Mar 17, 2023
'BlackBerry' movie: Meet the actor playing Jim Balsillie
Going behind the scenes of the upcoming Blackberry movie
OK, I wasn't really talking to Balsillie, the former co-chief executive officer of Research In Motion Inc. (and later BlackBerry) who made billions of dollars running the ex-smartphone company.
Instead, I was sitting across from actor Glenn Howerton who eerily resembled a facsimile of the Canadian executive, down to the University of Toronto class ring he sported on his right hand. We spoke back in June 2022 on the Hamilton, Ont., set of "BlackBerry," the upcoming feature film that examined how Balsillie and his co-CEO Mike Lazaridis took the company from its humble Ontario beginnings into one of the most popular consumer devices of all time.
So it was a bit of a surprise that the actor playing Balsillie didn't catch on to the so-called "CrackBerry" faze termed for those superfans who adored the distinctive phones best known for their physical keyboard.
“There was no appeal for me for the BlackBerry. It was an email machine. That’s all it was," Howerton said in an interview with BNN Bloomberg. "There was no browser or apps, initially. It was an email machine, a texting machine, and still to this day, I hate email. I want people to leave me alone."
Still, it was that obsession with getting emails instantaneously that catapulted Canada's BlackBerry into the global phenomenon more than a decade ago, only to squander its smartphone advantage after Balsillie and Lazaridis misread consumers' interest in Apple Inc.'s now-ubiquitous iPhone.
It's the focal point for the upcoming film based on the award-winning book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry by Sean Silcoff and Jacquie McNish. While the film takes several creative liberties that didn't necessarily play out in real life, the Hamilton set where Howerton and I were speaking at also offered a slightly nostalgic view of the time when a Canadian tech company was on top of the world.
"I think that as such an extraordinarily successful company as RIM was when BlackBerry was at its height, it’s unusual to see such a precipitous rise and fall like that. I think that alone makes it fascinating," Howerton said.
The film's set resided at an old steel factory on the outskirts of Hamilton's industrial area. A menagerie of BlackBerry props ranging from a cardboard box filled with old smartphone batteries to BlackBerry marketing posters littered the building, reminding visitors of the company's success during its heyday.
The set's production team even painstakingly recreated one of BlackBerry's old production rooms, complete with old Dungeons and Dragons board games that the company's engineering crew would play during their downtime.
For Howerton, the role wasn't about revisiting the story of how BlackBerry fell from its lofty perch as the world's most popular smartphone, but rather about the characters who toiled for years to make that happen.
"I’ll admit I have a tendency to be attracted to larger than life characters that have a little bit of bluster and a hint of narcissism there, certainly a tremendous amount of ego. I find characters like that fascinating and interesting,” he said.
He was also drawn to Balsillie -- whose look was uncannily recreated by the film's hair and costume team thanks to Howerton's willingness to shave his head to emulate the former co-CEO's male pattern baldness -- due to his perceived imposter syndrome.
"With Jim [Balsillie], in this script, I think he’s being driven by the fear of being found out that he’s not as strong powerful and rich and important as the people that he aspires to be. I think he’s terrified of being found out and he spends all that time overcompensating for that fear. I think that’s what motivates him."
The movie's script was written and directed by Canadian filmmaker Matt Johnson (best known for creating the TV comedy "Nirvanna the Band the Show") and features an ensemble cast led by Howerton and Toronto-native Jay Baruchel, who plays Lazaridis, and received high praise after it premiered during the Berlin International Film Festival last month.
Without spoiling the movie, the film ends with the introduction of the iPhone, something that both Lazaridis and Balsillie initially dismissed due to their inability to do the one thing that BlackBerry was best known for: email. Of course, the iPhone later trumped BlackBerry's ability to send an email along with other bells and whistles that the Waterloo, Ont.-based company just couldn't keep up with. And now, while Apple is one of the world's most valuable companies, BlackBerry is primarily a software and services provider after ceasing to produce its own smartphones in 2016.
"They were revolutionary in the smartphone business, the handheld PC business, whatever you want to call it. They revolutionized it. Then they stopped and someone came and ate their lunch, and that was Steve Jobs," Howerton said.