Earlier this month I virtually sat down for coffee with one of the start from the new Hallmark Channel original series, When Hope Calls. Ryan- James “RJ” Hatanaka and I chatted about all things When Hope Calls- from the casting experience to his hopes for the future of the show, and our mutual love for Chicago. RJ shed light on the Mountie experience, his drive for acting, and how he’s spending his quarantine.
In this article you will find:
The impact his family had on his career choice
How RJ approaches acting
Mental health as an actor
When Hope Calls Season 1 information
What’s next for RJ
An interview with RJ Hatanaka
Last month I stumbled upon the When Calls the Heart spinoff, When Hope Calls, on The Hallmark Now app (also available on Amazon Prime- click here) and binged the entire season (when in quarantine, amirite?). I loved the reality the show runners, actors, and everyone else on this project have created and I wanted to know more. I was searching for any and all interviews I could find with the cast and crew to have more of a glimpse at how this show was pieced together and what a day in the life is like for these professional time travelers (because that’s basically what acting is, right?). While reading these interviews I was still left wondering- so, I reached out to RJ and we scheduled a quarantine coffee chat.
For those who don’t know, When Hope Calls is a Hallmark Channel original series, which debuted on the Hallmark Now app prior to launching on tv on Sunday nights. This weekend marks the end of season 1 and with that I thought it would be perfect timing to share my conversation with RJ and give fellow Hearties a glimpse into Mountie life and the town of Brookfield.
This was the first time RJ and I had connected besides our chat to schedule. It was great being able to sit down, coffee in hand, and shift my mind to something other than the Coronavirus and how quickly the world had changed. RJ and I broke the ice talking about how we’re spending our time and he shared something I am still thinking of now, weeks later. RJ said every day- including pre-quarantine, he makes it a priority to call 10 people a day. I’m not sure if he was exaggerating with this number or if it is actually 10 people per day, but he explained he loves human connection and maintaining his relationships. At first I was shocked but as we were talking more and he explained how he calls people while he’s cooking, I began to think of the relevance of this act- especially now. It’s something as simple as a daily phone call letting those you love know that you care about them, that makes the world of a difference. After hearing this I understand why RJ seamlessly fits the role of Constable Gabriel “Gabe” Kinslow, the willing and always ready to serve Mountie. RJ, like his character, prioritizes loved ones and makes it known he is there to support and care for them.
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From other interviews I learned RJ’s background in acting which he elaborated on with the educational route he opted for in pursuing this career. When RJ was a kid his love for acting was ignited through a school play surrounding food. He played the role of “Mr. Meat” and carried on pursuing theater and acting in Canada through the University of Toronto, National Theatre School of Canada , and then venturing to NYU for graduate studies. In fact, understanding people and connecting is so important to RJ that while in college he took interest in sociology and decided to do a Drama/Sociology double major. We chatted about the relation of the two and the natural support that the class/ major has provided for RJ in being able to go deeper within his roles and help develop his acting career. He didn’t intend to double major in Sociology when enrolling in school but discovered the correlation and drive for wanting to learn more though the class. RJ and I zoomed out a bit to examine more in depth and talk about the support he has with acting. In fact, RJ’s mom is a major reason why he is on this path. Growing up RJ shared with me his normalcy of identifying emotions and talking openly about things that happen over the course of a lifetime because of his mother, Jan Hatanaka. Jan is a grief reconciliation specialist who prioritized and encouraged a home environment where it was emotionally safe for RJ to explore all sorts of feelings. RJ mentions how this contributed to his comfortability with identifying emotions in scripts and being able to find a connecting point because of that base emotional understanding. As a viewer, I see how this integration at a young age gives RJ an advantage as an actor. It’s his job to move people- to make the audience not only understand but feel everything his character is going through as if we ourselves are experiencing it. When he’s on screen and delivering lines, they come across with such ease and with a strong connection. Most actors spend their whole lives hoping to achieve what comes naturally to RJ. When asked about his interest in taking this passion and dedication of acting and expanding into writing, directing or producing, he replied with a strong “Yes! I love storytelling, bouncing ideas off of friends, thinking of new projects. I’ve been writing every day in quarantine.” I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to experience all that RJ’s quarantine writing project has.
A glimpse at life in brookfield
RJ shares what goes into bringing the town’s Mountie to life.
Before playing Gabriel, had you heard of the Hallmark Channel before?
RJ: “For sure. Hallmark is a big name. I knew that When Calls The Heart was a huge hit, and that it had an incredible fan base.”
Do you find there was more, less, or equal amounts of pressure having the hearties support the show before being released?
RJ: “The hearties are a huge gift. It’s so rare to have such a committed, supportive fan base from the beginning of a show, so I’m very thankful for them. Before I was even filming, I was at a wedding and my friend’s mom who is a Heartie heard about my being cast in When Hope Calls and just loved it. The whole Hallmark family has been really welcoming. I’ve gotten to know many of the other actors – including Erin Krakow – she and I have a lot of crossover with theater and New York – and she is just really lovely and a good leader of WCTH. ”
Did you originally audition for Gabe?
RJ: “Yes! I was shooting another TV show in Toronto at the time (Nurses) when I heard about the opportunity. They organized a chemistry read between myself and Morgan Kohan, who plays Lillian and had been involved in the project for some time, and we clicked right away.”
How do you find something to connect to in each character you play- what’s that proces like?
RJ: “I always like to start from within myself when I’m developing a character. I think starting from a genuine place helps me build something real. I’m always interested in what makes a person unique. Start from there.”
When preparing for his role on When Hope Calls, RJ also dove head first into research – even connecting with current Mounties to learn more of the history, understand the sense of community, and experience the Mountie world first hand instead of exclusively through the pages of research.
What is your favorite part of the mountie world
RJ: “The long history, Mountie pride, and the support is unreal – if you’re in a different area, they will help you. They take pride in their strong community.”
RJ said even today, if a Mountie travels to another region and connects with those Mounties, they will welcome their fellow Mountie in and treat him or her as if they are serving alongside them in their service rotation.
What is the hardest part of playing a mountie?
RJ: “In the role, Mountie Gabe is very work focused – mounties and a lot of first responders have to find a tricky balance between being fully committed to their work and having a healthy home life.”
I completely agree with RJ. First responders can’t always leave their work at the office- they carry more than binders and laptops on a daily basis and that balance of duty and justice can sometimes bleed into or overpower personal relationships or time. In fact, we really see this struggle in the last few episodes of season 1 between Gabe’s profession and his feelings for Lillian.
With a background in karate, did you find that helpful with how active the character is?
RJ: “Karate really lends itself well to the industry. It has come in handy in pretty much all the work that I’ve done”.
In When Hope Calls, RJ uses the tools karate has instilled in him – specifically through ‘trusting his body’. “When you’re chasing bad guys through the woods, dodging rocks and trees, sliding in to cover and dodging bullets, being able to trust your body is so important.”
On that note, what was the most challenging scene to shoot?
RJ: “The fire in episode one – ah, but it was so exciting though. We shot it over two days. Things were shot in pieces. One day it was me running in and kicking the burning log off of Lillian. When you have great scene partners like Morgan, it’s always fun just to dive in and explore the possibilities.
The second night it was a cold, overnight shoot – pretty much the whole cast was there – it was a great way to come together, and the director had a great plan going into it. I was really excited to see how they put it all together when the show aired and I was really pleased!
From what RJ describes, it sounded like quite a physically demanding scene- I see why this was notable for the most challenging but also love how this challenge was used to connect with the cast in crew!
If there is a season 2, what are you hoping to explore more of in Gabe’s journey?
RJ: “I really love the action, but it would also be interesting to explore him opening up a bit more. I like his vulnerable moments too.”
What is something Gabe has taught you?
RJ: “The worth ethic of the Mounties – especially at the time when they were covering such distance. A strong work ethic is always something I admire.”
Our conversation started to switch gears and move away from the interview style to more friendly conversation. RJ refilled his coffee and we decided to continue chatting about life, the expectations of an actor, and mental health. I admire how comfortable RJ is speaking about mental health in particular. I know this subject can be quite uncomfortable for some and hold such stigma. It was refreshing to speak on this topic and hear about how RJ and his friends are also trying to normalize this type of conversation. He mentioned how his friend group- especially in New York, approach this with more of an open mind and listen. These two points may seem incredibly simple, but in the moment can prove to be more difficult- I like how RJ is continuing to develop these two conversational components, surrounding himself with others who are also seeking to do this, and taking it a step farther by opening the dialogue allowing space for people to have those mental health conversations with him. I found myself wondering how he deals with burnout and recognizing those warning signs. “I need to stay connected with people and stay active.” RJ brought this back to his love for karate, working out, and playing sports. RJ’s family is pretty active and involved in sports. In fact, this is where our mutual love for Chicago comes in. RJ’s first exposure to the Windy City was through his Grandpa. They took a bus from Canada for a Baseball trip. “He’s a huge baseball fan. He instilled that in me from a young age and it’s something we’ve always bonded over. He’s one of my favorite people!” RJ explains. Who would have thought that young RJ watching games with his Grandpa would be back in Chitown playing Daren Okada on Chicago P.D years later?! It’s amazing how we are able to look back on life and see those foreshadowing events, if we allow the space for it. I couldn’t help but wonder how RJ handles the rejection- I know a few actors and they aren’t as content in the process as RJ appears. I know he’s a phenomenal actor, but even the best ones can’t fake the deep tranquillity he possesses- which is reflected in his responses, actions, and consideration of others.
The entertainment industry is a professional ghosting culture. RJ agreed and shed light on the growth rooted in this: “the industry really forces you to examine how you evaluate and believe in yourself.” He stays grounded and does not base his worth on the opinions of the casting director, agents, or anyone else in the business by staying rooted in the practice of “starting from yourself and letting that flow. If you really, truly do that – you can tap in to what is wonderful and unique about yourself, and find confidence in that. If you’re walking into an audition trying to be someone you’re not… it’s going to be a tough one.” I challenged this belief, asking how acting has intertwined with his maturity and growth. This was a wonderful point he made but perhaps all actors aren’t in the growth oriented mindset he is. For RJ this maturity loops back to being intune with his mind and body- being able to prioritize “how to calm yourself and find peace. The nature of the job is spending time alone. It’s traveling from job to job and preparing for auditions. That’s why I went the educational route. I was able to grow that way, form some good habits, develop some great tools, and stay connected to a community- that has helped a lot. And not just connect with people, although that is a huge part of it for me- I like staying connected to the different pieces of [myself]. I’ve found I’m at my best when I’m in my body and in rhythm.”
RJ didn’t answer my question the way I was expecting him to but instead showed the importance of how being aware of personal mental health and finding tools that help keep you in a “rhythm” contribute to overall maturity and help prepare for unconventional approaches to work, the uncertainty of routine changes, and everything else life has to offer. Seeking an education and having the background in acting is also why RJ chose to approach acting this way instead of the other sometimes even more immediate routes of success by going on auditions and enrolling in general acting classes. The educational background was able to not only help him grow as an actor developing characters but doing so while developing his own.
Rapid Fire Q&A:
Do you prefer day or night?
Do you have a favorite quote?
RJ: Not at the moment, but I find that most days a little gem pops up from somewhere.
What are you currently watching?
The Last Picture Show – A 1971 film with a young Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd.
Can you share your favorite playlist?
The Peaceful Piano playlist on Spotify.
If you know your Enneagram, what is it?
Where is your favorite place in the world?
The family cabin, which is on a lake and just… perfectly calm.
Do you have any siblings? If so, how many?
Yes! Three siblings who I love very much – an older brother Bobby and two younger sisters – Abigail and Victoria.
What is one thing you wish people knew about you?
Family is very important to me- I have a very connected family. We talk a lot and really trust each other. It’s a really important thing to me.
Where are you currently finding inspiration?
What is a book you read that positively impacted your life?
My mom wrote a book called “The Choice: Finding Life in the Face of Adversity”- I think it’s really powerful.
How does it feel to be you without adding a “because” statement? Just let it be.
It feels great!