Yani Gellman on working with Burt Reynolds and growing up in North York

When Yani Gellman was cast as Garrett Reynolds, the mysterious dark-haired cop on the ABC Family hit series Pretty Little Liars, it was fairly obvious that he was part of something special.

More affectionately known as PLL by fans, the show’s cultlike following gained momentum right after the first season, which aired back in 2010. Season five is already on its way, premiering on Bell Media’s M3 on June 10.

For those unfamiliar with the show, it’s relatively easy to see why PLL has garnered so much attention — at least on the surface. Enter a group of four doe-eyed high schoolers, armed with sharp cheekbones and impeccably wavy hair, whose lives are occupied by the mysterious circumstances following their friend’s disappearance. The estrogen-heavy cast — led by Troian Bellisario, Ashley Benson, Lucy Hale and Sasha Pieterse — is balanced out with some equally attractive male counterparts.

It’s no wonder that, visually speaking, Gellman fit so seamlessly into the cast. Born to a Russian-English father from Toronto and a Spanish-English mother from Australia, Gellman’s striking mix and Jewish heritage has resulted in a set of sultry features: thick black hair, which alternates between side parted and polished to long and rugged, depending on his mood, large dark eyes and a telling smile.

“[Pretty Little Liars] was a really challenging experience for me because the writers keep all their information very close to the chest,” says Gellman, sipping on an Earl Grey tea at Te Aro in Toronto’s Leslieville.

“It was exciting to play a character where you didn’t really know what was around the next corner,” Gellman says. “It was also really challenging because you felt like you were flying blind.”

Gellman first appeared on PLL as officer Reynolds during season one. The show’s writers (taking note of Gellman’s heartthrob potential) played on his dapper first impression in the script: “He looks good in the uniform,” says Benson, as Gellman exits the frame during the character’s introductory episode.  

From season one to three, Garrett Reynolds manifests as somewhat of a furtive character. He observes from afar, carrying around secrets until he’s ready to tell them — until, of course, he gets murdered.

“I’m really honing my dead look,” jokes Gellman, also referring to his recent guest star roles in investigation shows Castle and Major Crimes.

Currently, Gellman is unrecognizable from his days on PLL. Sporting a green bomber jacket, printed T-shirt and a long slicked-back mane, the Toronto native has a touch of Los Angeles woven throughout his look.

After travelling back and forth between Toronto and L.A. for some time, Gellman took the plunge and left the 416 for the city of angels in pursuit of a steady role in a series. He’s been based in L.A. for five years now, but at first, it didn’t feel anything like home: “[L.A. is] really different from Toronto, and it took me a long time to adjust. I didn’t really like it at all for the first couple of years,” he confesses “[It’s] such a big, spread out city — it takes a really long time to figure out exactly what it is about [it] that you really love.”

Armed with ambition, talent and a face fit for television, Gellman landed his first steady gig — a part on the epic soap opera The Young and the Restless — immediately after relocating. In the following year, he was cast as Diego Flores, a free-spirited Venice Beach boy, in the 90210 revival series of the hit ’90s drama Beverly Hills 90210, alongside fellow Torontonian Shenae Grimes-Beech.

The character resonated with the actor on a number of levels, from how he dressed to his artistic pursuits — not to mention a shared immigrant background.

Complementing his unique pedigree, Gellman has also physically hopscotched over the world. Born in Miami, he lived in Australia, Spain and Texas before settling in Toronto from junior high onwards.

The Claude Watson secondary arts program at Earl Haig Secondary School in North York became what Gellman calls his defining experience as an actor. He was thrown into an exceptionally capable group of aspiring artists; notable classmates in show biz include Ennis Esmer of The Listener and Aaron Abrams of Hannibal. The trio remains close to this day. “We really keep up with each other and sort of push each other,” explains Gellman.

“That is the thing that I took away from high school: the other students who were in my class were just such great, talented and interesting people that a big part of my career has, in some ways, been just trying to keep up with them.”

When asked about his most memorable project, Gellman is quick to recall his role as Pete Keller, a storm chaser in the movie Category 5, starring Burt Reynolds. Filmed last year in Mississippi and New Orleans, the central plot of the movie involves one family trying to survive the largest hurricane in history.

As for working with Reynolds, Gellman thinks back. Two words come to mind: “class act.”

“When [Reynolds is] on set, people are always crowding around him [and] listening to him tell stories,” he reminisces. He always has a great joke to tell. He’s so gracious with everybody around him, and he was just such a workhorse. We had a really tough schedule on that shoot, and he actually put some of us younger actors to shame.”

Before heading off to Montreal to play the male lead in a television movie titled Courting Danger, produced by Canadian distribution company Incendo, Gellman shares why he’s made a stop in Toronto for a week. Sadly, his father passed away in December, and he’s here to take part in a memorial service.

A man passionate about film, an actor in his heyday as well as a fierce supporter of his son’s acting career, Gellman’s father was the driving force behind his career in acting.

When his application to the Claude Watson arts program turned up late, Gellman’s father drove to the school and begged for the faculty to consider letting his son audition. His pleas made them reconsider and the rest is history. “I’m a firm believer that, if you want something or if you’re on a path, one specific door opening or closing doesn’t necessarily make a huge difference —you’ll find a way,” says Gellman.

“But in the case of having gotten into the Claude Watson program at Earl Haig, that was where I fell in love with acting. I don’t know if I would’ve found that somewhere else.”

“My dad got me into that program, so I really owe him a lot.” On leaving Te Aro, he puts on his Ray-Bans. The sun is shining outside. Soon Gellman will be in Montreal, then it’s back to L.A., and who knows what doors will open thereafter.

“The best thing about what I do every day is its kind of unpredictable,” he says.  

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO