Billy MacLellan spent an hour and a half with his hands soaking wet, cold and smelling like fish as he repeatedly gutted cod with his bare hands in the traditional manner while filming the movie Maudie.
But when audiences watch the hit biopic of the famed Nova Scotia folk artist, there's not a fish to be seen. And MacLellan couldn't care less.
"I'm fully aware I have the best job in the world," says the East Bay, Cape Breton, native by phone from his home in Toronto.
"It was a scene that Ethan and I were doing where he tells me Maud has left him and I'm gutting cod on the wharf. We had a barrel of cod and a local fisherman showed me how to butterfly-fillet cod."
Ethan is four-time Oscar nominee Ethan Hawke, who plays Everett Lewis, a miserly fish pedlar who hires Maud Lewis (Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins) to be his housekeeper and falls in love in the fictionalized story.
MacLellan plays Everett's buddy Frank, "who does a lot of odd jobs. He's a fish pedlar and one of Everett's pals, maybe Everett's only pal."
He feels lucky to have filmed scenes with both actors as well as scenes with just Hawke and others with just Hawkins.
"Both of them couldn't have been more lovely. Being Oscar nominees, the perception would be the set would be intimidating and you'd have to step up your game, but it was one of the most lovely sets I've been on."
Maudie has been earning raves and drawing crowds since it was released by Mongrel Media in just four theatres, including the Oxford Theatre in Halifax on April 14.
The film crossed the $1-million mark in Canada on May 3 and on May 5 was showing at 82 screens across Canada. It was also No. 1 at the box office in Atlantic Canada, where it played on 19 screens and beat out high-profile films including The Fate of the Furious, Beauty and the Beast and The Circle.
On May 19 it will be in 64 theatres across the country and is expected to top the $2-million mark this weekend. It will open on June 16 in the U.S. distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.
MacLellan says the fact his mother and father could see him on the big screen in Sydney and Vancouver, respectively, is a bucket list item.
He was initially afraid his mother wouldn't be able to see it, as the film wasn't available in Sydney and she was going on vacation shortly after it opened in Halifax.
He encouraged friends to take to social media with his wish — and they weren't the only ones, as Mongrel Media responded to fans' social media requests for additional regional screenings by expanding it to 30 screens on April 21.
"The film is doing everything I could have hoped for; it is so well executed, the cinematography is so well executed and the performances by Sally and Ethan are phenomenal. I saw it a second time in Toronto and the subtleties in their performances are inspiring."
The Canada-Ireland co-production premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September 2016, screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, then was the sold-out opening gala at the Atlantic Film Festival in Halifax, where it won the Gordon Parsons Award for best Atlantic feature and the Michael Weir Award for best Atlantic screenwriter for screenwriter Sherry White.
Since then, it has screened at dozens of festivals in Canada and at festivals in the U.S., Ireland, Germany, Spain and South Korea. It has festival dates in Australia and the United Arab Emirates and international releases scheduled in the U.K., Europe and New Zealand throughout the summer and fall. On April 24, White won the Writers Guild of Canada Screenwriting Award for Feature Film.
MacLellan, whose credits include TV series Bellevue, The Expanse, Defiance and 12 Monkeys, auditioned for Maudie in the summer of 2014 and didn't begin filming in Newfoundland until October 2015.
He thought the script was fantastic and shared that impression with director Aisling Walsh and producers and casting crew.
"I knew a little bit about Maud. I think back in 1988, when I was a kid, we took a truck and trailer from Cape Breton to Yarmouth, New Brunswick and P.E.I., and I learned about her then."
He also watched a VHS copy of the NFB short doc Maud Lewis: A World Without Shadows before the audition.
His initial plans to study to be a phys-ed teacher at Acadia were delayed and he went on to graduate from theatre programs at Concordia University and the National Theatre School.
Lately, the 43-year-old actor has been travelling between Toronto and Los Angeles, and recently shot an episode of Wynonna Earp in Calgary for SyFy.
He also completed the feature film Ice Blue in Calgary. The coming-of-age movie is directed by Whitney Pier native Sandi Somers. MacLellan plays the father of the 16-year-old heroine played by Sophia Lauchlin Hirt in a dark movie that "almost has a supernatural element to it."
And his girlfriend, Jana Stackhouse, recently finished her fourth year in film directing at Ryerson University and for her graduation project made a film titled Away Home that is the story of a New Brunswick family whose matriarch opts for assisted suicide. Raven Stewart, who played his daughter in an episode of The Expanse, also plays his daughter in the film, which will be submitted to the Atlantic Film Festival for consideration.