Heart & Soul: Interview with Arctic Air's Stephen Lobo

By , Contributor

Omnifilm Entertainment

Stephen Lobo as Arctic Air's Dev Panwar

Most people are familiar with the saying, “Better late than never.” For actor Stephen Lobo, that old adage is particularly meaningful when it comes to his professional life. “I got into it [acting] late,” he recalls. “I started theatre school when I was 27 and graduated when I was 30. I had dabbled in it maybe a couple of years before that and thought, ‘Okay, this is really something I want to do for a living. I need to develop my [acting] chops, though, so I should probably go to theatre school.’

“Growing up I tended to go with the wind and wasn’t focused or committed. Acting was the first thing in my life that I committed to, and then everything else fell into place around it. I took my first acting class while at university. I was pursing a career in environmental science and I liked the whole idea of it, but it wasn’t sparking me inside. Then, however, I took that first acting class, and it was my teacher who told me, ‘You know, this is something you could do for a living.’

“Prior to that, acting never really presented itself as an option. I thought it was something other people did up there on screen. I didn’t think it was something I could do. Once my teacher planted that idea in my head, though, there was no turning back, so I did everything I could to make it work. Fortunately, it’s been working and I’m thankful to have found it.”

Lobo’s commitment to his craft has garnered him a long and quite diverse list of credits on the big and small screens. Currently, TV audiences are enjoying his work as Dev Panwar in the hit CBC series Arctic Air. Although the actor had plenty of experience in front of the camera prior to trying out for the show, this was one role that he was surprised to book.

“My original audition was only one page,” says Lobo. “I went into the casting director’s office, did one take, said goodbye and then left. I never thought about it again because I didn’t think I’d get it. I never get the action role, or even in this case the comedic role.

“Months passed and then out of the blue I got a call telling me the job was mine, which is the most bizarre thing. Auditions are usually pages long and there is callback after callback and meeting after meeting, but it was like this just dropped out of the sky and landed in my lap. As you can imagine I was incredibly grateful, and I think part of it had to do with my past relationship with [director] Gary Harvey. The two of us worked on a TV show about eight years ago and it’s just a hunch, but I have a feeling that he might have put in a good word for me.”

In Arctic Air, a business deal takes Vancouver businessman Bobby Martin (Adam Beach) back home to Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories. His supposed “quick trip” subsequently turns into a much longer stay when Bobby reluctantly decides to stick around to help his deceased father’s former business partner Mel Iverson (Kevin McNulty) and Mel’s daughter Krista (Pascale Hutton) save their financially strapped airline. Also lending a hand is Dev Panwar, a flight school graduate from India who arrives in town with dreams of the future and making a living flying high above the clouds. Initially it looks as if he may have bitten off more than he could chew, but Dev soon discovers what a unique opportunity he has been given. Funnily enough, the latter was also true for Lobo.

“I’ll never forget shooting my first scene for Arctic Air,” says the actor. “It was me, Adam DiMarco [Kirby Nystoruk] and Kevin McNulty. After we did our first couple of takes, I turned to Adam and said, ‘Wow, it’s like we’ve been doing this for weeks already.’ There was a flow and an ease on set that felt strange as well as comforting at the same time. I took that as a very good sign of things to come.

“As far as Dev, what I think makes him a special guy as well as a real gift for an actor to play is that in many ways he’s the bravest of them all because he has an open heart and approaches everything from that heart. I had some initial reservations about playing ‘the funny brown guy’ in a one-hour drama, having never done that before. I just wanted to sort of gauge what it was I was doing and where the laughs would be coming from, if there were going to be any.

“Dev certainly brings a lightness to the show, and I remember speaking with [series creator/executive producer] Ian Weir about that. I wanted to make sure that what I was getting off the [written] page was indeed their intention, because back then, there was only the one script that had been written. Everyone was, in fact, on the same page with the character, and I think what makes Dev work and click with the rest of the characters and within the story is that he lends a perspective that is innocent.

“It’s like he’s seeing the world for the first time, almost like a child would, and that’s how he approaches things. Even if they aren’t for the first time, he’s doing them as if they were, and does so with a sense of adventure, excitement and joy at being alive. Where the challenge for us in life is trying to keep those things in mind, he holds onto those ideals and they’re his. That’s how Dev walks his path in life, so it makes him, again, a pretty special guy and a real joy to play.

“Getting back to what I mentioned before about the laughs in the story. I hope you’re never laughing at Dev, but it’s almost like there’s a character onscreen that is reflecting back a perspective of the world that doesn’t have a jadedness or cynical view that some of the other characters might share together with us as an audience, if you know what I mean.”

In the summer of 2012, the cast and crew of Arctic Air returned to work to film the show’s second season. Having “broken in” his character and grown comfortable in Dev’s shoes, Lobo looked forward to adding some new layers to his performance.

“In the first season, Dev didn’t know quite where he fit in,” he explains. “In season two, there’s more of a family kind of feeling as well as sensibility among all the characters. Dev now feels like he does belong and is able to offer something to this Arctic Air team.

“So he’s happy and becomes more involved, and what springs to mind is the boxing episode ["Old Wounds"] we did this season. There’s this wonderful camaraderie in it among Dev, Bobby, Cece [Timothy Webber] and Jim McAlister [guest star Aleks Paunovic]. Because we were all much more familiar with our characters, we could better play off each other. This story had a Rocky-meets-The Sting kind of tone to it and was a blast to shoot.

“I also enjoyed working on episode seven from last year, "Vancouver is Such a Screwed up City." Everyone loved that one. Recently, I was at a horse ranch trying to brush up on my riding skills for another episode we’ll be doing called "There’s Gold in Them Ther Hills." It’s a gold rush story where Dev gets ‘gold fever.’ We had a script read-through a couple of days ago and it was tons of fun. It was probably, dare I say, my favorite Arctic Air episode I’ve read so far.”

Looking at Arctic Air’s two seasons, what would the actor say are some of Dev’s major relationships with the other characters on the show and how in his eyes have they grown and developed so far?

“I suppose his biggest relationship is with Astrid [Emilie Ullerup],” says Lobo. “It’s a cool dynamic between them because she’s sort of this Scandinavian beauty who’s just there to work and has this hard shell, whereas Dev is the opposite. I suppose it’s a matter of opposites attract and that type of thing, but he’s just head over heels for her.

“In terms of Bobby, he’s still the hero in Dev’s eyes, and Mel is a father figure, while Krista is the warrior princess. I really enjoy my scenes with Tim Webber, and also Johnnie Reardon, who plays Blake. There’s a real contrast of character that helps those moments come alive, and whenever we’re in scenes together I have trouble getting through them without laughing, because it’s so hysterical,” notes the actor with a chuckle.

In addition to the Arctic Air TV show, Lobo has also had the chance to portray his character in a series of webisodes. “That was cool,” he enthuses. “They centered on Dev, so I got to further mine that character and discovered a great deal more about him as well. Each of the webisodes was also done in one long take, and I like the actuality of that, because once they call 'action,’ there’s no turning back. Of course, you can do it again if things go incredibly badly, and there were a number of times when we veered away from the script or something didn’t go quite according to plan, but you just kept going. Those were usually the takes that they used, too.”

Godiva’s, Falcon Beach, Little Mosque on the Prairie and Fringe are some of the actor’s other TV credits along with a few made-for-TV movies. One of his very first jobs on the small screen — which he booked right out of theatre school in London — was an episode of the British detective series Rosemary & Thyme starring Felicity Kendal and Pam Ferris.

“To this day, what I remember about that job are those two ladies and the image they left in my mind about how humble and graceful an actor can be, even when you’re the lead on a TV show,” says Lobo. “There was no hierarchy with them; they were just fellow actors doing their work. We were shooting in this little house and the spaces were so small. I’ll never forget the two of them crammed in a doorway underneath the camera in order to give me an eyeline. I told them, 'You don’t have to do that, honestly,’ and they said to me, ‘No, it’s totally fine.’

“In between set-ups and takes they wouldn’t go off to their trailers. We’d just sit on the set and they would tell stories and I would just listen. It was the sweetest experience as well as a nice early acting experience to have in my career.”

Sci-fi fans are particularly familiar with Lobo’s body of work in that genre, having seen him in, for example, multiple episodes of Smallville as Randall Brady and the current Canadian-made hit Continuum, in which he plays Matthew Kellog.

Smallville was great,” he says. “Prior to that job, I had never been on a TV series of that scale before. Up to that point I was just doing smaller Canadian shows and tiny budget projects, so I was blown away by the scale and scope of this. My part on Smallville was quite ‘small’,” jokes the actor. I’d come in and bark a line or two at Lois Lane [Erica Durance]. There was one episode, though, where I contracted a virus that turned me into a zombie, and that was fun, too. I loved going there and felt like a little kid in a comic book. It was such a cool experience getting to help tell an iconic, nostalgic story like that.

“With Continuum, I’m in this incredible position where two shows I did back to back — the other being, of course, Arctic Air — were picked up for a second season. That’s something special, too. It’s a very neat thing that they’ve got going on with the mythology that they’ve created along with the stories as well as characters, and it’s just going to get better and better. They know what they’re doing. It’s a tight ship that they’re running and very interesting and challenging story points that they’re tackling. They don’t pose any questions or bring up any ideas that they don’t know the answers to. Simon Barry [series creator/executive producer] has so much more to tell and I’m tremendously excited and feel blessed to be a part of it again in season two.”

Given Lobo’s affable nature, it is no surprise that what he enjoys most about his job is the collaborative process. “Without question, the projects and the roles mean a great deal, but it also has to do with the fact that you’re part of the bigger story, and I like that,” says the actor.

“I like that there’s something bigger going on and the product is more than the sum of its parts. It’s more than just my performance, too, and my performance isn’t just my performance. There are the writers and their words that inspire it. It all starts there, and then, of course, there’s wardrobe, make-up, hair, etc. All those things come together and then a performance happens, but that performance is, again, just a cog in the wheel. There’s the plot along with the story and the interaction between the characters. If you add up all the pieces, it makes something bigger, and then there’s a creative vision behind that. Most writers with a story to tell want to do so in order to comment on something and reflect our lives as human beings back to us. That’s what really excites me and gets me going as an actor.”

Please note, all Arctic Air photos copyright of Omnifilm Entertainment, and Continuum photo copyright of Shaw Media/Showcase.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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