Stage, film actor putting county on the map

November 8, 2023

Allister MacDonald doesn’t remember when he became a performer.

“My sister reminded me yesterday that I used to run around my house with a pillowcase around my head pretending I was someone named Sarah,” he recalls. “I must have been like two.”

The early start has certainly served him well, as the 32-year-old actor has captured a pair of ACTRA Awards since 2020. Add to that a 2022 Merritt Award, presented by Theatre Nova Scotia, for his role as the Mad Hatter in Neptune Theatre’s Alice in Pantoland, and it’s clear MacDonald is quickly becoming one of Canada’s up-and-coming artists.

“Growing up in Creignish, I was very lucky to have my two older sisters,” he recalls. “There was not a lot to do, so we had to kind of rely on our imagination, and in a world without cell phones, we really just found ways to make our own fun.”

Growing up queer, he says was also very lucky to have the support of a loving family.

“I very much feel like a boy, and I very much feel a big mix of many different things… I’ve always felt this since I can remember,” he explains. “It was not always rainbows and sunshine, but I’m definitely confident and happy that I was surrounded by a lot of love my whole life, because I know a lot of people didn’t get that. But I am lucky that I did.”

“I was drawn to playing with dolls, because I wanted to create stories and I wanted to become characters.” MacDonald recalls. He also discovered a talent for singing, which has helped propel his career, both on stage and in front of the camera.

“I haven’t had any formal training as a singer, or musically,” he says. “So I just grew up very aware of the Rankin Family, going to the square dances with my grandmother (Joan MacFarlane of Glenville). I really think that there’s something so musical about Inverness County that just kind of latched on to me.”

Allister MacDonald did his own makeup to play Frank N Furter in Neptune Theatre’s Rocky Horror Picture Show, in photo at left. He starred alongside Faly Mevamanana in Neptune’s In Lieu of Flowers, in photo at right. Photos courtesy of Allister MacDonald and Stoo Metz Photography

“It’s a huge part of the culture, at least in my family, just sitting around and singing. So I think that’s where I fell into the ability that I have. It kind of just came out of nowhere.”

MacDonald says that growing up he spent a lot of time in Glenville “because I found my grandma’s house a very safe place.”

“She would always chord songs and we would just sing, me and my Nana and my cousin, Nicole,” he recalls. “I wasn’t that into sports yet, not until high school. Spending time with my Nana had a huge influence on me musically.”

He also learned to make his own opportunities, writing a song when he was 11 and attending Tamarac Education Centre in Port Hawkesbury.

“I took it to the music teacher, and we picked some people to play on it and we performed it in front of the whole school,” MacDonald remembers.

His sport of choice, volleyball, prompted a move to Antigonish, where he attended high school at Dr. John Hugh Gillis.
“I ended up playing for the provincial team for Nova Scotia, and on the Canada Games training team. I took it pretty seriously for a lot of years.”

But there was still the ever-present desire to perform on something other than a volleyball court, and 2018 proved to be a watershed year in that respect, as he nabbed a role in Stage Mother, a movie directed by critically-acclaimed Halifax- based filmmaker Thom Fitzgerald. That same year, he made his Neptune Theatre debut, playing William Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love.

He says Stage Mother, in which he played a drag queen named Joan of Arkansas, was a “turning point, in that it opened up a door for people to take me a bit more seriously.”

“I was going to set every day to play a drag queen on a movie, and then I was shuttled to the
theatre to play Shakespeare on the Neptune stage,” MacDonald says. “They are two very, very different roles. It really stretched me pretty thin as an artist. It took a lot of focus and a lot of energy.”

“I had sometimes 15 and 16-hour days. In terms of what I can do as an artist, I feel like it really showed me that I don’t have very many limits – at least in my imagination I don’t.”

His performance in the movie earned him his first ACTRA as best lead actor in 2020, but it also gave him the opportunity to work with some big-name actors, including two-time Academy Award nominee Jacki Weaver, who garnered those nominations for her work in Animal Kingdom (2010) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012).

“The movie really took on a life of its own in the queer communities around the country and throughout North America – even in London,” he says. “I still have people messaging about how much they loved that movie.”

Allister MacDonald (foreground) in a scene from Monica’s News, a movie which wrapped filming in July in the Annapolis Valley

Allister MacDonald (foreground) in a scene from Monica’s News, a movie which wrapped filming in July in the Annapolis Valley. Photo courtesy Allister MacDonald

His second ACTRA award came in 2021, again for best lead actor, when he teamed with up with fellow actor Wayne Burns, a native of Truro living in Toronto, to create Liar, a CBC-funded 20-minute film.

MacDonald says his Merritt Award-winning performance as the Hatter paved the way for playing Frank N Furter in Neptune’s presentation of the cult classic Rocky Horror Picture Show in 2022, for which he received a second Merritt nomination earlier this year. He says that role, more than any he’s done, made the most of his talents.

“Mad Hatter is a close second,” he adds. “I feel like I could take the reins in my own work. I decided to dye my own hair, came up with my own look, and makeup and really collaborated with the design and costume team to create who he was. I came up with the voice and the accent.”

“I feel like he was step one toward being Frank N Furter. I showed that I had the tools to lift Frank N Furter to another stratosphere with my weird little side abilities to do makeup.”

MacDonald’s most recent project, a movie shot in the Annapolis Valley that was scheduled to wrap in late July, again has him in a central role, but playing a character that’s very new to him. Set in Cape Breton, Monica’s News “is about a little girl who witnesses the world around her changing in the 70s, women becoming more prominent figures, and taking more control of their lives,” he explains. “It’s also about how the men in the town deal with that one way or another, but at heart it’s about this little girl.”

“I’ve not played a character like this before,” he says. “I’m playing an oil-rig worker who’s unemployed, and this straight player who gets into some trouble.”

“When I was auditioning, I thought, ‘there’s no way in hell I’m going to get this.’”

MacDonald was to return to the stage this fall in Toronto, as the new That Theatre Company gets set to present the critically-acclaimed Angels in America, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tony Kushner, which was also an HBO mini-series starring Al Pacino and Meryl Streep.

As his acting career reaches new heights, he’s mindful of the little kid from Creignish who staged concerts on his grandma’s deck. And he has advice for any young people who may be struggling with gender norms.

“I would say there’s always someone around who probably feels like you, more people than you might know,” he says. “So seek out community. And, if not, there’s more than likely some allies around. Stick to the people you know will have your back, whether that’s a teacher or a friend.”

“Especially if you’re in high school in a small town, try to find the people who make you happy and know that there’s a world out there where there are a lot of people like you, and there are spaces waiting for you to walk into them when you’re ready.”