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The Toronto Sun TV Magazine December 11-17, 1994

Small Gifts of the TV Magi

by Claire Bickley


Toronto Sun TV Mag CoverHe's tossed in jail for mouthing off to a cop. She gets into a fistfight in church.

Small Gifts is a modern-day Gift Of The Magi, a rough-around-the-edges recession-era romance.

"It's not about a great deal, just about this couple trying to make ends meet at Christmas time," says Toronto native Jessica Steen, who stars in the CBC movie as Nora, a young wife in the Maritimes.

Nora's husband Evan (Jeremy Ratchford) lost his job when the local mine closed down, they live in a trailer park and they're overdrawn at the bank.

Toronto Sun TV Mag Cover"It has a little 'hang in there' moral," says Steen, on the phone from her home in L.A. "It's just dealing with the money issue.
It's not dealt with in a heavy downer way. It's kind of cute, it's kind of slice-of-life and it's fun."

Nora collects pennies, hoping they'll one day get her into the Guinness Book of World Records.

'So you see, it's not a hair-raising, gripping your seat kind of show. It sounds very kitchen-sinky and boring," says Steen, laughing. "I'm being so uneloquent."

But she much prefers the project to many offers that came her way after Homefront, the wonderful period drama in which she was featured for two years, went off the air last season.  She had some laughs doing an episode of the sitcom Herman's Head, playing Herman's razor-free new date.

"I had hairy armpits. It was quite funny. They were my armpits with fur glued to them."

But most of the scripts for bigger projects were too violent for her tastes, "like satanic towns with a lot of torture."  "I'll start a script and it'll be really nice writing and it'll have really good dialogue and all of a sudden it's got to get really, really sexual or violent."

She was approached about this movie "right around the time I was thinking I'm either going to be broke the rest of my life and keep my morals or take bits and pieces of this kind of stuff. Small Gifts came along. I've watched it and I thought, I'd rather stick and wait for stuff like this,"

Small Gifts was filmed in Toronto and Newcastle, New Brunswick in February and March of 1993 and was originally scheduled for air last Christmas. It was written by Canadian novelist David Adams Richards and directed by Eric Till.

For Steen, there are similarities to O. Henry's famous short story of the poor couple who were each willing to give up what they treasured most in order to buy the other a gift for Christmas.

"I think this young couple is constantly trying to look at the bright side of things and appreciating what they've got and loving each other. They bridge the gaps and keep themselves from falling through the cracks just by being there for each other and sticking together," she says.

They also try to make money however they can, whether its Nora selling meat pies door-to-door or Evan's fire-wood delivery and beaver hunting.

Like most young actresses, Steen, who turns 29 next week, held a variety of jobs before she made it a fulltime profession. "In the beginning, definitely. I guess borrowing money doesn't qualify? I worked for a vet as an assistant, I hung out with the animals and cleaned up."

She was raised with the economics of showbusiness. Her mother is actress JoAnna Noyes and her father is actor-director Jan Steen.

'My mother's always prepared me. She says, 'You know, you may never work again.' Every time you work, it's the last time you'll ever work. I'm always of a mind of that and I'm fairly frugal,"

Unlike Nora, Steen currently has no reason to roll her pennies.  She's cast as a doctor in the new NBC sci-fi series Earth 2.

Small Gifts airs on CBC Dec. 18 (1994).

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