Victor Garber on Knowing You’re Not Alone
I look at Victor Garber’s number scrawled in my notebook. A casual line of digits. His name simply written beside it—Victor. That’s the number of the man who helped build the Titanic, I think. He’s also recently joined the council at Beyond Type 1. Should I have added “Garber”? It’s not like I’ll confuse him with another Victor, but it feels almost too informal. In response to “this ship can’t sink,” he declared, “She’s made of iron, sir. I assure you she can [dramatic pause] and she will” (Titanic). Just dial him up, I tell myself. And they thought they had a ship that the water would never go through.
He also was Mayor Mascone in San Francisco circa 1978, shaking Harvey Milk’s hand after he was elected to public office (Milk). No big deal. It’s not like that film made LGBT issues mainstream in 2008. As the Canadian (seamless) ambassador to Iran, he aided the safe evacuation of six Americans out of hostile territory (Argo). (1978 was a busy year.) It’s not the first time he’s been an operative in foreign affairs either—while in the CIA, he was a double agent, and his daughter unknowingly followed suit (Alias). He’s been all sorts of figure heads—a professor (Ugly Betty), a judge (The Good Wife), a doctor (The Flash/Legends of Tomorrow), a vice president (Big Game). He’s even been God’s son, a savior of mankind (Godspell). I’m not kidding. The man has done it all. Victor has played in some of the most memorable films, television shows and Broadway plays of our time.
He’s also done extensive narration work. As I would come to find out, he has the voice of … reason? A wise sage? Whatever it is, it has the quality of reassurance. In his returning role of Dr. Martin Stein on the new show Legends of Tomorrow, he’s an all-knowing brainiac who warns his colleagues, “If we create a singularity here and then cannot control it, we could be looking at a global catastrophe.” He’s always the guy in the room who knows stuff; he grasps what’s really going to go down. You find yourself listening and believing everything he says. You know that he knows, and there’s a comfort in that.
Talking with Victor you understand why he’s cast for parts like these. Sitting with him via Facetime one winter morning, I find that beyond his impressive career, he’s had a long and interesting life—he’s done a lot and he’s seen a lot. And maybe from this comes his palatable ease, his sense of humor that conveys a quiet knowing. The fact that he also has type 1 diabetes is just one of many things that make up this man who is above all else entertaining, candid and kind.
When I tell him we may only be using audio, he says, “I can brush my hair, thank you,” and laughs. He’s holding a plain white mug and wearing a simple V-necked tee. We talk about him leaving home at the young age of 16, moving to Toronto and singing in the Sugar Shoppe group. He says, “Long before the Sugar Shoppe, I left London (Ontario) and was a folk singer for many years.” He adds, “I’ve been around a long time and I’ve done a lot of things, but that’s what I first did.”
“It was the Canadian answer to The Mamas and the Papas?” I ask.
“In some circles it was.” He smiles and looks up. “At least they were the inspiration for the group.”
I ask about Godspell and his transition from stage to film. “When I got to Toronto, I was a member of a company called Toronto Workshop Productions, which was sort of avant-garde,” he says. “I was quite young. At that time I was also folk singing, so I’ve always been interested in both, but acting sort of took over after I got to New York.”
When talking about the difference between theatre and film acting, I ask if the former had more intimacy for him or was it more physically demanding. “Acting is acting,” he says. “You still have to do the work internally that you have to do with film and television, but it’s technically a different requirement. I mean, you can’t speak softly on stage—you can in the right acoustical sphere— but mostly it requires technique. That’s what I developed as a stage actor that has come in handy as well. The more you know —the more tools you have to do the job.”
This idea seems to apply to his type 1 diabetes management. Victor was diagnosed in 1962 when he was 12 years old—just four years before he’d leave home and start his career as a performer. When I ask how he managed at such a young age, he says, “I would say not very well, but you know, I’ve learned. I think I’ve been lucky that I didn’t fall into serious problems, but I certainly wasn’t as diligent as I am now.” He adds, “And by being ‘diligent’ I mean to respect what this [type 1] is and take more precautions and care in how I live.”
He talks about being very conscious of going home at a party before other people did and how he never missed taking an insulin shot. When asked if he thought he was disciplined, he reiterates, “Conscious. More discipline developed as I got older.” He continues that he was also conscious of drug addiction and alcoholism, thankful to have avoided these, and what it would have meant for his career ambitions, his type 1 diabetes and his life.
We discuss the trauma of his diagnosis and how he had a distant cousin who also had type 1, so he knew what it meant to take insulin shots in order to stay alive. But beyond his cousin, he didn’t have much of a community growing up. There were the two weeks at diabetes camp where other kids with type 1 did outdoor activities, tested their blood glucose levels (BGLs) through urine samples and administered insulin. Although it was only a couple weeks, he explains that it was incredibly helpful to be with other children who had the chronic illness: “It’s the most important thing for any child—to be aware that there are other people like them, and that they’re all okay.”
Hear about T1D camp in the 60s.
Victor explains that he’s never hidden his type 1 and has been surprised sometimes from coworkers who sheepishly admitted to him of being type 1 as well. “[People] feel a certain shame attached to being a person with type 1 diabetes, which is, first of all, useless. It’s not helpful, because the more you can share your experience with people, the more education is broadened and the less you feel like you’re alone.”
“Do you think that’s changed since your diagnosis?” I ask.
“Do you think social media has had something to do with that?”
“I think that’s one of the only good things about social media,” he says matter-of-factly. He goes on to explain that he joined Instagram just to be a part of Beyond Type 1’s “Living Beyond” Campaign. “I wanted to get out and say, ‘I’m just like you, and you’re like me, and I’m okay, and I’m a face—an older face— for type 1.'”
“I think that’s what intrigued me about Beyond Type 1 is the fact that it’s such a contemporary organization—that’s dealing with social media in a very effective and more productive way than some of the other organizations, (every one of them being important and great). But this one resonated with me because of how many young kids are dealing with this, and young kids are on social media.” He adds that if you live in rural areas, you’re less likely to find a support group too, whether you’re the person with type 1 or a caregiver of someone with it. Referring to an online community, he says, “It can be a very powerful tool in dealing with any disease.”
When we discuss technology, Victor describes himself as a “late bloomer,” coming to the pump late after his diagnosis. Now on an Omnipod, he says, “It’s certainly made my life—especially my erratic life—easier to manage.”
“I heard you’re fond of meditation,” I say. “In order to relax between hectic shooting schedules.”
“It’s something that helps me stay focused and to remember what’s important,” he says, “so I don’t get caught up in the minutia of the daily—well, the crap, really.”
I nod, aware now that we’ve gone over the allocated time by double. He doesn’t seem to notice or perhaps mind.
“With that comes the awareness of being present, in the moment, and being conscious of where you are when you’re in it.”
I want to wait and hold onto this beautiful thing he has just said—so simply. It seems to me, the meaning of life, type 1 or no type 1.