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Station: Meet Cowichan's Bomb Girl
It’s easy to compare Ali Liebert to Marilyn Monroe; her gorgeous physique, flirtatious eyelashes, and signature mole are eerily similar, albeit with a punk twist.
But good looks are just one part of why Liebert is one of Canada’s most exciting television stars.
A decade of hard work travelling between Vancouver, Toronto, and Los Angeles, acting in short films, TV pilots, and feature films has helped Liebert build a solid resume that has set the stage for her inevitable rise to stardom.
She is best known for her role in Global TV’s award-winning series Bomb Girls after captivating audiences as Betty, the macho, cigarette-smoking, lovelorn lesbian factory worker.
She was disappointed when the show was cancelled after two seasons despite winning three Canadian Screen Awards and an esteemed Gracie award for Outstanding Drama.
But it didn’t take long for her to be cast in Lost Girl, a popular Canadian science-fiction television drama in its fourth season, which airs in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.
Liebert can do it all. She is a professional singer, dancer, and she does a wicked impression of Liza Minnelli.
She’s ambitious too: with the help of her peers, she recently created her own production company, Sociable Films—their first movie, After Party, will be released during the Whistler Film Festival in December.
Her versatility, sophistication, and wry humour give us the impression Liebert has the talent and chutzpah required to make it in show business, in Canada and south of the border.
And to think it all started when she was a girl growing up in Cowichan Station, and attending Frances Kelsey Secondary School.
I spoke with Liebert on the phone while she was walking her puppy, Joplin, in Stanley Park one sunny August afternoon.
MM: How did you get into acting?
AL: I grew up being precocious and I took dance and singing from a young age. But Roger Carr at Kelsey took it to the next level. We were doing full plays and musicals. The level of craftsmanship that went into those productions, for me, I’d never experienced anything like that. It definitely felt exciting and solidified that I wanted to do it for a profession.
MM: Did you know what a life as a professional actor looked like?
AL: I had no idea how to get into it or what that meant. Because I grew up doing musical theatre, and then I went to musical-theatre school after graduation, I guess I thought I was going in that direction. I didn’t know how to get into doing TV and film when I was in high school. It was totally foreign to me.
MM: Where did you go to musical-theatre school?
AL: I went to the Canadian College of Performing Arts. I loved the training that I got there. They really do prepare kids for the real world. It’s really hard to figure out how to be successful in show business unless you grew up in a big city and it’s obvious what to do.
MM: Or your parents are connected in some way.
AL: Right, but if you’re just a regular family, show business is pretty confusing.
MM: What advice would you give young kids in Cowichan who are wishing for more? Is it who you know?
AL: I honestly don’t think it’s who you know. I think it’s training and stamina and tenacity and desire. My acting teacher, Andrew MacIlroy, he is a dear friend and mentor. I’ve been studying with him maybe a decade now. He’s helped shape my career. Take the opportunity to train with guest teachers from Vancouver. And I think also I’m a good example you don’t have to think you’re missing anything. Just by having a great childhood and growing up helps. I didn’t start doing any TV work until I was 21.
MM: Being surrounded by a loving family that makes you feel safe is as beneficial as growing up in Hollywood and in commercials when you’re five?
AL: I just feel like everything happens the way it happens for different people. When I first got to Vancouver, I was really stressed out. I was comparing myself to people who already had an agent and a foot-long resume and they were the same age as me. But honestly, it’s just not a race and everybody’s path is their own. Just continue to really love it and play different characters. Do different types of performances. I’m so glad I had singing and dancing as an outlet. I wasn’t forced to sell any products on TV. I was just running around creating performances that were fun.
MM: When you get to Vancouver and you’re new, are you taking free acting jobs and working as a barista? How do you live?
AL: Oh my goodness, I think I’ve had 12 jobs on Robson Street alone. My first few years in Vancouver I was working two jobs. I worked at Starbucks from 5 a.m. till noon and slept for a few hours then was a hostess at Milestones from 5 till 11 at night. That was... um... well, that was character building. At the same time I was chipping away at my acting career. The first few years I started out, it’s not like the auditions were coming fast and furious. This decade that I’ve spent in film and TV has been a very slow, steady progression. Some people’s careers are totally different. Some have a lightning strike and their career trajectory is altered forever, but for me it’s been lucky, it’s been a slow, steady growth.
MM: Is stardom a goal?
AL: No, if I wanted to be famous I would have moved to Los Angeles at 15 years old and stuck it out. I definitely have ambition and I have some pretty lofty career goals. I think it’s really important to dream and aspire. There are directors I’d want to work with or series I’d love to be part of as opposed to wanting to be on a red carpet. That’s not really about acting.
MM: The public can equate celebrity to success. From within the industry, is it viewed that way?
AL: It’s very different how celebrity is viewed in Canada and the States. In a way, it would be better if Canada had a more-established star system. There’s a glass ceiling here. You can only become so famous in Canada and then people move to Los Angeles or New York to go to the next level. I think that’s a shame. I wish we did have a star system here so we could keep our talent here and also promote our artists; so the talented artists we have could be the leads of our future films.
The way it is now, celebrity does mean something because it’s box-office sales and distribution sales. It all comes down to money. The more famous you are, the more reassurance you give the investors. That’s why it is important. I’ve been to the Toronto Film Festival and lots of press events for Bomb Girls. I’ve been on red carpets and it’s really fun to put on a fancy dress but it’s another part of the job of being an actor.
MM: So it’s work.
AL: Yeah, it’s work but I still love my work. But I don’t think “Oh, poor me.” To be honest, going to set—when I’m shooting something—I’ve yet to say, “I’m going to work today.” I still think it’s just magical and amazing that I get to act for a living.
MM: Is acting paying for your life now? I assume you don’t have to work at Starbucks anymore.
AL: It has been for the past few years.
MM: That has to feel pretty good. You’re still surrounded by peers who may not have made it. Do you feel privileged?
AL: I don’t feel privileged. I’ve worked really hard to be where I am. That being said, I’m unemployed and looking for the next thing. It’s just a really humbling job. When you’re working you feel like a million bucks and then the job ends and you have to get out and audition and have an open heart and go out for the next thing. It definitely demands a certain strength of character. Or maybe it’s just I don’t have any other skills.
MM: Well you do, you could be a hostess at Milestones.
AL: No, no, I was not good at that. I’ve been fired from so, so many jobs.
MM: It can be hard doing what you love. Is it worth it?
AL: Every few years I would say to myself: “I’m whatever age, I’m broke, I’m miserable, I should just quit.” But I could never quit. I feel like I’ve been acting since I was five. And I do love it; I love performing.
That’s part of the reason I started my production company with two of my friends. Sometimes it’s hard when you’re trying to do your art but you’re waiting for other people to give you permission to do it. You have so much you want to share but they have to pick you and that can become discouraging. We started Sociable Films because we wanted to act and create. Nicholas (Carella) is a writer/producer/brilliant actor and Michelle (Ouellet) is a brilliant director and editor, so we made a movie called After Party. It’s pretty exciting. My friend Erica Caroll, who is also from Duncan, is in it.
It’s kind of crazy because when I was in high school, Erica’s dad worked at Kelsey and used to tell me about his daughter who was working on the X-Files and The Outer Limits, and that blew my mind. I was so inspired. I couldn’t believe somebody from Duncan was on TV. And through circumstance she turned out to be one of my very best friends. It’s pretty incredible. When the acting bug bites you, as it has for me, it’s kind of like a for-life thing.
MM: Bomb Girls was discontinued. Was that devastating for you guys?
AL: They took so long to make the decision, I was starting to get a bit weary. I wasn’t entirely shocked. Apparently we’re doing a movie in the fall to wrap up the characters. I hope that happens because we just adore each other. I miss Betty and the whole gang. It was disappointing, but like anything, after giving myself a break to be sad about it for a while, I realized everything good it brought me. Betty has turned out to be a really important gay character on TV.
It’s definitely been bittersweet. It was the biggest blessing, but I was crushed. (Fellow Bomb Girls actor) Jodi Balfour and I were driving to Vegas from L.A. and we were two hours into our road trip and her agent calls and Jodi does the slitting throat with her finger on her neck, and I didn’t know what she was talking about. Then she told me, and it definitely made for a long road trip.
MM: You say you’re unemployed now but we think you’re employed because we see you on TV.
AL: I understand that. I’m in a down period right now trying to line up what the next three or four months are going to look like. There are pilots and new shows coming up that I’ve been auditioning for. I’ve got a couple of things out there, but nothing is confirmed. It’s just the waiting. I’m not a patient person. And this business just forces you to be patient because you can’t control it.
MM: Then there’s delay. You do the work in July and when the show is aired later in the year, you get recognition —yet you’ve moved on to the next project.
AL: I don’t really watch too much of what I do. I haven’t even seen all of Bomb Girls. It’s not my favourite thing. I’m generally hard on myself. Maybe when I get older and I can be a bit more kind to myself and enjoy the experience, sure, but I’m not there.
I’m always looking to see how I could improve. That’s what I love about acting. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Trying to figure out how to work my instrument better. How I can deepen my performance? If I watch myself and really think, “I missed that moment” or “that joke fell flat.”
It’s about trying to unlock the mystery of it. For me, the most important thing is trying to be kind and knowing I did my best on the day. It’s a pretty high-stress situation. You don’t get another chance to do those scenes again. Once you do them, it’s over and captured forever. It’s exciting. That could be positive too. If you’re just feeling it and everything is magical, it will be captured forever. You do live theatre and that epic performance is left in the wall of the theatre. There are pros and cons to both.
MM: What about film? Is there a difference in terms of ambition? Is being successful in film the ultimate?
AL: I’ve had a chance to be part of some really interesting films. Most have premiered at TIFF, like Sook Yun Lee’s film Year of the Carnivore. I feel like I’ve had the chance to be part of some beautiful, unique stories but they come around less often. Vancouver and Toronto have so many TV series. And I’ll continue making films myself. I don’t put film above TV. TV is so good. TV is like mini films these days.
MM: I was watching your YouTube video Teenie and Queenie. It’s hysterical. Have you done any comedy?
AL: I did a pilot a few years ago called Wolf Canyon that was really funny. It didn’t get picked up unfortunately, but that was I’d say the most comedic thing I’ve done. Now that I think about it, the past few years have been just really dramatic roles. A few of these things I’ve been auditioning for lately are comedies. Fingers and toes crossed. It would be a really nice change of pace. If I got to do comedy, that’s where Los Angeles has a lot more opportunities than Canada. Hopefully we can make some more excellent comedies in Canada.
MM: When you go out do people recognize you?
AL: Rarely. Like once a month maybe. It’s always some really lovely Bomb Girls fan. I’m happy to chat. My hair is a different colour. I’ve got it back to being blond. I look a little different. I think if we’re not in period clothes we’re not recognized. People aren’t used to seeing Betty in a summer frock.
MM: What about home do you crave?
AL: My mom used to be a secretary at Frances Kelsey and she passed away in 2005. It’s just my dad who still lives in Duncan. It’s just nice to go for walks. We grew up with two Labs and walking in the woods was always a big part of my childhood. Now we take Joplin to rub noses with the donkeys at Providence, or Cherry Point, or the Cowichan River. The valley is just so peaceful. It’s a break from the city. I was home a few weeks ago and it was just glorious. Feeling the wind on your face and the air smells good.
MM: Would you live here again?
AL: I wouldn’t mind having a place on the island that I could come to if I ever got on a series that was going for a while and I enjoyed having a few months off. If I knew it was returning for another season and spending a few months on the island, that would be lovely.