Recently I was lucky enough to interview actor Dion Johnstone who has appeared in shows such as Stargate SG-1, Monk, King, and television production of The Tempest. He has done work both in front of the camera and on stage, including The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Richard III. In this interview, he talks about what inspired him to become an actor, how acting both for television and on the stage helps his craft, his love for mythology, Shakespeare, and comics, the evolution of sci-fi and superhero genres, and how he has totally raised the bar for all boyfriends (take note, boys of the world!).
This interview was a lot of fun for me because Dion is so well spoken and intelligent. Check it out, kids, you might learn something.
Defective Geeks: What inspired you to become an actor?
Dion Johnstone: Initially I was living in Alberta during Junior High, and I played the trombone in the school jazz band and there was a local festival in town called “Citadel Teen Festival of the Arts”. Once a year at the Citadel Theater in Edmonton they would put on a nine day festival geared towards teenagers. They would have new plays written by local professional play writes, they would use full professional facilities, and it would be an all teenage cast. They would have battle of the bands, they would have art exhibits. It was a massive festival geared towards teenage talent. I auditioned as a trombone player because I was into music at the time and getting into a musical. It was a new musical called Planet of the Lost Swing Babes. I was playing a jazz musician because the story was basically about this famous jazz group called the “Swing Babes” and we’re off on a major concert that we are supposed to play at, but a storm happens. They get lost in the storm and then they wind up getting transported to Jupiter where they make friends with the aliens there and then play their music.
It was through watching the actual performance, the actors of the show, play the music and play the scenes and jut the feedback that they would get from the audience was so successful that it blew my mind. I loved playing jazz because I loved performing, but the energy feedback that they were getting as actors was ten times more than anything that I had ever experienced. I wanted to do the festival again, but the next time I wanted to be an actor and be on stage and actually carrying a part of the show. So next year I auditioned again and got into a new play called Prom Night of the Living Dead written by Brad Fraser. It was like a comedy horror musical and that was my first acting experience. I realized that it was a career that I wanted to have.
You did work on the Lord of the Rings musical. I’m a huge Lord of the Rings fan, so you have to tell me about your experience working on that musical.
DJ: (Cheers) It was awesome, to be honest! I grew up as well with Lord of the Rings. I loved the books, I read them when I was a kid, and I always had a Tolkien calendar over my bed, so I was very familiar with the various paintings and images that had been done of the characters and the environments. When the films came out, it was mind blowing because so many of those same images were part of the images of the film, so I felt like I knew exactly what they were depicting. What I absolutely loved about the play was, well first you ask yourself, “How are they going to do a musical?” first of all, and hold up to the success of the film. One of the aims of the production was to go back to the books and to pull things out of the books and to follow what had been written of the story. It’s such a massive story that people thought we couldn’t do it, but there were a lot of things that we did do! I love the fact that there was so much attention to the source material. It allowed us to create our own world from Tolkien’s world and not worry about repeating what the film’s were doing. It was a production that really maximized what could be done with stage technology. It was awe inspiring to be a part of it, nobody had seen anything like it on a stage before.
I have to say I am totally geeking out right now because that sounds amazing. I am jealous you got to be a part of something like that!
DJ: It was phenomenal. It was also a difficult performance physically because we were creating all of the different species of that world. Everything from the humans to the elves to the Ents. All the actors who played hobbits had to be a certain height, they couldn’t be taller than 5’6’’ or 5’7’’, and all of the actors playing elves had to wear three inch lifts. They were on my boots so that there would be the height differentiation. The stage, rather than being a flat stage was a rigged stage. So, trying to walk and look athletic and normal and heroic in these three and a half inch lifts was very challenging. (laughs). It was worth it in the end.
Tell me about your upcoming roles in the show ‘King’.
DJ: In King I play the younger brother of one of the detectives of the show. My name is Tyrone Evans. I’ve been incarcerated in prison serving a fifteen year term ultimately, and I’m just about to reach parole. Now what I have to do in order to get parole is confess to the crime of having murdered this boy who was missing years ago, but the thing is I never committed the crime. I’m innocent of it. What I’m able to tell my sister and make public is that I’m gay. I have to tell my family and there’s a lot of personal shame I have towards it. I’ve kept that embedded and I’ve myself to be cornered in this situation and incarcerated. New evidence comes out that suggests that I didn’t commit the murder and that reaches the desk of the central characters, King, and my sister. They decide to investigate it. They’re not sure if they can validate the evidence in time for my parole, and I’m so screwed over by the system really, I just want to get parole and get my life back. So, the question is do you try to get your life back and wait, punished for something you didn’t do that’s going to limit you for life, or do you take a stand for who you are, for what’s true, and take that risk? It’s a very difficult position that the character is in. And also the family issues of how do I deal with my sister, who never visited me when I was in prison and basically wrote me off at the trial. She just believed that I did it and that was that. There’s a lot of family drama that we have to work through. I got to work with an actor named Karen Robinson who plays Ingrid Evans, and we have a history of working together in roles with a similar strained relationship. It was fantastic to work with her and share that family relationship again.
You have an amazing body of work on television and on stage. Between those two genres, which is your favorite to perform in?
DJ: Oh, they are both my favorite for different reasons! It’s almost like a ying and a yang and I can’t do and I can’t do one or the other. I find if I spend too much time in one medium I get very anxious and then have a very strong urge to be in the other. The thing with television is because that camera is so close to you, it’s like a lie detector. You have to be absolutely honest and authentic, or else it reads as false. The audience watching may not know what’s going on, they may not recognize that you are crafting a performance, but they will know that something is off and won’t buy it. It’s fantastic in terms of that kind of training, to keep you more presence to being that much more in the moment. Live performance is the same thing, but the challenge in stage is that you have to take that truth and make sure that it reaches a sea of 2000 people when you’re playing at a professional theater. You need to make sure the person in the last row of the top balcony is feeling like they are getting a close up too. You can’t play with the same level in intimacy that you need to on screen. You need to channel that energy outwards so that it can be experienced by everybody.
Without having that internal sense of always speaking from the truth, it’s very easy to slip into something declamatory and staged, so I find television helps me to become more authentic in my stage work. With stage work you don’t’ have the benefit of “cut” or “let’s do that take again” or “we’ve got the perfect take, now let’s assemble all the best components of all the takes to create a performance.” You deliver a performance from the moment you start a show to the moment you end a show in one shot and it only exists in that moment with that audience. That level of training I think is fantastic for film work because it gives you the ability to carry a story. I had so many editors back in the days when I was working on Stargate that would say, “It’s fantastic what you’re bringing, it’s theatrical and has a story. So many times we have actors that give us nothing. They’re just cast because they look that part and we have to create a performance in the editing room. You give us the whole story and that’s so much to choose from. It’s so beneficial to us.” I think working in both mediums helps to continue to make me a stronger actor all around.
Out of all different mediums, stage, TV, etc., what is your favorite genre to watch?
DJ: To watch? Wow, that’s an interesting one. I would say, on a level, that I like sci-fi. I want to be particular about that because I think that there’s a new version of sci-fi that has come out. You’ve probably seen the new Battlestar Galactica that aired a couple of years ago?
I have, it’s so good!
DJ: Oh yeah, absolutely! That, for me, I would call that ‘sci-fi incidental’. It happens to be taking place in space, but it was really a story about humanity and the survival of humanity, so the stakes were very high. How do we deal with a political system when the human race is on the verge of being extinct? It wasn’t sci-fi in the sense of any level of cheesiness or something so genre specific that you’d have to like sci-fi. Anyone could watch and appreciate Battlestar Galactica. What you’re dealing with the stakes, it just owns the realm of ‘what can be possible?’ It combines a little of mythology with it as well. It asks, “Did we come from the stars? Did the aliens come and somehow influence our development in the past?” All of those kinds of questions exist in our consciousness and you have the option to explore that when you deal with a story that takes place in space. It’s the final frontier. So, that genre I think is my favorite. I call it ‘sci-fi incidental’.
‘Sci-fi Incidental.’ I’ve never heard that term before, I like it.
DJ: Yeah, I mean what do you call it? It isn’t just sci-fi, and I try to explain it to people and they always say, ‘Well, I don’t like sci-fi’ and I’m like, “No no no! It’s sci-fi incidental, it just happens to be in space, but it’s so much more.”
It’s like what’s happening now with the superhero genre, what Christopher Nolan has been able to do with the Batman movies, especially The Dark Knight. When people talk about that movie they say it’s like watching Heat. It’s a superhero film, but it’s not a superhero film. The superhero genre has transcended itself, and we’re finally in the day and age when you can do all the really cool special effects that the genre needs, but more and more you’re going to see it boil down to really strong story, really strong characterizations, really strong acting. The story is where it truly comes from. I think the superhero genre will continue to transcend in that way too and will be called ‘superhero incidental’, you know? (laughs)
So now we have ‘sci-fi incidental’ and ‘superhero incidental’. You heard it here first!
DJ: My dream role… There are a couple, they’re Shakespearean. One of them is Othello. I’ve been holding off on playing that role, I played him when I was in University. We toured a version of the play, and I was too young to play the role. What I learned in the process of doing that was amazing. Knowing what it takes to play that role, I really want to give myself time to develop as an actor and to build a life history, so when I walk into that role I’ll not only have the technical work and the emotional ability to do it, but also use aspects of life and to bring from my own experiences. It’s a very painful story and when you watch it it’s so hard to sit through the whole thing because you see this horrendous train wreck about to come to pass. If they had just talked to each other! This strong love that they both have for each other and the big risks that they take in their lives, but ugh, why can’t you talk to each other! It’s so hard to watch, but very beautifully written.
Another role of mine, a lesser known Shakespearean role, is Pericles. It’s a story of a man who loses his family and goes into a long state of grief. He loses his wife and his daughter in a shipwreck essentially, a storm at sea, and it’s only at the very end of the play that he is reunited with both his daughter and his wife he thought were dead. It’s able to break him out of this spell of grief that has encompassed him for a large part of the play. The moment of revelation when he realizes it’s his daughter is one of the most beautifully written scenes I’ve ever read or witnessed performed. I saw a performance at Stratford, and you could just feel the waves of emotion wash across the entire audience, it was breathtaking. That’s a role I would love to play. He has to accomplish his journey alone, very much like Gladiator, that movie with Russell Crowe. It’s what happens, how much the loss of your family changes and transforms you. It brings up the question, where do you go for solace? At the end they’re reunited, so there’s a real, not redemption, but revelation. That’s a role I would love to play.
You are obviously very passionate about Shakespeare, you go into such wonderful detail. To use geeky terminology, would you say that is your number one fandom?
DJ: No, I wouldn’t say so and it’s because when I was young the first thing I fell in love with was Greek Mythology. It’s probably why I love sci-fi because I think they’re connected as well. I love Greek Mythology, I love the stories of the Gods and those ‘superheroes’, and I also love comic books. Comics, to me, are the modern mythologies. My parents, when I was younger, were kind of worried. They were just like, “Well, it’s very good that he loves comic books so much, but we’d love to get him into the myths. We’d love to get him into the classics somehow and actually get him to read more than just comic books.” We were at a flea market and happened to find one of these old classic illustrated comic books that had Julius Caesar in it. They bought that for me, hoping that I would take a bridge into classical literature. I read the comic book of Julius Caesar and the had the actual cast from the play, it was a cut version, but through the comic book art, the detail on the entire story and all these interactions, and I got it. It was so useful years later in high school and we were starting to study Shakespeare and we came across Julius Caesar and the other plays. I thought I would struggle with the language, but I didn’t have a problem at all with it because I could see the images in my head already, I was able to make connections between the word and images. So much of Shakespeare’s writing were of the classics, he pulls a lot from Greek Mythology, so when we started pulling all of those images and sources of the Gods, and fate, destiny, and all of those things, I already knew them from the myths. I felt very connected to Shakespeare because on this amazing subconscious level he was tapping into our basic need to create and explain the world.
What roles of yours do we have to look forward to?
DJ: In the new year, in 2013, I will travel to Chicago to play another favorite role of mine, Marc Antony, in a production of Julius Ceasar.
A little birdy told me that you also like to draw comic books. Is that true?
DJ: That’s very true, yes! When I was a kid, it all started in elementary. I told my mom and dad I wanted to create a school newspaper, if I could use their typewriter and sheets of paper to create articles and anything like that. I hired, and I use quotations there (laughs), the class members to become various reporters. I personally created the comic section. I created a story line called “Power Hour” and it was about a young group of kids, who were all the kids, my friends, in my elementary class, who develop super powers. They have to be taken to a secret base where they can train and prepare for eventually saving the world. I was very influenced at the time by the X-Men and by Teen Titans, so it was sort of my of fashioning of that sort of inspiration of young people finding themselves and coming into that kind of power. Later I teamed up with a buddy of mine that I met in high school, he’s a fantastic artist, and we collaborated. In the story he brought his team together with my team, so it was like the clashes of the two teams and they get together to form one force which was “Power Hour”. I do that all the way up until I started my first year of high school and at that point that’s when I started to get into music and girls (laughs). At that point I would try to do a draft, about a page a day, so it would take me about a month to do an issue, about three pages. It was hard to get me outside (laughs), I was getting into a social life, music, and theater. I decided I needed to put to put it to rest, so I did one final issue just in black and white in my best style where I went back to the origin story, the first issue, and just sort of did a redo, so that someday it could have a life in the future. It would have a clean story to begin with.
Years later, maybe about thirteen years later, I was living in Vancouver during the Writer’s Strike which I think was maybe four years ago. There wasn’t a lot of work. I moved from Stratford back to Vancouver because I was feeling that hunger to work and because of the writer’s strike there was none. So I thought, “What am I going to do with myself?” I taught myself Photoshop in that time and I thought, “You know what? I’m going to get back into art.” My girlfriend who is also an actor, Lisa Berry, bought me some art supplies for my birthday. Her birthday was coming up and I was trying to think what to do for her birthday, and I wasn’t working a lot and I didn’t have a lot of cash, so I couldn’t do anything extravagant. Then I thought, “You know what? I’m going to use the art supplies that she gave me and I’m going to create a superhero for her.” I created a character based off her talents and really awesome qualities and I named that character Sonic. That brought me back into it and reminded me what it felt like to draw. So, that’s when I taught myself Photoshop. I always felt when I was drawing, in my younger years, that I could only get it to a certain point because I was using colored pencil and felt tip pen. Now it feels more professional and I can give that “published” look to it because I can scan it into the Photoshop program and use special effects and get exactly the look that I want.
So, I took that black and white issue, scanned it in, and now I’ve been using the program to edit one page at a time to teach myself and practice how to use Photoshop, how to color, and use different techniques. I’ve looked up tutorials on the Internet and a lot of artists are offering “how to do this and how to do that” so I’ve been teaching myself. So, I’m back into art, it’s more of a hobby for me at this point. What I would love to do in the future is create a television series or create a project of some kind, but make it comic book themed. I don’t know if I would do all of the art, because that’s not where my passion lies, but I could to do the concept designs and say, “This is what I am looking for. These are the characters, these are the histories.” Then I would find an artist to take that and develop it. That’s a future goal I have.
Can I just say how awesome it is that you created a superhero for Lisa Berry? You just raised the bar for all boyfriends, especially ones with geek girlfriends.
(laughs) Thank you, thank you!
For my last question, what is your favorite comic book movie?
DJ: What’s my favorite comic book movie? Oh… wow… (pauses) There have been a couple of really good ones lately, I love the direction that they are moving in and there are fantastic films that are coming out. This film, I think, still stands up for me as amazing. It’s Batman, the first Tim Burton Batman. I must have seen that movie a million times and it’s always in my being. I mean, I love what Christopher Nolan has done with it and the direction that he has taken it, but there’s just something about that film. I remember when it came out everybody watched it, everybody was talking about it. It was sort of the first big landing of the superhero genre film that became sort of a mainstream cool. If we hadn’t had that, they may have been tucked away and people may not have started to see those types of films, which is ridiculous. (pause) Batman.
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