‘Unspeakable’ explores the worst public health disaster in Canadian history

‘Unspeakable’ explores the worst public health disaster in Canadian history

Gay cancer. Gay plague.

These were the kinds of words that were used to describe AIDS in the early 1980s. AIDS was dismissed as something not worth thinking about by politicians and medical boards on both sides of the border – this, as thousands of people suffered and died.

This willful negligence is how blood tainted with HIV and Hepatitis C entered the national blood supply and how it came to infect tens of thousands of Canadians, including many with hemophilia who relied on human plasma for life-saving treatments.

Michael Shanks remembers hearing about what would become known as the tainted blood scandal – the worst public health disaster in Canadian history – on the nightly news. At the time, he was a teenager in Kelowna who didn’t have hemophilia and didn’t know anyone who did; thus, it was just another news item to him.  

“I knew very little about it,” recalls Shanks in a recent interview. “I was completely insulated from it.”

Years passed. What little Shanks knew about the tainted blood scandal – about the fatalities, the criminal charges, the lawsuits, and the eventual Royal Commission – faded from his consciousness.

Shanks transitioned from teenager to actor, and eventually to a defining role in his career: that of Dr. Daniel Jackson on Stargate SG-1. Shanks didn’t know it at first, but one of his producers on Stargate – Robert C. Cooper – had been deeply impacted by the tainted blood scandal. As a hemophiliac patient, Cooper had received blood tainted with Hepatitis C. 

But it wasn’t the kind of thing they talked about on set.

“I knew Rob for years, and knew about his condition, but we didn’t discuss it,” says Shanks.

All that changed last year, when Cooper tapped Shanks to play a public health official whose young son has hemophilia in Unspeakable. The eight-part, locally shot miniseries – which premieres on CBC Television this week – revisits the heartache and horror of the tainted blood scandal.

Unspeakable – which also stars Sarah Wayne Callies (The Walking Dead), Shawn Doyle (Bellevue), and Camille Sullivan (The Disappearance), as well as a host of Vancouver actors in supporting roles – looks at the catastrophic and lingering impact of the tainted blood scandal on two families.

For the most part, the characters are composites of real people; Shanks’ character is largely based upon Bill Mandel, the father of a hemophiliac who was one of the early whistleblowers to the urgency of the problem.

Shanks played a surgeon on Saving Hope, so he knows how to recite medical jargon – but Unspeakable took it to a whole new level.

“The language was something, even after doing a medical show for years, I was completely unfamiliar with, [especially] this aspect of both medicine and science, and so it was all catch-up,” recalls Shanks.

“He’s being modest,” says Cooper. He’s seated across the table from Shanks in a downtown Vancouver conference room (To learn more about Cooper’s journey to bring Unspeakable to the small screen, read our article in the Vancouver Courier). “After Stargate, and then Saving Hope, I was like, ‘Michael can say anything.’”

“Little did he know,” laughs Shanks. “He finally found my soft spot. After Saving Hope, I was like, ‘I’m pretty good at exposition,’ and then I read this and said, ‘Holy shit, Rob!’ There were some challenging passages to both memorize and research, just to process. It was, for my character anyway, very dense expository dialogue. It was some of the most challenging exposition I’ve had to do, and I’ve had to do some wacky shit.”

Michael Shanks as Will Sanders in  Unspeakable . Photo courtesy of CBC

Michael Shanks as Will Sanders in Unspeakable. Photo courtesy of CBC

And yet it was important to include this dense expository dialogue because, says Cooper, “that’s how people talked. When it’s your life and your kid’s life at stake, you delve into the medical journals. You become an expert and suddenly you’re speaking another language to your spouse over dinner. A fly on the wall would be like, ‘What are they talking about? Why are they talking about that stuff?’ But it’s essential.”

They shot Unspeakable in 2018, with Vancouver subbing in for multiple Canadian cities (“I just liked the idea that, for once, we were shooting Vancouver for Toronto,” says Cooper).

The events of Unspeakable take place over three decades. “We really wanted to look at the effects of the tragedy on a lifetime, and it was a slow-moving disaster,” says Cooper. “It wasn’t one moment, like an earthquake, that happened and was resolved. It’s something that took place over 30 or more years.”

This commitment to telling a 30-year story proves challenging when you’re shooting out of order and you need to adjust set decoration and make-up accordingly.

“For the record, aging was the easy part,” chuckles Shanks. “It’s getting younger that was hard.”

Shanks is grateful that he now knows about the tainted blood scandal – and he’s equally grateful that, thanks to Unspeakable, many more Canadians will know more about it, too. Says Shanks: “I’ve been trying to explain the story to my kids, and they’re going, ‘What? How can that happen here?’ And the fact that it’s still going on in this country, in different forms, is amazing to me.”

Unspeakable premieres January 9 on CBC Television and airs Wednesdays at 9pm. Details at https://www.cbc.ca/unspeakable/

Follow @UnspeakableCBC  @MichaelShanks

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