For Canadian actress Zoe Cleland, the journey began on the stage, advanced to the screen and has featured her becoming many memorable characters across comedy, drama, mystery and more.
“I think every time I do a new project, I grow as an actor and as a human being,” she said. “One of the things I love about acting is that it’s not static. Every job requires me to expand myself and my vision of the world.”
Her own story is one characterized by ambition, talent and success. She began performing for theatrical productions as a child and made her TV debut on “Murdoch Mysteries” at the age of 15. By the age of 17, Cleland was among a dozen actors – and the youngest ever – to be chosen for the National Theatre School of Canada, a milestone selection into her home country’s top conservatory training program.
“I literally knew I wanted to be an actress when I was about 5,” Cleland said. “It never seemed like a choice to me. It was always just part of who I was. For about a year, when I was really little, I used to watch “The Wizard of Oz” every day and told everyone at my school that my name was Dorothy! My parents took me to a lot of theatre as a kid. They would take me to the Stratford Festival every year and I remember that being the first time I started thinking of acting as a profession beyond playing dress-up at home. I remember being about 4 years old and seeing a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that seemed like the most magical thing on earth.”
Cleland, a Toronto-born talent, is classically trained and among her performing arsenal, she’s studied dramatic combat and is well versed in singing, dialects and accents including British, Irish, Scottish and American.
While attending the National Theatre School, Cleland starred in eight productions at the conservatory including her own self-written solo show, “Drawing White,” and in a production of Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” in the role of Irina, one of the sisters.
“I also played the Fool in “King Lear,” which was a lot of fun. Sometimes just doing scene work in a lot of detail was most rewarding,” said Cleland. “The great thing about theatre school is that they give you so much time to just totally dive into things and pick everything apart as much as you want, so sometimes just doing scene study was great because you got the chance to look at something from every possible angle.”
The training and experience helped groom Cleland, 24, into a dynamic, well-rounded and brilliant actress with a world of authenticity and performing charisma.
“I think in all honesty going to theatre school taught me more about how I am as a person than any one thing about acting,” she said. “I went when I was really young, 17-19, so I was really still just trying to figure out who I was. The whole thing was such an intense experience and it changed me so much. I think overall it taught me to trust my own internal guidance system and let that lead me in my work, rather than looking to the outside for someone to tell me what I should do.”
Cleland later went on to star in the theatre productions of “Wishes of This & the Other Thing” directed by Rose Plotek and “The Chimes” directed by Nancy Palk. In 2013, Cleland received the Theatre Centre Emerging Artist Award at the Summerworks Festival for her starring role in “Girls! Girls! Girls!” directed by Donna Marie Baratta and Jessica Carmichael. The play is about a group of 14-year-olds who one night decide to attack one of their peers.
“It is written in a poetic, playful style that makes it kind of otherworldly,” Cleland said. “I played Jam, who is a follower just trying to fit in and be liked. She ends up getting in way over her head in the violence that her friends are perpetrating. She struggles with her integrity when she realizes that they have gone too far.”
Parlaying her strong theatre background into TV recognition, Cleland went on to land recurring roles on the CW’s fantasy drama series, “Reign,” starring Adelaide Kane and Megan Follows, and Bite TV’s comedy series, “Guidance” starring Rob Baker.
Millie Tom has worked in the casting of more than 50 films and 19 different TV titles including “A History of Violence,” “The Incredible Hulk” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” She said, “I have known Zoe since she was 15 years old, when she first started auditioning. I believe she has a unique, magnetic quality that lends itself perfectly to film and television. I cast her in two projects since she graduated the National Theatre School, one being “Guidance,” a comedy series about three inept guidance counselors working in a high school.”
In five episodes of “Guidance,” Cleland played Morgan, a student who approaches the counselors for help.
“She was so good as Morgan, a precocious teenager who was being bullied,” Tom said. “She nailed her role as the ‘straight man’ to Rob Baker, who played opposite her, while at the same time pulling off the comedic timing that made the show a success.”
Cleland kept the momentum going and booked roles on the History Channel’s “Brainwashed,” Craig Macnaughton’s comedy webseries, “Pay Up” and in the hit supernatural medical drama, “Saving Hope” starring Erica Durance.
Most recently, Cleland returned for a guest starring role in “Murdoch Mysteries,” for the episode – “Raised on Robbery” – that aired in January on the CBC. She also made her feature film debut in writer-director Jeremy LaLonde’s comedy, “How to Plan an Orgy in a Small Town,” that’s been screening on the independent film circuit and won Best Feature and Best Ensemble awards at the 2016 Canadian Filmmakers’ Festival. The film stars Jewel Staite, Lauren Lee Smith and Lauren Holly.
“I loved the sense that we were all collaborating and making something together, and that everyone’s thoughts were valued and taken into consideration,” Cleland said.