Michael Thiessen has met hundreds of people while walking the streets of Point Douglas with the Bear Clan Patrol: good neighbours, interesting characters, people at high points, people at low points, people who want to help and people who needed a tiny bit of help themselves.
He hadn’t before met an Academy Award nominee.
That changed two weeks ago, when Thiessen and some other Bear Clan Patrol members were volunteering at a movie shoot in the North End neighbourhood, providing security and community relations before experiencing what’s become a somewhat frequent occurrence in recent weeks: an encounter in the wild with Hollywood actor Woody Harrelson, in town to shoot his latest film, Champions.
"Our muster point was in front of his bus," says Thiessen, who’s volunteered with the Bear Clan since 2016, inspired by visits to the Bell Tower on Selkirk Avenue.
And after a long day of shooting, Harrelson emerged, smiling. He offered to take pictures with anyone who wanted to pose for one, so Thiessen gamely put on a happy face with the onetime star of Cheers.
"We didn’t ask him," Thiessen says. "He asked us. He came right out and said, ‘Let’s take a picture.’"
It’s not the first time the grassroots patrol has brushed shoulders with the film industry: in recent years, a growing number of productions have eschewed private security in favour of the Bear Clan, particularly when shoots have occurred in Point Douglas or downtown.
Offering more than just security, the organization is brought in to keep the community involved and comfortable. "The film industry trusts us," Thiessen says. So does the community, he adds.
“We didn’t ask him. He asked us. He came right out and said, ‘Let’s take a picture.’” – Michael Thiessen
That’s very important, says Thiessen. Film productions naturally create disruption: trucks and vans divert traffic, take up space, and require community members to alter their lives somewhat to make way for the bright lights. While it’s exciting, it can be a big imposition, and adding private security to the mix can make the imposition even more imposing.
"When someone comes onto your territory that isn’t community-based, people can get antsy. But they know us, they’ve seen us. They’d rather they call us," Thiessen says.
Thiessen doesn’t personally live in the neighbourhood, but he knows it: long before he started walking with the Bear Clan, his parents started the church at 137 Euclid Ave., where Harrelson was shooting a scene the day they took a picture together.
"Winnipeg’s such a small world," he says.
Harrelson, who’s been in town since early November, has also not made himself a stranger in the neighbourhood, strolling around in his off time, says Thiessen. On Nov. 15, the actor posted a photo of the New West Hotel, at 786 Main St., a building wrapped in a giant mural created by artists Jason Botkin, MC Baldassari, Storm Angeconeb, Jade Harper, Matea Radic, Jay Cabredo and Takashi Iwasaki as part of the 2017 Wall-to-Wall Mural and Culture Festival, commissioned in a partnership among Graffiti Art Programming, the North End Community Renewal Corporation and Synonym Art Consultation.
"Art in an unexpected place," Harrelson captioned the photo, since liked by nearly 34,000 Instagram users, a not-insignificant portion of those users coming from Winnipeg.
"North End represent!" commented community organizer Michael Redhead Champagne. "Right across the street from us!" commented Mother Earth Recycling, an Indigenous-owned and -operated enterprise on the other side of Main from the hotel.
“We’d be happy to have him out, I’m sure.” – Michael Thiessen
The outsider Harrelson also took interest in the Bear Clan patch on Thiessen’s jacket. Thiessen explained what the group does, from its patrol to its food bank program to its street cleanup. Harrelson was intrigued, says Thiessen, who complimented the actor for his down-to-earth sensibility and generosity.
"So I put a bug in his ear," he says. "‘Why don’t you phone the office and see if you can come out on patrol?’ "
Harrelson hasn’t donned the orange vest yet. But the offer stands.
"We’d be happy to have him out, I’m sure," Thiessen says.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.