Over the years we’ve heard from his co-stars Vanessa Matsui, Allan Hawco and Peter Mooney (amongst quite a few others), that Eric Johnson is incredibly hard working and kind, yet he’s so deliciously evil in a vast majority of his roles. Certainly that’s a true testament to his skills as an actor, and what an in demand one at that, with leading roles in Vikings, Condor, American Gods and Disappearance at Clifton Hill in this year alone. In the latter, Johnson plays the mysterious (and yes, quite menacing) Charlie Lake in Albert Shin’s critically acclaimed pulpy noir thriller. We had the wonderful opportunity to chat on the phone recently with the humble and down-to-Earth craftsman, and the following is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.
Brief Take: You have a reputation in the industry for being a super sweet guy and yet your CV is full of not so nice guys, to put it mildly.
Eric Johnson: [laughs] Yeah, I’ve sort of carved out this niche of being a horrible person on screen, and it started early. The first role I ever played on tv was a bully. [laughs] I have no idea, I guess I represent the archetype and with a face you want to punch.
BT: What drew you to playing Charlie Lake, in particular, and how did you get involved with Disappearance at Clifton Hill?
EJ: It was really interesting. On a personal level, I was friends with Kevin Krikst, one of the producers, and he had actually put the project on my radar a long time ago, without any idea of being in it at all. So I’d been aware of it, I was really happy that it was moving forward, and then they surprised me when they said “do you want to play Charlie?”. Albert and his vision for it was so clear on the page and you could tell there was a deeply personal aspect to it. Niagara Falls is this odd place to begin with. So the opportunity to be able to work with Albert and to work with Kevin was, well there was no way I could pass that up. We were so lucky it worked out with my schedule too because there was a chance it wasn’t going to work out. I basically finished shooting the tv series Vikings, finished my last shot, had all the hair extensions pulled out of my hair [laughs], ran to the salon, got my hair dyed to the sort of odd colour that it is in the film, and then got on a plane and was in wardrobe I think the next day in Toronto, and was shooting two days later. So yeah, it was pretty quick but very serendipitous that it all worked out. I couldn’t have been happier with the experience and the end result too. I think Albert made a fantastic film.
BT: You went from filming in Ireland to Niagara Falls. What was your experience like shooting there?
EJ: You know, it was really cool. It was nice to have a trip that wasn’t so far away and a little closer to home. To be able to bring my family down to Niagara Falls was great, they stayed a couple of days, so it was awesome. It’s such a cinematic city, with all the lights and the waterfall, it’s a pretty dramatic place. It fit the vibe of the film so perfectly, you could not extract them from each other – it’s very much a character in the film.
BT: Tuppence had said during TIFF that she had a lot of fun with the cast. What was it like working with her?
EJ: Tuppence is fantastic. I try to keep it fairly light when I’m at work, especially when the subject matter can be a little heavier, so there was lots of laughs to be had. We even took a tour down Clifton Hill on an off night to some of the fun houses and did the ferris wheel. We were happy tourists in the city while we were shooting, it was quite a lot of fun.
BT: I know you don’t share any scenes with him, but did you get to pick the brain of David Cronenberg a bit during down time?
EJ: [laughs] No, unfortunately I didn’t. Our days didn’t overlap in Niagara, unfortunately. It’s sad to admit that.
BT: Did you have a favourite scene to shoot from this film?
EJ: There was a favourite scene of mine that it was a favourite when it was over. [laughs] Just because it was so cold! It’s right towards the end of the film. Tuppence is looking at me through a chain link fence, we’re doing a construction project, and it was such a simple scene but my hands were so cold because with the windchill it was like -20. [laughs] We were quite happy that that scene was done when it was finished. But everything with Tuppence was great. We were doing a driving scene or stuff in the car, and we were killing time, so I was telling terrible Dad jokes to make the painful waits even more painful.
BT: You have a few projects in script stage where you’re set to direct or co-direct and you also have writing and producing work coming up. What did you learn from Albert and some of the other directors that you’ve worked with over the years that you’d like to use in your own directing work?
EJ: I mean I always learn while watching other people. Being in my position and having spent so much time on set over the years, there’s always something to take from watching and learning how a director will break down a scene. There was some elegant simplicity to some of the stuff that Albert and Catherine Lutes, the DP, in their choreographing and constructing and building this story shot by shot, it was awesome to watch. There was a certain stillness at times, so it was lovely to see. There wasn’t a need that sometimes people feel to throw the camera around to make it exciting, it was really about what was going on in front of the lens. It’s always good to be reminded of how important the story is and not get too lost in moving the cameras and filming at weird angles.
BT: You can definitely see the Chinatown influence and the David Lynch influence. Who are some of your influences in your work?
EJ: You know it’s pretty diverse. I mean a good test for me is if I’m not paying attention to that stuff. If somebody has told a good story, I’m not thinking “oh that was a cool shot” or wondering how it was shot. To get lost in the story and enjoy it is I think the biggest seal of my approval. Even looking at something like Jojo Rabbit, which is so beautiful and dark and funny, I think seeing when people are able to balance their tones and make that work is really admirable. There’s too many to list. [laughs] There’s just so many talented people out there and there’s something to take away and learn from all of them, even if it isn’t your type of movie, there’s something to take from that as a whole.
BT: You’ve worked with some phenomenal directors and actors. Who have you worked with previously that you’d like to work with again?
EJ: Oh man! There are so many people that I’d love to work with again! [laughs] We’re a bit of a travelling circus, we go from show to show, town to town, and have our instant friends and have to make a connection, and then move on to the next. Somebody who I would absolutely love to work with again is Andy McQueen. He’s a phenomenal actor, a wonderful person, and an incredible talent who we are going to be seeing a lot from in the near future. He’s not only a wonderful performer but an incredible human being too. Getting to work with him would be amazing. There’s seriously a laundry list of people who I just wish we could go back in time and work again. Michael Angarano from The Knick is another one, just a wonderful guy. I feel like by naming people, I’m leaving people off. [laughs] “Hey, what about me?”. There’s been way too many wonderful people. I feel very lucky to have worked with countless caring people. We’ve all heard the stories about the divas or those people that are really difficult to work with. It’s such a small percentage of the industry because most of the industry is filled with genuine, caring, enthusiastic people who just want to get together and tell a story. I consider myself very lucky to have a laundry list of people that I’d want to do that again with.
BT: You mentioned Jojo Rabbit, is there anything else that you’ve seen recently that you’ve really admired?
EJ: I’m totally late to the ballgame but I just started watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and it’s hilarious and amazing, it’s so well done. Those are the two that are on the list right now. I’m also in the middle of watching Watchmen, which is incredible. I love that show. It’s tough to find the time to watch all of this great content because there’s so much great tv drama and there’s so many great movies. I can’t imagine in your position how much you have to watch. [laughs] It’s a challenge just to keep up with Dad life and what I want to watch. [laughs] I love that there’s so many talented people and so many talented voices and so many new perspectives coming to both the big screen and small. You look at a film like Parasite winning Best Picture, not Foreign Language Film but Best Picture, and it says a lot about where the industry is going.
Disappearance at Clifton Hill is now playing in theatres