Canal Road: articles

Dark horse

It's been a rocky road from LA to Canal Road for Paul Leyden.

He has Hollywod cheekbones, a following of American housewives thanks to eight years on daytime soap As The World Turns, and writing/producing credits on a forthcoming John Cusack movie. But the career path of Australian ex-pat Paul Leyden, right, has been pretty precarious. A combination of poor judgement and bad luck saw roles in two hit US series slip through his fingers. He recently had to apologise for calling Cusack a "prima donna" on Sydney radio. And the show that should have marked his triumphant return to Australia, Nine's medico-legal drama Canal Road, failed to keep its prime-time slot. It's little wonder, then, that behind the winning smile and easy charm lies a "dark side" to Leyden. It helped him connect with Spence McKay, the tortured, recently widowed psychiatrist at the centre of Canal Road.

"The dark side of Spence is similar to my own," Leyden says. "When it is to do with someone you love, it's a bit overwhelming. You can snap and throw someone against a wall like Spence does, rough them up and then later go, 'Why did I do that?' Of course (Spence) is so hell-bent on finding out what happened and why his life got ruined, and I think that dark side is justified in a lot of ways."

After almost a decade playing "flippant" Australian ladies' man Simon Frasier on As the World Turns (a role he landed when he was not long out of NIDA), Leyden saw an opportunity in the Melbourne drama to play against type.

"What I like about this character is it's not really common for the lead guy in a show to have it off with a hooker, but I think it's good that (the writers) went there because it shows that (Spence) is emotionally detached. Once he does find out the truth, once he lays to rest what happened to his family, he's then going to be ready to go, 'OK, I can close that chapter of the book and go forward', and maybe then he can get close to people in a genuine normal relationship. But for now the contact that he has, has to be transaction-based and not emotion-based."

Filming has wrapped on The Factory, the $US30 million ($31.8 million) Cusack vehicle which Leyden co-wrote during the Canal Road shoot with Morgan O'Neill (Sea Patrol), who also directed. Produced by Hollywood heavyweight Joel Silverman's Dark Castle Productions, the crime thriller is due for release later this year. The US writers' strike which last year crippled Hollywood, began shortly after the film was green-lit. Leyden says the strike spared him from bending to Cusack's now famous demands.

"John Cusack is a terrific actor but he is a handful," says Leyden. "He was in our ear and faces about his character and the changes he wanted just didn't make sense to us, so we were kind of hamstrung by the strike and putting our hands up and saying, 'We're in the middle of a strike, we'll lose our WGA card if we write now, we can't do anything'. We had to submit the script to the (Writers') Guild and we'd have been in a lot of trouble if they knew we did any rewriting, so in a way it was a good thing because we had an excuse to deflect Cusack.

"He's a funny character, he's just a weird dude. He'll say he wants one thing and then he'll change a line and you'll get frustrated with him and then eventually he'll just go back and say the lines as originally written and then he goes, 'Yeah, that's much better', and you go, 'Exactly!' but we still had to fight for two hours."

It has been a year since Leyden left As the World Turns, but the door is wide open for his character's return.

"They call me every week," he laughs. "Honestly, I could still be there right now. The show pays really well and you don't work that much. It's a very, very, very good job. My first contract brought me across from Australia and gave me an amazing life in New York City and I got to live through all the turmoil and ugliness of 9/11 — and I saw so much in that city — but despite the money I was earning, I wanted to try something else."

Leyden soon discovered the hit-and-miss reality of jobbing actors. He signed up for the ill-fated LAX starring Heather Locklear, after turning down a role on Lost, because it sounded like Tribe, a US-Australian miniseries that also flopped.

"My first job out of drama school was set on a desert island and it was a crock of shit. It was awful and I was like, 'Lost kind of sounds like that. I thought, 'A group of people on a deserted island, where's that going to go?"'

As LAX was about to be axed, film producer Mark Gordon (American Beauty) offered Leyden a role in his new television series.

"Mark Gordon had a little TV show on the side that he was about to shoot the pilot for, and he wanted to get me out of my contract with NBC (with LAX) and NBC wouldn't release me. That other show ended up being Grey's Anatomy. That's just what happens. As a result of that and being a bit down I got back into my writing and wrote the movie."

Bridget McManus
May 29, 2008
The Age