Khanjian, Arsinée

 Her career and her romance began simultaneously. In 1983, Arsinée Khanjian was married to a Lebanese dental student when Atom Egoyan walked into her life. They were both Armenian immigrants. He was an unknown film-maker from Toronto, in Montreal to cast a part in his first movie; she was an amateur actress rehearsing The Mousetrap, in Armenian. Her husband approached Egoyan and pushed him to audition her - embarrassing his wife to the point that they had a huge fight when they got home. "If I want an acting career, I can do it for myself," she remembers telling him. "I don't need you." Later, when Egoyan tried to tell Khanjian that he wanted to cast her in Next of Kin, she dodged his calls for 10 days. "I was terrified," she recalls, "terrified of the opportunity - I did not know where it would take me."

It has taken her far. She fell in love on the set, left her husband, moved to Toronto and began a new life. "I had met an artist from my own background," she says. "This was the world I had always dreamt about without knowing it." Khanjian, 41, is now married to Egoyan with a five-year-old son, Arshile. She has appeared in all of his eight movies, in mostly supporting roles, playing everything from a phone-sex worker in Family Viewing to a strip-club manager in Exotica.

On-screen, her personality has often been muted by the flat, unexpressive acting style that was once Egoyan's trademark. But with Felicia's Journey, Khanjian finally gets a part she can sink her teeth into. Playing the deceased mother of a psycho killer (Bob Hoskins), she provides rich comic relief in a series of video flashbacks as Gala, the flamboyant host of a kitschy '50s cooking show. Meanwhile, her career has found outlets outside her husband's films. She appeared in two CBC TV mini-series created by actor Ken Finkleman - playing his wife in More Tears, and a mother confronting the legal system in Foolish Heart. This week, she returns from shooting Michael Heneke's Code Inconnu in Paris with Juliette Binoche. And this fall, Khanjian will spend three months onstage in Tokyo, then Paris, in a French-language production of Dancing at Lughnasa. She is also writing a script for herself about opera singer Maria Callas.

In person, Khanjian is larger than life, a vivacious, volatile beauty. It seems unfair that, until now, her husband has kept her electric personality so well-insulated on-screen. "But it was never a source of frustration," she says, "because I was exploring different characters." Lately, Khanjian has been playing a lot of mothers. She attributes much of her forceful personality to her own mother, who died 12 years ago. "She was illiterate, but a very ambitious woman," she says. Her father, an office worker, "was more educated but less curious." Born in Beirut, Khanjian immigrated to Canada at 17 with her parents and sister. She studied languages at Concordia University in Montreal, then earned an MA in political science at the University of Toronto. While Egoyan was still a struggling film-maker, she worked for five years for the Ontario Arts Council. "His career was my priority," she says. "Now that the balance has shifted, it hasn't been at all easy. I had my ego. I wanted to be an actor."

She does not always get the role she wants. In The Sweet Hereafter Khanjian asked to play the adulterous motel manager, Risa Walker, but because Egoyan was loath to film his wife in a sex scene, he gave the role to Alberta Watson. Khanjian ended up playing a frumpy, grief-stricken mother. But the director had no objections when she appeared fully nude in Irma Vep (1996), by French director Olivier Assayas.

In Egoyan's Bach Suite #4: Sarabande (1997), a short film in a TV series about cellist Yo Yo Ma, Khanjian did perform a brief kissing scene with Don McKellar. "It was pretty tame and Atom and I have known Don for ages," she says. After embracing in the final take, they stayed in position, as actors routinely do, while a technician recorded the ambient sound. "When the sound person said, 'Cut,' Atom stormed out," recalls Khanjian. "I look at Don and he says, 'Is it about us?' So I go out and Atom says, 'Did you have to stay in that embrace like that?' I said, 'You're doing a jealousy scene with Don?' " As she tells the story, her cellphone rings with uncanny timing. "It's Atom," she says, still amazed by him after all these years. "I'm telling you, he has very good entrances and exits."

Maclean's September 13, 1999