|H&L Little Mosque on the Prairie has become quite a phenomenon.
Sheila It has! Isn’t that great? None of us had any inkling it would be such a hit. You could have knocked me over with a feather when CNN got on board talking about this controversial show about funny Muslims. It caught on like wildfire: we’re like the little train that could; playing in over 60 countries around the world now – Dubai, Israel – all over the place.
H&L What’s making it so popular?
Sheila It’s a sweet show and not terribly controversial. That’s the beauty of it. People who don’t know anything about Muslims are finding out that Muslim men snore too; that Muslims have mortgages and kids with teenage acne. They have the same problems as other people. Our little show has shattered that terrorist stereotype.
Some think it could be more controversial, but that’s not the aim of the show. The show removes some of the stigma and along the way we learn a little something about Muslims – including me. I didn’t know anyone who was Muslim and was completely ignorant about everything: their lifestyle, food, customs and holidays.
The cast did research together in a Mosque and it was fascinating for this Irish-Catholic girl. The women were in a separate room with a two-way mirror. You could say that’s inequality but, in fact, the women loved being there. They could chat; the children were able to play, the babies crawled all over them, and they were able to breastfeed. It was a lovely relaxed atmosphere and there’s definitely something to be said for that.
H&L Did this help to build your character?
Sheila Well, my character, Sarah, is not the most successful Muslim. She’s an Anglican who married for love. Both she and Yasir, her husband (Carl Rota), are constantly coming to grips about being good Muslims. This was an interesting story line for me, because I had a belief that all Muslims were good with their religion, again that stereotyping thing. But I’ve learned like with any religion, Muslims practice their faith in varying degrees. Zarqa Nawaz, the show’s writer, is Muslim. The wonderful funny stories she shares about her family help me with my role. Zarqa’s a feminist, which, in my naiveté, I didn’t think was possible. She did a documentary about the barriers in Mosques, then after 9/11 she realized it was time to dissolve more barriers and Little Mosque was born.
H&L In the show you’re a visible minority.
Sheila Yes, and I’m happy to be too!
H&L Was this a challenge for you?
Sheila It’s been an interesting learning experience. The first year I felt I wasn’t part of the club. Not ostracized – I was outside my comfort zone being immersed in the world of Islam and Muslim. Now, not everyone or every other character in the show is Muslim, but for me there was a language and a culture I wasn’t familiar with and got to learn about. And our viewers have been educated as well. The show is talked about without the mention of it being about Muslims.
This show is a real representation of Canada. We’re a melting pot in a little church basement in Mercy, Saskatchewan, yet it’s the whole world. There’s Arlene who’s black, Sitara is Pakistani, Carlos is originally from Italy and Zaib Shaikh, who plays Amaar, is a Canadian of Pakistani Muslim descent.
I’m proud to be a part of show where the writers are opening up the doors of possibility for all people. And I hope the writers will delve deeper in future episodes, while still keeping its heart and the warmth. We had episodes this year where I cried. People will relate more with deeper story lines and the show will have a bigger influence because it’s seen around the world.
H&L Has this experience affected you personally?
Sheila To have landed this lovely series at 50 is an absolute gift for me. Many of my talented actor friends are not working as much at this stage in their lives. It’s the ‘ageism’ thing. Honestly if this show was being done in Hollywood, they would have cast a 35-year old to play Sarah, and that would have been totally age inappropriate.
H&L Is 50 what you thought it would be?
Sheila Well, the hardest thing for me is when I haven’t slept; the camera can be rather harsh. However, they have beautiful ways to light me. When I’m off camera, I don’t wear any makeup and I feel great!
It’s so ingrained in us to feel bad for aging, yet it’s the natural progression of life. We all need to fall in love with who we are and how we look, no matter what our age. I don’t begrudge anybody for doing whatever they want to do to make themselves happy. Twenty years ago I had a nose job – half a nose job. A director recommended that I have a big bump removed. I didn’t get the nose ‘bob’ because I didn’t want to lose ‘McCarthy’. It was traumatic to change the way I looked. It felt weird because I wasn’t used to being prettier; I’d always been the gawky best friend of the leading lady. Although I hate to say this, it opened doors and I did get cast more. That was it for me. I won’t do anything to change the aging process.
I hope that when my daughters get to this stage in life that this ‘ageism’ stigma has been eliminated. It doesn’t allow us to be who we are, because we’re worrying about how we look.
H&L How do you take care of yourself?
Sheila I’ve been a dancer since I was very young; being in my body from that age is what inspired me to work out regularly. I’m a bit fanatical. I’m in the gym seven days a week and have been for years; it’s my drug. At Christmas, I’m tense because the gym is closed. I used to teach aerobics in the Jane Fonda years – you know the ‘one more, two more, three more’ era. I was even teaching aerobics when I went into labour. That’s how pathetic I am! The first five minutes kill me every time, but when I’m done and in the shower, I feel great! That one hour on the cross-trainer is my hour of power. By being physically strong and fit I feel centred and confident; I sleep better and eat better. Being in my body this way tells me who I am.
H&L What do you do for you emotionally?
Sheila I’m really happily married, for 25 years. Peter’s my rock and we’re just getting better and better. He’s supportive, the great leveler of my life, my constant.
My girls, 20 and 16 are amazing, I feel blessed. They know me so well; if I’m off they say, “Mom get to the gym.” Being with family is vital. My sisters are here and my brother John, a composer, is in LA. We’ve always been close. If we don’t talk for long periods of time I feel detached. And then there’s my amazing parents – mom is 83, quite the pistol, and dad’s 88. When we get together we laugh, eat and drink. Laughter is so crucial; I think it makes us younger.
Spending time with my friends is key; if I don’t have that outlet I feel disconnected. Sometimes we forget how important friends can be because we’re so busy on our laptops with our emails. Working is major for me – I love working.
H&L Does being in the same career create conflict with your husband?
Sheila Not at all. Peter’s career is about the classics and theatre – the Stratford Festival. He’s an amazing Shakespearean actor, more than I could ever dream of being. We’ve worked together a few times and that’s been fun. Mostly our paths have been alongside each other and not on top of one another. We enjoy and support each other’s successes.
H&L What do you attribute your successful career to?
Sheila My training as a dancer and singer opened many doors. In Canada, we don’t get pigeon-holed the same way as Americans. I’ve done musicals, film, theatre, TV, radio, plays, cartoons, concerts – we can do it all.
I’ve also been fortunate to work with great people. Great directors like Robin Phillips and Michael Kennedy. Phillips has been a great inspiration to me. He thought I was beautiful and no one had ever worked with me in that way. He taught me how to act.
H&L What developed your confidence?
Sheila Well, I have had many moments when I didn’t get parts and I’d think: “What else can I do?” But nothing else replaces the passion I have for acting. My first part was as the ‘Wicked Witch of the West’. I got the funny part right away because I wasn’t a ‘cutie pie’. People were laughing and loving me. I was brilliant. That was my first taste of applause; I was hooked at 9 years old.
When mentors selected me over others to perform, that helped build my confidence. And my parents were amazing. They never said no to the business and gave me every outlet I needed to expand.
H&L Anything new in Sheila’s future?
Sheila Well, Little Mosque is staying on for decades! (with a huge laugh) I’ll be teaching at Humber College in the new year. Last spring I taught third year, graduating students on-camera work at the National Theatre School in Montreal. It was great! We did scenes from movies like ‘Brokeback Mountain’, ‘The Hours’, as well as sitcoms. They turned up their noses at the sitcoms until they realized how hard they are. I had a ball and the students thought I was a genius! I’ll do on-camera training at Humber; they don’t do that now.
Deb McGrath, who plays my boss, Mayor Ann Popowicz, in Little Mosque and I are writing a spin-off.
And when I’m an old bat, I’ll play funny secretaries on TV and film. Until then I’m excited about the next 10 years. I have freedom while my kids are gone and they don’t have kids yet.
H&L How do you stay motivated between gigs?
Sheila My confidence sometimes wanes between gigs. I’m more fearful of forgetting lines on stage. And I’d like to get over that. Doing television I feel safe. I’m not on stage as often and that’s because there isn’t a part I want to do. Although it would be helpful to get back there to work with lines.
Mind you, I can get up and talk in front of thousands of people at a benefit without any problem. It’s something about being ‘me’ that I prefer doing at this point in life. Jamie Lee Curtis said that the older she gets, the less she wants to be anybody else but herself; I share that with her. I also want to develop other aspects of myself, not be someone else.
H&L So is Sheila now finding Sheila?
Sheila Yes, I think so, in a weird, funny way. It’s good to go through periods of not knowing and having to redefine ourselves. I think in our 50’s we do stop and take stock. A lot of my friends are doing the same thing.
I find I’m braver in other areas like standing up for myself and speaking my mind: braver with my time by saying no; braver in standing up for injustices. It doesn’t matter as much to me whether people get it or they don’t, whether they like me or don’t like me.
H&L You’ve accepted you?
Sheila Yes, and it’s an ongoing process. It’s empowering. And it’s important to do it with humour and care. I have no patience for unprofessionalism or people not caring about what they do to others. It may sound a little holier-than-thou, but I think these things are really important; it’s respect for one another. It’s also about taking injustices out of the world.
When we reach our 50’s a new confidence kicks in. It’s a cross between ‘I don’t give a damn, and I care very deeply’. ‘I don’t give a damn’ if someone doesn’t like me or the way I think. And, ‘I care very deeply’ about what’s going on in the world and with others. That’s why I’ve committed time to community and world efforts.
H&L What are the projects?
Sheila Ten years ago a breast cancer survivor from Stratford, Carol, started a fundraiser ‘The Quilt Project’. Quilts from all over the world made by survivors and their friends are auctioned. The money raised in Toronto, Halifax and Vancouver goes to breast cancer support groups like Wellspring. Carol’s vision of women quilting together associates with supporting one another and brings commun-ity together to nurture one another. Imagine a group of women quilting over the winter, putting love and courage into that quilt. That’s why I host this amazing auction.
I’m passionate about Canadian Feed the Children too. I love this organisation because everything goes to their outreach programs, 50% in Canada and 50% internationally. In 2006, the Executive Director, Jim Dahl, asked me if I would go to Bolivia. I was honoured to represent them, and took my then 18-year-old daughter, Mackenzie. We toured the Bolivian cities of Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, La Paz, and Sucre. We visited orphanages, community centres and day care schools run by grandmothers. It’s a very female-driven culture; most of the men go to Spain to work. We met women who had 8 children of their own, and worked at daycare centres every day. We saw bakeries and sewing mills, the places they sleep. It was quite an eye opener. More people should visit these countries. We saw many sad scenarios. Not unlike what I’ve seen in Regina with our own native population.
We did some filming in Bolivia for the online gift giving service called ‘Best Gift Ever’. You can buy a gift for family and friends that will make a huge difference for children who have nothing. By purchasing gifts such as school supplies, breakfast, a mosquito net or a goat or cow, all the children in the area benefit, not just one.
I’ll continue to work with them. They’ve provided me with such a growth experience. Please visit canadianfeedthechildren.ca; you’ll see me there with a cow!
H&L These things are great contributions.
Sheila When you’re an actor, you’re given a lot of attention. Participating with Feed the Children balances things out. I hope to continue making a difference there.
H&L What’s your thought on the attention
Sheila It’s almost become a religion. It’s quite disturbing how celebrities are being portrayed as ‘saints’ by the media, although it’s not as bad in Canada. What I like about your magazine is that it’s about women’s issues. I think women are interested in how other women are doing it. I loved reading about what Wendy Crewson and Joey Adler are thinking and doing. It’s comforting to know that the women you see on TV or in the movies are just the same as the rest of us.
H&L Words of wisdom you follow?
Sheila Breathe! (with a chuckle) Laugh more and love those wrinkles. Life is much more fulfilling when we laugh! Children laugh so much more than adults. Adults forget how. We’ve become crisis junkies. We’re so worried about everything, we don’t sleep. We need to lighten up! These words from Ingrid Bergman are powerful, “Happiness is good health and a short memory.” With health you have everything, and with a short memory you don’t live in the past. I love this!
Check your local listings to watch Sheila McCarthy in Little Mosque on the Prairie.