Best known for his role on the CBC hit Little Mosque on the Prairie, Zaib Shaikh recently started a new job as Toronto’s film commissioner and director of entertainment. It’s a position that will have him overseeing city events from Pride to TIFF. We chatted with the newly minted civil servant about Toronto’s movie biz, the power of Drake, and why he’s totally over schmoozing.
You aren’t even a week into the new job; how have you spent your first few days?
Well, just now I came from the Toronto Arts Foundation Awards. I was giving out the Roy Thomson Hall Award to Michie Mee. She was a leading innovator of hip-hop—she and Maestro Fresh Wes put Toronto hip-hop on the map. There has been a lot of learning the ins and outs as the new person working at City Hall. It’s a large organization with its own culture, so I’m just kind of getting a sense of that.
Your job is different from that of previous film commissioners.
Yes, definitely. This office has been expanded and enhanced to include all entertainment industries, which is one of the reasons I was brought on board and what drew me to the role. I work with a team of about 25 people at the Film Commission Office as well as in the entertainment industries, which includes the music sector, food, fashion, all media, live events, and then the tourism aspect. Most of these groups have [existed] separately, and now we’re all going to work together.
It’s a big job. What are your qualifications?
I think probably what excited them about me was that I come from the industry. I worked with a lot of people around the industry as an actor, producer, and director, and have a sense of what it means to be an ambassador. On a show like Little Mosque, which became such an international success, the cast had to be ambassadors for the Canadian industry. We were inducted into the Paley Centre in New York and L.A. after our third episode—that put us in the same company as The Sopranos, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and All in the Family. I think [the hiring committee] got the sense that I really am a good champion of what is possible out of Toronto.
During the announcement of your new gig, you joked that people were probably hoping for Drake. What can you learn from all he has done for Toronto?
What I find so inspiring about Drake is the commitment he has to this city. He is a global star, but everybody knows his home is Toronto. He’s more Torontonian than Canadian. Toronto is a beacon—we’ve got the CN Tower, we’ve got Drake. When the Raptors hit the Nets in the playoffs, I think New York got a sense of the appeal and even they were impressed. It’s not easy to impress a town like New York. And I think Toronto was sort of impressed by itself. Drake really did that.
The press conference also featured a performance by Maestro that got the crowd on their feet. So, city councillors dancing to “Let Your Backbone Slide”: amazing or embarrassing?
I think it’s amazing. It was councillor [Michael] Thompson. When he busts a move, it looks like he knows how to bust a move.
Speaking of embarrassing, what does the new film commissioner make of Rob Ford’s visit to Los Angeles to promote Toronto as a film city?
Well, traditionally, it wouldn’t be the top city official who is the ambassador for the entertainment industry. They’re supposed to be the political ambassador.
Is it possible that the notoriety he has brought to our city could be a good thing in terms of attracting international dollars?
You certainly want attention for your city. You would hope that it was in the best light, but I guess, as Oscar Wilde said, there’s only one thing worse than being talked about and that’s not being talked about. I’m going to go with Wilde on this one.
The mayor will be back at work in just a few days. Do you have a meeting scheduled?
Not at this stage. I’m assuming the mayor has more important things to do.
Ha! You think?
I know, right. Because I’m part of the city staff now, we present to council when appropriate as part of economic development and culture, but we don’t have a daily interaction with the councillors.
Pacific Rim and Robocop shot here in the past few years, and there is currently an Adam Sandler movie shooting in Yorkville. I guess the quality of the projects isn’t necessarily a huge concern?
A big-budget movie is a great thing in its process. How it ends up doing is very much a different part of the business. For our diversity to continue we need to strike a balance between what we call tent-pole productions—the big-budget movies. These projects revitalize the local economy and hopefully allow people to do more indie projects—more “creative” projects.
The cliché is that Toronto is always playing other cities. Do you wish it could play itself more often?
Maybe 20 years ago you could have that debate. But we live in such a global world; the films that are coming out are set in metropolises. Whether we’re playing Toronto or just playing a big city means we’re a big city. They’re not going to small towns to sub in for New York.
I would imagine your TIFF party schedule is going to be packed.
I think my TIFF work schedule will be packed. My party schedule used to be full. I used to attend as a partygoer. Now it will be a lot of work events. I’m looking forward to that.
But isn’t schmoozing a big part of your position?
I think schmoozing is more important when you’re working in the industry. Toronto and TIFF already have their own strong brands, so it’s more going to be about introducing our collaborative vision. I’ll leave the schmoozing to the people who are making the deals.
Favourite ice cream flavour?
Desert island album?
Let It Bleed by the Rolling Stones.
Lucky enough to have had it.
Lake, pool, or ocean?
Favourite wardrobe staple?
Shoes fit for walking everywhere, anytime.
To always take heart and never lose faith.