’s matched only by a goal scored in the postseason. In terms of 21,000 basically all rooting for the same f---ing end. The very first time hockey was ever played indoors in Canada, they just fought each other. I think it is a pure distillation of the drama and the conflict that you pay to see. So, if you’re watching, if you’re paying to watch Toronto and Montreal, there is sort of no purer example of that conflict than when a player from each team agrees to square up with one another.

However, I can’t argue in its favor. I can argue that I’ve enjoyed it. It’s one of these things, although I do think it there’s a lot of complaining of cheap shots and head shots and boarding and all these f---ing horrid injuries that come from that stuff, that becomes placated when guys fight for a long time. Obviously long-term damage to a brain is long-term damage to a brain, period. If it’s better for the players for there to be no fighting, than that’s the end of the debate, right? I can’t sit here and be pro-concussion, right? That’s insane.

However, it still was there and is there and has been for the whole f---ing time. Whether you are pro-fighting or anti-fighting, you can’t ignore the fact that it has been intrinsically a part of hockey. If hockey is Canada’s greatest art form or our greatest cultural export to the world, well then that means it’s authentically Canadian. I think that’s something that Canada’s consciousness has wrestled with for quite some time and has a hard time reconciling. When it turns on the CBC, it’s sort of pragmatic and mild, and yet is there such a culture of fisticuffs in this country and has always been, right? I think that kind of cognitive dissonance – a lot of people are grappling with that.

I was interviewed in that movie Ice Guardians – it was a real good flick – I said something to the effect of, there have always been people that enjoy it and people that find it distasteful. And now the people that find it distasteful have evidence to support their distaste for it. But they never liked it to begin with. And I think it evokes a taste issue and a medical one. At the end of the day, I’m not a hockey player and I’m not a f---king doctor. So who cares what I think about it? I will miss it, but if history decided that the era’s done, then so be it.

THN: Well argued. And it’s funny, when you think about the Canadian institution and getting ready to watch the game on a Saturday – one thing I always remember as part of it is the person who’s in the bathroom and everybody has to yell, “Fight! Fight! Fight!” to get the person to come back because people are that excited.

BARUCHEL: That’s the thing. There’s no reason to deny how f---ing psyched up it gets you, you know? And I do think just because there isn’t necessarily a statistic to prove its effectiveness, I don’t think that means it’s without effect. We have all seen the sort of momentum and tenure of a game shift after a fight, shift in the favor of the team who won the fight. That’s not nothing.

THN: They call it adrenaline, right?

BARUCHEL: That’s exactly it! I feel like I’m probably on the wrong side of history with this one, but I can’t help how I was raised.

Jay Baruchel's Born Into It hits stores Oct. 30.

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