Like her character Regina in Mean Girls, Rachel McAdams's high school experience was full of drama – though of a more constructive kind.
McAdams, like many, lacked clear goals for her future. School did not come easily.
"I wasn't a brain or a real academic," she says. "I kind of just floated through. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do and didn't feel like I was getting closer to figuring that out."
Fortunately, she found inspiration and encouragement from two teachers whom she credits with having dramatically changed her life. Linda Maskell taught McAdams drama from Grade 11 to OAC. Christopher Pereira taught her Grades 11 and 12 English and OAC Canadian Literature.
Maskell and Pereira met at Central Elgin Collegiate Institute in St. Thomas when Maskell came to the school in 1981 as head of visual arts. She started a dramatic arts program on which the two have collaborated ever since – Maskell as director, Pereira managing lights and sound.
By the time McAdams arrived at Central Elgin in 1992, the two teachers were married and Maskell had added Pereira to her name.
"They made an incredible team," says McAdams. "But they were also unique individuals and really powerful teachers."
McAdams was impressed by the interest that Pereira showed in understanding his students – what they thought and what they cared about.
"His classes were really interactive and more about discussion – not just being taught at," she recalls. And the students responded by being interested in what he had to say.
"I learned so much from Mr. Pereira," says McAdams. "We talked about Leonard Cohen and poetry and he was into Joni Mitchell. He just made everything so interesting."
McAdams especially appreciated that Pereira made his classroom a safe place for performing. "In high school kids can be so uncomfortable with character development and if we were doing Shakespeare he'd want us to get really into it," she says. He pushed them to lose their inhibitions and simply perform.
"He set a good example of just how brave you could and should be," she recalls. "He wasn't afraid to go out on a limb and Ms. Maskell was the same.
"They were just as excited about what they were teaching as they were about you learning it."
McAdams saw both as innovative and dedicated teachers who cultivated their students' strengths by building on their interests.
"They would encourage you to rise to the occasion and fulfill your potential, and they went above and beyond."
Maskell would be pleased to hear this because for her "the key is getting students to tap into their own creative resources so they come up with the material – rather than giving them something and saying 'here, read this.'"
McAdams admired Maskell's creativity and appreciated her support. "It's just incredible what she can do.
"I was the social convenor one year and I was so behind. She came in and really turned things around. She made the most amazing decorations and gave so much support."
She also recognized that both teachers gave more than class time. "They put so much work into school shows, which they didn't have to do."
McAdams was one of the 1995 cast for an ensemble one-act piece, I Live in a Little Town, based on students' poetry and short stories about growing up in southwestern Ontario. When they presented the piece at the prestigious Ontario Showcase at the Sears Drama Festival, McAdams won an Outstanding Performance award for her monologue.
"She was just one of the ensemble and it was a really fine group of students," recalls Maskell. "But she stood out as very, very gifted, even then."
Pereira remembers how completely McAdams commanded the attention of her audience. "That's acting talent. That's something I don't think anybody teaches but I remember clearly what a powerful effect she had on her audience."
For McAdams, the opportunity to act had a similarly profound effect. Performance was her saving grace in high school – it's what kept it fun. She relied on the existence of Central Elgin's drama program and counted on her two teachers to perpetuate the opportunities for students, both inside and outside the classroom. Maskell and Pereira's partnership and their commitment to extracurricular activities made a strong impression on McAdams. "I look at it very romantically; they both taught at the same school and they worked on projects both independently and together. I liked that they were such a team." But their impact on McAdams did not end there.
A chance meeting in a school stairwell changed everything for McAdams when she ran into Maskell, who had not been teaching her that semester. They chatted and, this being the day that university applications were due, Maskell asked about her plans for university. When McAdams responded that she was thinking of cultural studies or something like that, Maskell could not believe it. She asked, "Why not theatre?"
McAdams really hadn't considered it. Could you study acting at university? Could she ever make a living at it?
Maskell's answer was clear. "Yes, of course you can study theatre and you definitely should."
Maskell assured McAdams that, with her talent, she should just go for it.
McAdams recalls walking the halls somewhat dazed until she reached the guidance office. Once there, she asked for her applications and changed her major on every single form. She went to York and majored in theatre.
"I really owe everything to that day," says McAdams. "She gave me the kick-start that I needed. She had an honest opinion of what she thought I should be doing. Young people really need someone who will do that – see a glimmer of something in them and encourage them – even when they're afraid of it. She did that for me."
When asked if she has ever told Linda Maskell and Christopher Pereira that they made a difference in her life, McAdams replied, "I think I've told everyone but them. I hope they know and I think I've mentioned it in passing here and there. It's just hard to sit down and say to someone, 'You know, you changed my life.'"
Rachel McAdams's most recent feature film, The Family Stone, co-stars Diane Keaton and Sarah Jessica Parker and opened in theatres in November 2005. McAdams lives in Toronto.
Linda Maskell Pereira is head of visual arts and dramatic arts and Christopher Pereira teaches English at Central Elgin Collegiate Institute in St. Thomas. Together, they run the co-curricular dramatic arts program at the school.
Rachel McAdams filmography