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How I Spent My Summer: Atom Egoyan

The Globe & Mail / August 2023

Waiting tables taught Atom Egoyan how to direct

Acclaimed filmmaker Atom Egoyan is gearing up for the Toronto International Film Festival, where the Egyptian-born and B.C.-raised director’s 18th movie, Seven Veils, will premiere at the Four Seasons. Long before such swanky events, however, The Sweet Hereafter director’s summers included waiting tables at a tourist-filled Greek restaurant in Victoria.

I’d been working since I was 15, doing laundry and as a busboy at the Empress Hotel, where I knew this waiter named Paul. I was in my early 20s when Paul left to start a restaurant, which would become a very popular Greek spot called Periklis. He took me with him and promoted me to waiter.

Periklis was a big destination for tourists, who’d come in groups of 40 or 50 expecting a show. For some reason it had belly dancers, though belly dancing is obviously not Greek. Victoria at the time was full of these kinds of tourist traps. Even the Empress Hotel had this now jaw-dropping bar called the Bengal Lounge, where the waiters wore colonial garb. This was the late seventies and would never, ever happen now.

Anyway, part of this particular waiting job was actually acting, because the managers at Periklis said, “We want you to pretend you’re Greek.” We were the only Armenian family in Victoria, and nobody knew what that was anyway, so it was easy for people to imagine that maybe I was Greek. So they took “Egoyan,” dropped the first part and added an “I” to make me “Yanni.” They wanted me to speak with a Greek accent, which I did, playing up every ridiculous cliché, right down to the gold chains and the unbuttoned shirt. I even tried to grow a moustache but it was never quite right. I was performing something I was not, and it’s not something I’m proud of.

It all came to a crash one day when a nice family I’d served asked me if I was Greek. I said, quite boisterously in my fake accent, which I won’t replicate, “Yes, of course I am!” They then started speaking in Greek, because they were really Greek, and asked me what island I was from. I had no answer and kind of sulked away to the kitchen. I was so embarrassed to be caught in a lie.

Another night, I was delivering the famous Greek dish saganaki, a pan-fried cheese that you pour brandy on and set on fire before crying out the ceremonial “Opa!” You’re supposed to do it away from the table, obviously, and usually you’d bring a busboy out to hold the plate. But we were short-staffed that night, so I just plunked the plate in front of the father and poured the brandy on top.

At the same moment I lit the saganaki, he bent forward and I saw his head engulfed in flames. Luckily, it was a fast alcohol fire and just singed his eyebrows. I still haven’t shot that scene in one of my movies, but I think one day I will. It felt like it happened in slow motion, like I was in the middle of a horror movie. Thankfully he didn’t sue the restaurant. He was mostly shocked and grateful to be alive, I guess.

Waiting tables is a really good way to learn to direct, or do anything really, because you’re constantly organizing multiple groups of people, each with different dynamics and various demands that need to be accommodated. I learned a lot about human behaviour and when it’s good to indulge people versus when it’s better to ignore things a little bit. If you spill soup on someone’s lap, it’s sometimes better not to be too apologetic and make a big scene. It’s best to bring soda water, not dwell on it and just move on. There are moments when you’re just completely overwhelmed, you’re short-staffed and you have no idea how you’ll possibly make it work. Then somehow, you do.