You could say that Ryan Taerk is a jack of all trades. The actor, singer-songwriter, musician and now scriptwriter started fully immersing himself in the arts at a young age. From musically collaborating with his brothers Josh Taerk and Matt Taerk to starring in CBC Gem’s period comedy The Communist’s Daughter, Ryan has stayed busy.
Set in Toronto amid the “Reagan ’80s,” The Communist’s Daughter follows Dunyasha McDougald (Sofia Banzhaf), the daughter of two Communists. Dunyasha struggles to fit in at high school while simultaneously upholding her family’s outdated beliefs. Ryan portrays Boris McDougald, Dunyasha’s brother. Boris is the black sheep of the family. Like his sister, he feels conflicted about the whole Communist thing. The Communist’s Daughter was created, written and directed by Leah Cameron.
Recently, I had the privilege of chatting with Ryan about his role in The Communist’s Daughter, our mutual love for Robin Williams, if a solo music career is on his horizon, sitcom dreams and more.
Melody McCune: Let’s get started! We at GGA love a good origin story. What’s Ryan Taerk’s origin story?
Ryan Taerk: I started acting at a very young age. I was always performing in my house, creating characters and putting on little shows and sketches. Eventually, my parents’ friends would come over to the house and there would be an assumption that there would be a dinner and a show. I’d provide the show part.
That was where it started. I loved creating characters and playing pretend. That segued into my childhood, just loving Disney and Saturday Night Live, and combining those character-driven things and that element of storytelling.
I ended up going to my parents and asking, “What is this thing that I do, this play and pretend thing, what is this? Is this a job?” They said, “Yeah, that’s called being an actor.” I said, “Oh, okay. Can you make money doing that?”
They said, “Yeah, you can. If you work really hard.” From that day forward, I was like, “I’m committed. I want to work really hard and I want to be an actor. I’d love this to be my job.”
MM: Tell me a little bit about The Communist’s Daughter. Can you delve into the audition process for the series?
RT: Funnily enough, I got the audition as I was driving to set for The Umbrella Academy. I was in an episode in season two.
I was able to play a role in season two, which was really fun. On the way to the set, I get a call from my agent and my agent says, “Hey, you have an audition tomorrow and you have to be there. It’s at 1 pm, it’s for this character, I think you’ll really like it.” She didn’t really tell me anything about the show, she just said, “I think you’ll really like it.” I went, “Okay, cool, sounds fun.” So, I get to the set and it’s a night shoot. My call time was seven or eight in the evening.
We were shooting basically the entire night. In between me being on set doing work for Umbrella, I would be in my trailer or just in the waiting area running my lines, getting to know the character of Boris McDougald for The Communist’s Daughter.
I fell in love with this character because he was so different than his family. I loved that he had such angst about it and he was the audience’s eyes looking in going, “Are you sure that this is normal? Is this okay?” And I loved his Capitalist drive. It was just so funny that this 15-year-old wanted to do all of these things that, you know, a 30 to 40-year-old would want to do.
Leah Cameron, our writer/director/creator of the series, her writing was so good and so sharp that as soon as I read the script I was like, “I know exactly what I want to do with this guy.”
We wrap, I get home and it’s four in the morning. The audition’s at 1 pm so I sleep for a few hours, I get up, I get ready to do my audition. Then, I go in and I meet with Leah and Natalie Novak, who’s one of our producers, and the casting director.
There was just this energy in the room. Leah is so friendly and the same for Natalie. It was just such a calming feeling. As soon as [the audition] started it clicked. It was like the stars aligned and everything was so perfect at that moment. I remember getting my first laugh from them and thinking, “Oh, this is going really well.” Because as an actor you never know what their vision is for the character.
You can only bring in your idea and then eventually you’ll be able to collaborate on it. So, I was really pleased that the idea I brought to the table was something they were interested in. I was just really happy with the audition.
I went to Vancouver two days later and the whole time I was there I was thinking about that audition. I was like, “Oh man, it was really good, but we haven’t heard anything.” If you ask any actor, we’re supposed to forget about the auditions that we’ve had, but that was just not the case with this particular one. I loved the character so much.
I got on the plane to come back. We landed, I turned on my phone and my agent emailed me saying, “You have a callback tomorrow so you better be in Toronto.” I was like, “Oh my God, this worked out so perfectly.”
Once again, the stars are aligned. It was very serendipitous. I do the callback with Leah and Natalie and the casting director. It was a longer callback. We got to collaborate together, Leah and I. We talked and she’s so lovely. Then, I didn’t hear anything for two, three weeks.
MM: That would have been torturous, I bet.
RT: It was the craziest two weeks because at that callback there were only three guys left. I remember thinking, “Oh, one of the other guys got it for sure.” My agent called and said, “You’ve been pinned for this.”
Basically, that’s just industry-speak for “Casting says don’t do anything, you have to be available for these days.” That doesn’t mean you got the part yet, though, it just means that you have to be available these days. So I was like, “Oh, okay, that’s a step closer, great.”
Then, it was another week. I found out that I got the part and within two days there was a table read. I got to meet the rest of the McDougald family for The Communist’s Daughter and the rest is history.
MM: How does Boris fit into the overall story?
RT: Boris is part of a family that has Communist beliefs. His father is running as an Independent for the city council. Boris is the rogue one. He’ll go behind his family’s back. He tries to find creative ways to make any money he can. His idols are Gordon Gekko and Rocky. He’s the type of person that’s all about capitalist America. Ronald Reagan would be one of his favorite people.
So Boris, being that figure in the family, causes a lot of discomfort for his father because his father fights against everything Boris stands for.
Their relationship in the series is very interesting. The journey they go on together, realizing in the end that there’s more that unites them than separates them, is a really beautiful story. Boris’ character in the show really is the audience’s eyes. Seeing the craziness that living in a Communist family would be like.
MM: Actors sometimes write in character to prepare for a role or listen to music. Was there anything you did, in particular, to get into that headspace for Boris?
RT: It’s funny you ask that. I binge-watched a lot of ’80s movies so that I was getting a full array of the pop culture references and everything Boris would like. I watched the gamut of Rocky movies. By the end of it, I was so attached to Rocky.
I watched Wall Street. Gordon Gekko, as I said, is one of Boris’s idols. Watching that movie as myself, I saw so much of the craziness behind what a lot of people don’t know about Wall Street. The inner workings of that was such an eye-opening experience for me. It really opened my eyes to a lot of different music and films that I understood why Boris would be questioning if the Communist thing was really something that was workable in his life.
The ’80s was such a pivotal time in the world on a larger scale, but in terms of entertainment, there was so much that came out of that decade that’s iconic.
MM: Do you have a favorite behind-the-scenes story from the set of The Communist’s Daughter?
RT: I have so many! Everyone showed up to set so ready to have a good time and it was refreshing and exciting to get to work.
There’s one particular scene in episode two where we eventually buy a TV from the money that we’ve made from selling apples at an increased price. This is one of Boris’s schemes. The actress that plays my mother, Jessica Holmes, is one of the funniest human beings I’ve ever met in my life. Every time we started the scene, she would improvise a different opening.
Every time she did, I would break character because it was just so funny. Everything was so genius and perfect for what the scene was.
On the last take, which is the take that’s in the show, she starts reading the manual for the TV in Spanish, but in her voice as Carol. Now, I didn’t know that she was going to do this. Because I wasn’t prepared, I was killing myself laughing to the point where the director, Leah, had to come to me and whisper in my ear, “Hey Ryan, you’re doing great, but we’re really going to need you to get control now.”
Jess and I laughed even harder because it was like, “This is terrible. Where is the professional here? Wait, we need to get back to the scene.” It was such a funny experience. We had numerous experiences like that on the show where everyone was so funny and so intelligent with their character that everything they did made someone else laugh. That’s what contributed to making this show so special.
MM: What do you hope audiences will glean from this show?
RT: I hope that audiences will see there’s more that unites us than separates us. The importance of family values and sticking together as a family. Because we live in a time now where there’s a lot of division.
We’re able to see through this show how a family can work through it. There are bumps along the way and there are some truths that need to be taken into account and to be questioned. But at the end of the day, there’s so much love and that’s the thing that unites all of us. It doesn’t matter what your belief system is or your religion, your ideology, your race, gender or sexual orientation. It’s more that we’re all people.
We’re all humans and that’s the common thing. We all need to remember that. I think our show does a really beautiful job of bringing together these polar opposites and showing how there’s so much more that unites us than what separates us.
MM: Amen to that! Let’s switch gears a bit. You’re also a singer-songwriter and a musician. You frequently collaborate with your brothers, Josh and Matt. In 2019 the song “Beautiful Tragedy,” which you all co-wrote, reached number 38 on the Billboard Top 40 Pop Indicator Chart, and spent three weeks in the top 40 on the Media Base Pop Activator Chart. How did it feel to reach those milestones?
RT: It was so crazy! We were out for dinner as a family, back when people could do that more freely, and we got the news that it had broken the top 40.
There was a lot of crying and a lot of celebrating. There was so much heart and soul that went into writing that song and creating the other songs on the album. We were just so proud.
I was so proud of my brother, Josh, for the amount of work and the amount of effort he put into the recording process. I was grateful that I was a part of that recording process, but actually getting to sit down and write that song with my brothers was special. I’m very close to them. They’re my writing partners, as you said earlier.
But as collaborators, it’s super fun to have a successful moment like that, but it’s so much more special that I got to share it with my brothers. That, to me, stood out as such a meaningful moment.
MM: What are your musical influences?
RT: My family makes fun of me because I’m such a pop music guy. I love pop music, I love classic rock music, some country, some soul. I have a very eclectic taste in music. Really anything that has a great hook with a happy melody that can draw an emotion for me. It doesn’t matter what the genre is, I’m going to walk around for days thinking, “That’s a great song.”
MM: Do you have any plans for a future solo album?
RT: I’ve talked to my brothers about that. It’s always been something we’ve talked about, whether this album or a collaborative The Taerks as a band. We’ve talked about those separate projects over the years. We’ll see in time what that would look like. For right now, no. But it’s never off the table.
MM: If you could work with any artist, who would that be?
RT: Robin Williams, 100 percent. Such an incredible artist, in so many ways. He’s just a genius.
MM: I think that’s one of the few celebrity deaths that really rocked my world.
RT: Same. I was so sad when I heard the news. He brought so much joy to so many people. As audience members, we perceived him to be this one way. Unfortunately, him passing and his committing suicide raised the idea of, “We don’t really know someone’s true story.” It’s always important to lead from a place of love.
I was so mesmerized by his work. It’s so funny. I watched his interview on Inside the Actors Studio, which is one of my favorites.
They got 20 minutes into the interview and James Lipton didn’t ask one single question. Robin was doing shtick the entire time. I was blown away by his creative genius and his timing. How fast his brain worked.
MM: You should watch Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind if you haven’t already. It’s an HBO documentary. It’s really good. I believe most of the dialogue is composed of parts from past interviews and they pieced it together.
RT: That’s so cool. No, I haven’t watched.
MM: The majority of it is in his own words. It’s very interesting. So, I want to talk about the organization you founded and co-operate, Taerks Turkey Drive. What inspired you to create that?
RT: We were at my brother’s birthday dinner in 2017. I looked around the table and there was so much laughter and joy and love all around — I was so grateful to be there at that moment. I left dinner that night feeling so grateful to have been there, but so unsettled. I felt like there was a calling or something that was compelling me to help or do something more.
The next day I went to my parents and I said, “I don’t know how I’m going to do it, I don’t know how I’m going to get in touch with these families. But I want to donate Thanksgiving dinners to families in our community that are going through harder times at the moment and can’t afford to have Thanksgiving dinner. I want to help give people the opportunity to have that closeness and a family dinner that promotes family values in that way without the financial stresses of purchasing a meal.”
My parents were a bit dumbfounded because the first thing I told them that morning was that. The last thing they had heard from me was, “Love you guys, goodnight,” and that was it for the day.
From that moment on this became a family tradition. Every year at Thanksgiving, whether or not I’m physically in Toronto for work, we participate in delivering Turkey dinners to families in need across our community. It’s so important to show that people care. I wanted to let people know out there that, even if you don’t know them, people care. There’s a lot of love in the world.
On the news, there’s so much promotion of hate and anger. I wanted to participate in making the world a much more loving and happier place. I felt like this was something that we could do as a family. Now that has grown a bit into a team of people. We created this little organization that I’m so proud of. I look forward to participating every year.
MM: That’s wonderful, congratulations! You are currently co-writing your first TV pilot script. I’m sure you can’t reveal much in terms of plot, but what has this process been like for you?
RT: It’s been a really cool creative process. I came to this as an actor. As an actor, I can tell what’s good writing versus bad writing. So, I’m the writing team member on this script that’s very much aware of those things. The creation of this story has been an ongoing conversation for two and a half years.
It wasn’t until very recently that I went to my siblings and said, “This is a really great idea.” We would start doing it and then we’d figure out ways to update it. I said, “Look, if you guys aren’t as into it anymore, I totally get it. But can I take this and run with it? I love this idea and I think this could be on TV. I think this show is worth watching.” From that point on, I took it on as the head writer. I can’t give away much about the plot, but I can say I’m a big fan of workplace comedies.
One of the greatest gifts in the world is to make people laugh. Laughter is one of the greatest healing tools. I think through our show, we’re going to be able to make a lot of people happy. At the end of the day, like with anything I do, if the world’s a little bit happier because of something I participated in, I’m brilliant. I feel like I’ve made a slight difference.
MM: Creatively, what’s on the horizon for you? Pandemic notwithstanding, of course.
RT: Creatively, there are a lot of things right now on the horizon. On the acting front, on the writing front, on the music front, there’s been a lot of different opportunities that have presented themselves during this time. I’m very grateful that I’ve been bubbled with my writing partners, my brothers, because we’ve been able to utilize this time as a very productive, creative time.
The collaboration has been really inspiring. I’m learning so much from watching my partners and I’m grateful to be in the spot that I’m in right now. In terms of specific details, I can’t share specific details about the acting front or the writing front right now, but I promise there are pretty special things that are coming. I can’t wait to be sharing them with everybody. But until then, there’s a lot of cooking happening in the kitchen and I can’t wait for the meal.
MM: A lot of irons in the fire.
RT: Yes, 100 percent.
MM: Have you binge-watched anything interesting during quarantine?
RT: I’m going to be honest and I feel comfortable saying this, but I think I fell in love with two shows on Netflix during this time. I feel very comfortable saying that Emily in Paris was such a fun show to watch. I’m also totally comfortable with saying that Bridgerton was so good. Everything about it.
MM: That’s on my list! I need to watch it.
RT: You haven’t seen Bridgerton?
MM: I haven’t. We’ve covered the show and our recaps have done really well. I’m such a comedy girl and that’s where I’ve been living throughout the pandemic. But trust me, Bridgerton‘s on the list.
MM: I love Superstore!
RT: Oh my goodness, that show! I’m so in awe of those actors. That’s my dream type of cast to be a part of. That’s why I love The Communist’s Daughter so much because being in a comedy, that’s my dream.
MM: Last question: name your top five favorite films or anything that comes to mind.
MM: Ryan, thank you so much for chatting with me!
RT: Thank you so much for making the time. I really appreciate it! This was really fun.
The Communist’s Daughter is now streaming on CBC Gem. Be sure to follow Ryan on Twitter (@RyanTaerk) and Instagram (@ryantaerk)!