Michael Coleman credits a chance encounter with a comedy great for the path he took to acting.
In the mid-1990s, the Fleetwood-raised actor was working the local stand-up comedy circuit when Robin Williams strolled into the club where he was gigging. Backstage that night, the Jumanji star chatted with some of the budding comics in the room.
“He had a reputation of just showing up at comedy places around that time, when he was filming in Vancouver,” recalled Coleman. “We were like a community for him or something, and he’s such an incredible cool human being for it. For me, it was a game-changer, because he was huge at the time, and for him to be sitting around backstage with a bunch of aspiring comedians and actors, it was great. We just chewed the fat and he was like, ‘Ask me whatever you want,’ so we did.”
Coleman doesn’t have any photos of him with Williams, in the era before cellphone-selfies, but the moment clicked, and helped propel him into full-time work in acting.
Today, he’s among four co-founders of Story Institute (storyinstitute.ca), a Vancouver-based acting school, along with two former students of his, Dan Heinz and Josh Quocksister, and longtime pal Fred Ewanuick, of Corner Gas fame.
Coleman’s credits include a long list of TV, film, stage, video game, radio and cartoon projects, including the role of dwarf Happy on ABC’s Once Upon a Time, and work on X-Men: Evolution, Hello Kitty, DBZ, Inuyasha, Hamtaro, Supernatural, Smallville, Stargate and other shows. His TV debut was playing the character Howard Gordon on the Chris Carter series Millennium, in 1996.
Reached on the phone, Coleman is quick to chronicle his Surrey roots.
“Not only did I grow up in Surrey,” he started, “I’m 47 and I still talk to my Kindergarten teacher regularly and also to my high school drama coach. I keep the Surrey roots pretty tight,” he added with a laugh. “I still drive by the Surrey house I grew up in, in Fleetwood, and I see the Christmas tree we planted in the yard has grown quite large. Those are my Surrey roots.”
From Green Timbers Elementary, Johnston Heights junior high and on to Queen Elizabeth Secondary, Coleman slowly grew more interested in comedy and acting. After high school, he explored stand-up as a job.
“Back in the day, I used to get up on Saturday morning, go to the newspaper and look for gigs, and that’s how we did our business, pre-internet, right,” he said. “There was Lafflines in New Westminster, just so many different experiences, it was all pretty old-school.”
Ultimately, stand-up comedy just wasn’t his thing.
“I was pretty painful to watch, so I got out of that,” Coleman admitted. “I started to focus on voicing cartoons and acting and writing and directing. Stand-up wasn’t the platform for me. My last gig was around 1995, which is when things in the local film industry really started to pick up, too.”
Coleman recalls a gig on Stargate: Atlantis as one of the most memorable days of his early years in professional acting, in a 2008 episode called “Brain Storm.” According to a post on imdb.com, Coleman played “Front Desk Guy.”
“That episode had Dave Foley from Kids in the Hall, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and it was just a nerd’s dream,” Coleman enthused. “It was one of those moments where we were having lunch and I was like, ‘How did I get here?!’ You know, ‘Just eat your food, pretend your supposed to be here and don’t let anyone know you’re a giant fraud’ – those thoughts in your head, right.”
Later, after years of acting, Coleman got into teaching others the craft, and Story Institute was launched in 2018. He’d worked for a few different acting schools and wanted to create something different – “a bit more unique,” he said. “Some of it was about paying it forward to the next generation.”
With that in mind, the school has launched a “Purpose Scholarship,” which offers students reduced tuition if they do charity work, “as a way of giving back and encouraging our students to give back, too,” Coleman explained.
A married father of two young girls, Coleman now splits his time between acting and teaching acting.
“Right now I work 12-hour days, six days a week, and when I’m not on set I make sure to turn it off at 6 o’clock,” Coleman explained. “My life is pretty much 100 per cent the school, the work and the family, and the school and work, that ebbs and flows depending on projects on the go. There are weeks where I do absolutely nothing at the school, and others when I’m there for literally 50 or 60 hours of the week.”
He’s also been leading some virtual acting classes with students at Semiahmoo Secondary in South Surrey.
In the COVID-19 era, Story Institute was able to transition from complete shutdown last spring to modified in-person classes a couple months later.
“Much like our local film industry, we’re just being smart and super safe with everything,” Coleman said. “You know, in North America, of the four major filming locations – Los Angeles, New York, Toronto and here – we’re the only one still running at full capacity. And our school benefits from that, being able to do things in-person.
“Filming (in Vancouver) is actually busier than it’s been in the history of the city,” he continued, “because all the other major film markets, they’re having a harder time with COVID. Because we’re in this pandemic, and all people are allowed to do is stay at home and watch TV, the one city where (content) is being created is Vancouver, in a really safe environment.”