Most American audiences recognize John Dunsworth as Jim Lahey, the hard-drinking, antagonistic trailer park supervisor in the Canadian mockumentary series Trailer Park Boys. Now, 16 years into the role, he’s had plenty of time to use his celebrity status to bring joy into the world.
“I always wanted to be a hero,” Dunsworth says. “Bringing joy to people is probably the best way I can be one.”
Dunsworth spoke with CityBeat via telephone to promote the Randy & Mr. Lahey LIVE tour, which stops in Cincinnati with a sold-out performance Wednesday at the Woodward Theater (an extra show was added for March 22).
“My dad was a psychiatrist, and he said, ‘When you’re dead, you’re dead — but you’re not quite so dead if you can contribute something,’ ” Dunsworth says. “So, that’s my mantra: I like to contribute something.”
The live Randy & Mr. Lahey variety show features Dunsworth as Mr. Lahey and Patrick Roach as Randy, Mr. Lahey’s occasional lover and assistant trailer park supervisor who’s known for his penchant for cheeseburgers. Dunsworth has worked extensively in theater, even starting his own; he opened Pier One Theatre in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1970. And his stage and screen experience has allowed the actor to master his role in any setting, though there’s a noticeable difference in the energy of a live show, he says.
“Instant feedback,” Dunsworth says of the audience’s involvement. “There’s the willing suspension of disbelief. That moment can never be taken back.”
Jim Lahey is one of the most iconic characters in Trailer Park Boys, which deftly maneuvers between film, television and stage. The ex-policeman turned drunken trailer park supervisor has a deranged sense of vigilante justice that he exacts on the residents of Sunnyvale Trailer Park.
“Jim Lahey is probably one of the only characters that I’ve ever played where I didn’t go deeply into the soul searching or angst,” Dunsworth says. “Usually I wonder, ‘How does he move, how does he talk?’ Mike Clattenburg (the show’s creator) was instrumental in creating Jim Lahey because he used to say, ‘OK, a little drunker, a little less pathos and a little more anger.’ Eventually it came to ‘six out of 10 on the anger, eight out of 10 on drunkenness and fuck the sympathy bit.’ I’ve played Charles Manson, Shylock... all kinds of villains over the years. I always try to make them sympathetic. (Jim Lahey) has all the frailties of modern man.”
Like any modern actor with a hearty fanbase, Dunsworth has many strangers who address him only as his character, Mr. Lahey, not fully grasping that the show is fictitious and, though his character has been shown to drink an entire fifth of whisky, Dunsworth isn’t a drinker at all.
“I’ve had guys come up and say, ‘I could drink you under the table!’ and if I had just one beer, they’d win,” he says. “I mean, there’s some dumb drunk who thinks Harrison Ford was a great president.”
Fun fact: the liquor Mr. Lahey drinks on the show is typically one part Coca Cola and two parts water, depending on the type of booze he’s drinking.
Critics of Trailer Park Boys often cite unsophisticated and obscenity-laden dialogue as one of its moral failings. (Dunsworth has authored a book titled The Dicshitnary, which is a scatalogically themed collection of wisdom.) “One of the successful pillars of the show is swearing,” he says. “It’s been found that swearing helps lessen pain. Mike Clattenburg said Trailer Park Boys is about losers — hero losers, like all of us.”
Dunsworth occasionally dips into his Lahey character during interviews, allowing the vernacular and mannerisms to dominate his side of the conversation, which makes it hard to tell, at least on the phone, if he’s being sincere or simply letting himself have a laugh at the interviewer’s expense.
“I have a 370-pound Siberian tiger cub. It tows our vehicle,” he says.
“When we get off the plane, we hop in our tiger cart and it hauls us to our next destination. They used to call him Steve French.
“But I’m concentrating right now on the Church of the Bottle. It’s a new kind of spirit. We use the spirit to connect with the spirit… and we let the liquor do the thinking,” muses Dunsworth. Or maybe it’s Lahey.
RANDY & MR. LAHEY perform a sold-out show Wednesday at the Woodward Theater. More info: woodwardtheater.com.