Frankie Drake Mysteries Rewrites The Feminine Mystique

Interview with Lauren Lee Smith

Frankie Drake is a female crime-solver working in 1920s Toronto, but for Vancouver actor Lauren Lee Smith, the new CBC heroine played a pivotal role as personal emancipator

By Katherine Monk

She never thought she’d be a dick. Little girls aren’t conditioned to be assertive, let alone take control — which is exactly why Lauren Lee Smith had to say yes to Frankie Drake. A female detective working in 1920s Toronto, Frankie Drake makes her debut on the national broadcaster tonight, but Smith says the journey to bring the character of Frankie to televised fruition is a feminist odyssey.

“The whole idea of a female detective working in 1921 is pretty rad,” says Smith over the phone from Toronto. “But she’s part of a larger history. She worked as a messenger during the First World War, was recruited to be a part of British Intelligence, but when someone blew her cover, she went back to Canada… and opened the first female detective agency.”
Working with her best buddy Trudy (Chantel Riley), Frankie solves a variety of crimes perpetrated under the blanket of the Big Smoke by using her gender as a tactical advantage. Women aren’t yet taken seriously, or even noticed, allowing Frankie to access information under the radar.

“It’s not your typical procedural crime show,” says Smith. “It’s a whole different can of worms because in 1921, detective work was so different. They weren’t sitting in a lab in a white coat. They were out in the field. And for Frankie, just being out there is important. Women just got the vote. She’s part of the larger change in gender roles after the war.”

Fearless, irrepressible and morally upright without being a prude, Frankie Drake is a shining example of the kind of gal so many of us would like to be — if it weren’t for the latent fears lurking in the corners, telling us to be quiet and stay put.

“It’s not your typical procedural crime show,” says Smith. “It’s a whole different can of worms because in 1921, detective work was so different. They weren’t sitting in a lab in a white coat. They were out in the field. And for Frankie, just being out there is important. Women just got the vote. She’s part of the larger change in gender roles after the war.”

“When this show was pitched to me, Frankie was described as an Indiana Jones type of character — and I was blown away. I was also terrified. She rides a motorcycle, which meant I had to get a motorcycle licence for the show. The first day on the bike, I thought I would fall apart. I didn’t think I could do it.”

Smith laughs now. But the terror is still audible. “I am not like Frankie. I am afraid of practically everything. Lauren is not what you would call an adrenaline junkie. In fact, the instructor said he wouldn’t be able to pass me on the motorbike unless I went a little faster,” she says.

“But I went back the next day determined to do it. You know, I am a mother now and I don’t want my daughter to inherit my fear. It’s one of the main reasons why I wanted to do Frankie: I want her to have these great female role models. I want her to see her mother as a woman who isn’t afraid to do things…. even though I kind of am.”

“When this show was pitched to me, Frankie was described as an Indiana Jones type of character — and I was blown away. I was also terrified.”

Yet, Smith conquered her biggest fears just taking on the role. Although she’s a near 20-year veteran of film and television, appearing regularly in such shows as The L-Word, CSI and The Listener — as well as Guillermo Del Toro’s forthcoming feature The Shape of Water — Frankie Drake is her first TV lead. It’s the biggest job she’s ever had, and she took it in the same breath as motherhood.

“Television is about working 16 hour days. And when you’re the lead on the show, you do have a leadership role. My biggest fear was that I wouldn’t be able to do both jobs justice. I was lucky that my husband took time off to be a full-time dad. Otherwise, I don’t think I could have done this.”

Smith says just walking around in Frankie’s period costume can be empowering, but assuming her character is like walking into a whole different headspace where personal doubt is downplayed to further the cause of social justice.

“She’s such a great character,” says Smith, who credits show writers and co-creators Carol Hay and Michelle Ricci for birthing the intrepid Frankie.

Because Ricci and Hay cut their teeth on Murdoch Mysteries, some have called Frankie Drake a ‘spin-off’ or ‘sequel’ to the hugely successful CBC show starring Yannick Bisson as a turn-of-the-century crime solver.

“Toronto gets to play itself, which is cool, like it does in Murdoch. They also draw inspiration from real cases and what was happening in Toronto at the time, but we actually shoot a lot of the show in Hamilton. Toronto has so many skyscrapers and new buildings. Hamilton still has a lot of older brick buildings, and approaches what Toronto looked like in the 1920s.”

Smith says there was a magical time machine element to the experience — as if she could walk back in history and give the fair sex a subversive leg up just by speaking Frankie’s unstoppable truth.

“She was all there. Carol and Michelle did such a great job and created this female powerhouse. I didn’t really have anything to add because they were so thorough. To be Frankie was such a privilege… she kind of changed who I am,” says Smith.

“Like when any character wraps on a TV show, they get a big round of applause from the crew and the cast. And on the last day of shooting, I got the big hand — and I have to say, I always find it really uncomfortable. I can’t stand to be the centre of attention. Seriously, even though I am an actor. I hate it.”

Smith pauses. “But I had to put that part of myself away… because Frankie isn’t afraid. Frankie rides a motorcycle. She takes risks. She even uses her sexuality and plays with it because she’s empowered. She doesn’t let her sexuality confine her. She takes ownership of it, and that modern sensibility makes her a complete rebel. She’s truly liberated, and ahead of her time.”

Smith says she hopes Canadian audiences will fall in love with Frankie’s fierce personality the same way they fell for Murdoch — one of the most successful Canadian TV franchises in recent memory as it enters its eleventh season with worldwide sales.

Smith could very well become a household word, a famous face, and a prisoner of celebrity. “It’s weird. I’m here in Toronto now and I see all the billboards with my face on them. It’s a little strange for me… which is why I’m heading out of town and taking a long holiday out of the country.”

Frankie Drake premieres tonight on CBC at 9 p.m, 9:30 p.m. in Newfoundland.

@katherinemonk

THE EX-PRESS, November 6, 2017

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