Kiwi ditched major role for risky new show

Author
Siena Yates,
Section
Celebrity,
Publish Date
Wednesday, 14 June 2017, 5:43PM

Mary Kills People is an unlikely name for a show but, at the very least, there can be no confusion around what it's about.

A woman called Mary kills people, and a New Zealand man called Jay Ryan plays one of her voluntary victims, in what's being hailed at one of 2017's best breakout series.

Kiwi fans will know Jay Ryan from comedy series Go Girls or Jane Campion's Top of the Lake, but since he left here in 2012 to pursue acting in the US, he's starred in a long-running and hugely successful teen sci-fi series on one of the biggest networks in the world.

Now however, he's sinking his teeth into something a bit more substantial, like the topic of euthanasia.

Kiwi actor Jay Ryan stars in new US TV show "Mary Kills People". Photo / Supplied

It's certainly timely. When Mary Kills started filming in Toronto last year, euthanasia had recently been legalised in Canada. And here in New Zealand, Act Party leader David Seymour's voluntary euthanasia bill was pulled from the ballot just last week.

And, Jay Ryan adds: "The judge [Neil Gorsuch] that Trump's just brought in [to the US Supreme Court] is the kind of frontrunner against euthanasia. So it's an interesting time for this show to come out, I think.

"On top of that it is a really intriguing, entertaining watch," he says.

The six-part mini-series has a 100 per cent rating on review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes with the Washington Post's reviewer saying "it had me hooked until the end" and Variety calling it "one of the most impressive debuts of the year", plus it's officially been signed for a second season.

For a dark comedy about assisted suicide, this was a surprise.

"We thought, 'how is this going to be perceived? It could be quite polarising'. But it has that dark comedic tone throughout, which makes it easier to digest ... that was one of the things that was lauded most by the critics ... the way the tone shifts so it's not a depressing watch, it's actually quite thrilling," Ryan says.

Jay Ryan with Mary Kills People's star Caroline Dhavernas. Photo / Supplied

That, he says, and it leaves room for viewers to make their own minds up on the issue "without shoving it down their throats".

Mary Kills is the brainchild of Tara Armstrong, who wrote the pilot episode while studying at the Canadian Film Centre and it was picked up as soon as she finished there.

Ryan credits that, combined with the fact that the show's director - Holly Dale - and most of its writers and creative team are women, as what gives the show its "fresh tone".

"People are talking about [having more women in the lead] in the industry like, 'Yes this is what we should be doing', but this is actually one of the projects that has managed to pull it off and create something amazing, and successful and fresh," Ryan says.

The Mary Kills team approached Ryan for the part of Ben Wesley, based on his performance in Top of the Lake and, having spent the past four years playing a modernised "beast" in the CW's Beauty and the Beast, Ryan jumped at the chance.

"I was looking for something very different to sink my teeth into - something a bit more solid ... something a bit more grounded in reality and maybe with a bigger purpose than just entertaining people," he says.

Kiwi actor Jay Ryan. Photo / Supplied

Although Ryan says he learned a lot, got his foot in the door and built a strong fan base, the gruelling filming schedule, publicity requirements and questionable writing tipped the balance.

"You never know what the ending is," he says. "You never know what's around the corner, whereas with things like Mary Kills ... you can see the overall story arc straight away so there's no sudden surprises and everyone knows from day one what you're actually making.

"I feel like I've done my dash. Now I'm much more interested in working with creators who have that hands-on approach to crafting a story, as opposed to a big team of hired writers who are just there to spit scripts out on a deadline."

That is why Ryan's next project is another six-part series, this one called Fighting Season, about the effects of the Afghanistan war on its Kiwi and Australian soldiers.

"It's a really strong project. It's quite confronting but it's also another piece that's going to start a conversation."

It's obvious that after five years in the States, Ryan is finally where he set out to reach when he left for Hollywood, so congratulations seem in order.

"I'm glad you've got something solid to sink your teeth into," I say.

He laughs: "Yeah, me too." LOWDOWN What: Mary Kills People Who: Jay Ryan, Caroline Dhavernas, Richard Short, Lyriq Bent. When/where:Season 1 available on Neon from June 20.