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Stargate SG-1 Cast Interviews: Dion Johnstone

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From Shakespeare to Chaka
Solutions/Our Stargate Exclusive, May 2003

Dion Johnstone was born in Montreal, October 12, 1975; the eldest of three boys. When he was 5, he was separated from both his mother and younger brothers, and raised in a group home by San Fransiscan Nuns. It was in this place that he began developing his love for theatre, music and art. At age 8, Dion was adopted, with his younger twin brothers, by a couple who became his parents.

Raised in Edmonton, Alberta he developed first as a comic book artist, then a jazz trombonist before finally settling on acting. In Highschool he acted in his first production playing Johnny in The Outsiders. This led to numerous other productions (both in school and the community) and the writing of 3 plays of his own. Completely bitten by the acting bug, he trained classically at the University of Alberta, recieved a BFA in Acting and began his professional career.

To date Dion has worked extensively in stage and television with a little bit of film. He has appeared in such TV productions as Stargate SG-1, Monk, LA Law, The Twilight Zone, and movies including The Core and Dreamcatcher.; He is currently performing at the Stratford Festival of Canada in the following roles: Agamemnon as Cast, The Flies as Orestes and as Cast, Electra as Orestes and as Cast, Princess Charlotte as Mr. Stowe and as Cast.; Further information about these productions can be found at the website of the Stratford Festival.

Dion has played many roles in Stargate SG-1: Nelson in Rules of Engagement, Na'onak in Jolinar's Memories, Tyler in The Fifth Man, Warrick in Forsaken and Wodan in Metamorphasis, and most memorably, the Unas Chaka in The First Ones and Beast Of Burden.

Our sincere gratitude and appreciation go to Dion Johnstone for making time for Stargate's fans when he's so very busy at the Stratford Festival, and for providing us with such fascinating and thought-provoking insights into his career.

Alison for Solutions


You've played several different roles on Stargate. Which of them is your favourite and why?
My favorite role is Chaka. This is because the story allowed me to explore things I hadn't yet explored as an actor. Also, the script was beautifully written.
Would you have liked the opportunity to develop one character who makes regular appearances, like Jacob Carter, or do you prefer to portray several characters who only appear once or twice?
That's a tough one to answer. I like the idea of playing only one character because you get to build momentum and history with each episode. After time, I suspect it must be second nature slipping into the part. However, playing different characters has offered me a unique opportunity. It has forced me to use my imagination in a different way. With each new character I've had to develop a new history, way of moving and way of speaking. On some occasions I haven't had a lot of time to do this. This has offered a good acting challenge.
I love Stargate and all of its characters but if you had the chance to be anyone, anyone at all in the show, who would it be and why?
Apophis. He's such a cool character. He relishes the evil he creates and you just can't kill him!
In The First Ones you worked extensively with Michael Shanks and in The Fifth Man you worked extensively with RDA.; Can you offer a bit of compare and contrast about working with these two different actors in such a one on one setting?
Both Michael and RDA are so good at what they do, it's so easy playing a scene with them. I had worked with Michael before on a production of Hamlet and that connection continued on the set of The First Ones. Michael as you know, is a fantastic actor, he pays so much attention to detail. Rick was fascinating to watch because he is not only is he the show's central character, he is an executive producer and a father! In between takes of Fifth Man, he'd often be either on his cell or poring through early drafts of the next episode; circling areas he felt needed more work. But, as soon as we'd be called back to set, he'd push all of that aside and the moment Peter called "Action!" he'd be right there in the moment.
Which types of roles on SG1 do you prefer doing: The ones in full FX makeup with your face covered or the ones where you are not in any kind of FX makeup? Which gives you more freedom in how you approach a role?
Although it's great to see what can be accomplished in FX make-up, I actually prefer being out of it. It can be torturous under latex and glue for a whole day. Your body aches, your skin can't breath, you have to regulate your temperature and people poke lenses in and out of your eyes all day! But I have to say, despite this discomfort, being in costume actually gives you more freedom! Something happens to you under a mask, impulses come out that would normally remain dormant. Somehow wearing the mask frees your imagination.
How did you first become involved in the series?
I did an audition for Rules of Engagement. While I didn't get the part I read for—Captain Rogers— I got Captain Nelson and the guy who played Rogers (Aaron Craven), ended up becoming a really good friend.
When you played your first role did you know you were going to be playing others in the future?
No way. I hoped that because I didn't die at the end of Rules¬… there would be a chance of coming back. I was surprised when almost a year later I was asked back to play a different role! Na'onak in Jolinar's Memories.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions and thanks for your great work in SG-1. In the Fifth Race you played Tyler. Although we saw the 'real' Tyler only for a second, did you enjoy combining the two different looks to make out one character?
I only saw a rough sketch of what I would look like before we started shooting. It was enough though for me to be able to play the part. The actual transformation was done later, in post by the FX department. Imagine my surprise when I finally saw the episode!
When you played "Na'onak", did you know that you were actually Apophis? If you did, did it influence your performance?
Yes I knew I was Apophis. It totally influenced my performance because it gave me a secret to play. In a scene, having a secret affects how your character acts, reacts or chooses not to react.
Because you've appeared in so many episodes, you must have a great deal of knowledge of the Stargate mythos. If you could create your own character, what elements would go into him, and what kind of storyline would he be in?
Hmm. Another tough question. Rather than create a new character, I would further develop a character I've already played: Lt. Tyler. I could see Tyler being an ambassador for the Reol, a species of beings who could become incredible allies of the humans. They would be chameleons—virtually undetectable due to their memory creating abilities. They're non-violent, but perfect spies.


How lovely of you to do a chat for us! I have enjoyed your performances in Stargate so much but I especially love Chaka. You make him such a sympathetic character and it amazes me how expressive he is. You must have played more roles in Stargate than anyone else I should think.

The character of Chaka is a marvellous one, intense and emotional, and never, ever 'tame'. In "The First Ones", Chaka selected Daniel Jackson as his sacrifice, yet in the end, he fought the Unas Alpha Male to save Daniel. He wanted Daniel to stay with the Unas. In "Beast of Burden" the two were able to communicate in Chaka's language and there was obviously a great deal of trust and respect between Chaka and Daniel.

What was it about Daniel that touched Chaka,; that drew him into friendship? How deep does the bond go?

A few things drew Chaka into friendship with Daniel. A first it was Daniel's unexpected grasp of Chaka's language. This was the first moment Chaka realized he wasn't simply a beast, but a sentient being. Sharing food with Daniel was also an important step, but the ultimate act was Daniel removing the bullet from Chaka's hand. This revealed to Chaka that Daniel was not only intelligent and brave, but also compassionate. If you look at both The First Ones and Beast of Burden, you see that they both save each other's life. So, I would say the bond goes pretty deep.
Will you be playing Chaka again in Season 7's 'Enemy Mine', written by Peter DeLuise?
The Chaka in that episode will be played by another actor. I've been rehearsing at the Stratford Festival and was unavailable for that; episode. I've; heard that the new Chaka will be quite exciting. It'll be fascinating to see what new dimensions are brought to the character.
Have you seen the script yet? How can we expect to see the relationship between Daniel and Chaka develop?
I haven't seen the script so I don't know how the relationship will develop.
My question is: Can you tell us about your experiences working with Michael Shanks and Peter DeLuise on The First Ones/Beast of Burden ?
I had a great time working with Michael and Peter on both episodes. Peter worked so hard to create the stories and he was quite specific with what he wanted in each. He gave me different sources to use as inspiration for Chaka, which included: wolf packs, Masai warriors, movies like Enemy Mine, Predator and Iceman. We worked together to develop how Chaka would move and speak, how he would meditate and what his back story would be. While Peter only directed a day of Beast of Burden, the ground work we created in the first carried through into the second.
Michael Shanks speaks highly of you as an actor both on stage and in Stargate, and of how great it was to work with you as Chaka. We've heard from different sources that Michael is quiet, shy, nice, intense, prepared for every beat of every scene, every word... The First Ones was an intense and very physical shoot. What can *you* tell us about working with Michael Shanks? How did the two of you connect as actors and characters?
I've admired Michael's work since I met him in Hamlet. All of the qualities you've mentioned about him are true. In addition I would say that he is a very dedicated actor—dedicated to finding the truth in every moment. I had a great time working with him on The First Onesˆ…and though it was a very intense shootˆ…rainy and mucky at times and physically demanding—it was an awesome journey.
One of the best scenes in "The First Ones" is the one where Daniel and Chaka interact over a symbiote head. Did you and Michael Shanks stick to the script or did you ad-lib some parts of it?
We did ad-lib a bit in that scene and that really helped it come to life. In fact that scene is the one I'm most proud of. It's where all the technical and emotional elements came together almost perfectly.
Any funny stories, behind-the-scenes stuff?
In Beast of Burden it was so rainy outside they had to find a way of keeping our prosthetic feet dry as we walked to and from set. Eventually somebody came up with a brilliant idea of taping shower caps to our feet. So there we went, big mean monsters, led by the hand, under umbrellas with these huge shower caps on our feet. Not quite the image onscreen eh?
I have to ask about the hours in the make-up chair.; How long did you have to sit for the make-up artist and special effects people to get Chaka in costume? What do you do to pass the time? Do they shorten your shooting schedule that week to accommodate for the lengthy make-up application process?
I spent a minimum of 3 hours in the chair each morning. They couldn't shorten the shooting hours because of the pressure of the schedule. You only get about 8 principal days to shoot an episode and after that you get a splinter crew to wrap things up, but your cast and the main crew leave to shoot the next episode. So each morning I would rise at about 3:30 am, be in the make-up chair by 4:00 am and on-set for blocking at 7:00 am. My day would end at about 7:00pm.
How do you prepare for a role such as this? Although you made it look easy, it seems that it must be difficult to communicate thought without dialogue.
Peter DeLuise sat down with me at the beginning of the process and talked through what he felt was going through Chaka's mind at certain points in the script. He gave me a lexicon of Chaka's language (which is where Goa'uld speak derives from) and then let me create from there. I found I could communicate a lot through body language, through growls and even snorts.
How hard is it to act in the prosthetics for Chaka and how did you figure out the reactions/expressions and mannerisms for him?
I figured out a lot of expressions and mannerisms by watching myself in my trailer mirror. I would explore the different expressions I could create by lifting my brows, raising my cheekbones, curling my lips, smiling etc. Also, I had myself videotaped the day of my first fitting while I explored in the cave set. When I watched the video, I looked for movements which suited the costume and worked to incorporate them.
What was the most difficult part of wearing the Chaka costume?
Going to the bathroom. Oh yeah, and maintaining my body weight.
Did you audition for the role of Chaka or was the part written especially for you?
I don't know if it was written with me specifically in mind but when I was asked to play it there was no audition.
Acting in so much make up must be very different from other acting where you can use your face to show expressions, do you have to act in a completely different way when you are playing a role like Chaka from a role such as Nelson? Can you tell me what it's like from 'inside the suit' when performing a role like that as I just can't imagine what it must feel like. Can you even see wearing those kinds of contact lenses and are they painful? What different challenges does it present and how do you overcome them?
When you act in a costume with a prosthetic face, you need to use your body more expressively than you normally would. You need to learn the dimensions of the mask and play with different angles. As for the lenses. Oh man! On The First Ones they hurt so much we had to stop shooting and send for the eye specialist. It turned out the lenses weren't correctly formatted for my eyes, and had scratched my cornea. We stopped putting them in for every take and only used them for close-ups. Now on Beast of Burden, that problem was corrected, and the lenses fit beautifully. We still kept our system of keeping them out for master shots and putting them in for close-ups (or medium shots where they would definitely be seen).
A full body costume like Chaka's seems like a very personal thing. Did the make-up people and whoever made the costume work with you or was the costume made when you arrived?
The costume was designed by Todd Masters (Masters FX). It was cast directly from my body and was a perfect fit.
Do you find that Peter DeLuise directs in a more sympathetic way because he is also an actor or is he very tough?
Both. Because he is an actor he is a very sympathetic director. He knows how an actor thinks and therefore how best to communicate with them. This allows him to really dig for the moment he is looking for. If he moves on to the next shot it's because you gave him what he needed. If you don't move forward it's because you haven't found it yet. So he can be demanding, but he's out to make you look good.
Peter DeLuise said that "The First Ones" was inspired by the movie "Enemy Mine". Have you seen the movie?
Oh yes. Great movie. On the days when I'd curse myself for agreeing to act in full prosthetics, I'd stop and think about Lou Gosset Jr. I'd imagine him in his full body alien suit, imagine the hours he must have endured shooting the movie and how amazingly creative and detailed his work was. All of a sudden my ordeal wouldn't seem so bad!
And a very silly one <G>: What's it like to drag Michael Shanks around on a rope?
How did I know that question was coming. There were many jokes during that shoot about how much Michael's fans were going to enjoy seeing him dragged around on a rope. Let's just say he was a good sport!


Dion, thanks for answering our questions. As an English major with a real fondness for the bard:-), I'd like to know out of the Shakespeare plays you have appeared in which is your favorite and are there any you haven't done that you'd like to do in the future?
My favorite is Romeo and Juliet—I've done four different versions. One I haven't done and would like to do in the future is Titus Andronicus.
How different is it to work on television and the stage? Do you miss performing in front of a live audience when you don't have them there? I'm asking you this especially because I recently saw a program about Michael Caine where Ben Kingsley said that when he was rehearsing for a film (a comedy about Sherlock Holmes) they would get a lot of laughs from the crewmen but when the cameras began to roll everything was silent and it made him feel unhappy with his performance and to change it trying to get some kind of reaction. Is this common for theatre actors who change to television, do you think?
I'm not an expert so don't quote me on this. But, it seems to me that the technique of acting is the same in both mediums. Mind you, onstage you radiate your energy outward to reach the people sitting at the back of the theatre—-and you must know how to use your voice. Now when you have a camera inches away from your face, you don't have to radiate so intensely or you'll blow the screen. So you hone that energy inward so it's more subtle. That doesn't necessarily mean playing small. Look at how big Al Pacino playsˆ…and it totally works!

I haven't yet missed the audience while working on a tv set or on a film because the experience is just so different. I get a thrill out of working in front of; a camera. Just imagine—your audience is sitting somewhere on the opposite end of that shiny black lens!

Have you appeared at the Stratford Festival before?
This is my first year at Stratford.
How do you cope with being in so many different productions at the same time?
I'm still figuring that out.
You played Horatio on Hamlet. Did you grow attached to the character?
I certainly did. Horatio is an incredible character. So open and completely devoted to Hamlet. He's a guy you'd want as a friend.
I admire your versatility and inventiveness in altering your vocal quality and physicality —with great success — in your various SG incarnations. I understand that at present you're undertaking the demanding role of 'Orestes' in the re-working by French writers of 'The Flies' and 'Electra'. And 'Chorus' in the wonderful Ted Hughes adaptation of Agamemnon also presents its own challenges. Could you tell us more about your work in these roles and the play 'Princess Charlotte'?
We just got our script for Princess Charlotte (or The Swanne: Part II) so I won't get into that. I'm enjoying playing Orestes in Electra and The Flies. The story is essentially the same in both: Electra bides her time in the city of Argos, praying for her brother Orestes to return from exile to avenge their father's murder (King Agamemnon) by killing their mother (Queen Clytemnestra) and her lover (Aegisthus). While Electra tells the story from her point of view, The Flies tells it from Orestes. Because the authors are different, the period, style and themes are different.; Now Agamemnon starts the story by showing us King Agamemnon's return from the 10 year war at Troy, and his death at the hands of his vengeful wife Clytemnestra.
Are you enjoying playing Greek classics? How's the experience different to playing Shakespeare?
I am enjoying the Greek classics. I think the essential difference between the Greeks and Shakespeare is the function of the Chorus. In the Greeks, the Chorus is a part of the action, played by a group of people, bridging the world of the play with the world of the audience. In Shakespeare, the Chorus is usually one person who sets the scene, but doesn't get involved in the action.
Which is your favourite and most challenging stage role to date?
Othello. I've played him once and want to again.
Which is your dream stage role for the future?
Henry V.
Do you prefer the classics to modern plays? Which playwrites, plays and characters do you most admire?
I like them all. I like Shakespeare, David Mamet, Tom Stoppard, August Wilson, Jason Sherman, Judith Thompson and others. I love the role of Paul in Six Degrees of Separation.

I would love to know what it is like to work with Michael Shanks.
I've got a lot of respect for the guy. I'd work with him on any project.
Had you met Michael Shanks before doing "Hamlet" together? Was it a good experience?
I met Michael for the first time when I auditioned for Hamlet. Working with him was a great experience. He played a wonderful Hamlet and as Horatio, it was easy for me to connect with him.
What made you decide to become an actor in the first place? Was it one stage performance (or film or television performance) or was it something you always knew you wanted to do?
I always wanted to act. I had a great love of comic books as a kid and I would; re-enact scenes with my brothers or with friends. In elementary, I wrote and directed a play adapted from a comic book classic of the Three Musketeers. I remember firing my 5 year old brother from the show because he wasn't acting professional enough. He's over that now.
Who were your favourite actors growing up? Who are your favourite actors now?
My favorite actors included Katherine Hepburn, Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, Peter O'Toole and Glenn Close. My favorite actors now also include Edward Norton, Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Fishburne and Ewan MacGregor.
What directors would you like to work with on the stage and in films?
Onstage: Julie Taymor and Sam Mendes. On film: Peter Jackson and Paul Thomas Anderson.
I read in a biography of Montgomery Clift that the best director he ever worked with was actually the playwright Arthur Miller and I notice that Tom Stoppard also directs now. Also when Sam Mendes moved from directing plays to directing films he seemed to do a wonderful job. Are there any playwrights you've worked with you would like to see directing and directors of plays you think would make good film directors?
I recently played an autistic man in a new play called The Birth Of Freedom written by actor/playwright Andy Thompson. I've never seen Andy direct, but he coached me in some difficult areas of my part. I think he'd make a great director. Now for theatrical directors I'd like to see do movies¬…hmm¬… the Hamlet I did was directed by Morris Panych, a well known Canadian playwright, director and actor. He recently did a film of a successful stage production of his called The Overcoat. I'd like to see Morris direct more film.
As you are an artist and a writer already do you think you would like to direct yourself?
Oh yes-and in some productions you have to be able to self direct because you don't always have a director who does the job. For the moment though, I prefer having an outside eye.
You've worked extensively in TV, film and on stage. How do these mediums differ? Which challenges you the most? Which is your favourite as an actor?
Both mediums are challenging and their challenges are different. One of my directors at Stratford said the craft of acting in film and theatre is the same. The funnel it comes through is completely different. I totally agree. I don't have a favorite medium. I love them both.
Where do you see your career going in the future? Do you want to continue doing the widest possible variety of good work in all mediums or would you like to settle into a regular role?
Ultimately I want a blend of film and stage. There are a lot of major film actors today who you find doing Broadway when not shooting a movie. I want a career like that.
Are you a method actor? Or do you favour another style? A blend to suit the role?
I use a bit of every technique depending on the demands of the role. However, I'm not doing any method in the plays I'm currently doing. It's not healthy to practice killing your parents in real life.
How did you get into the 'costume' acting? What are the advantages and disadvantages of acting within a mask?
I was first asked if I was interested in doing a costume role by Andy Mikita while shooting Jolinar's Memories. He explained what the challenges would be and said if I felt I could hack it, it would be a great learning experience (and a lot of fun). I figured I had nothing to lose. So I began my foray into the world of prosthetics with Foothold, Andy's first directed episode.
What is the weirdest work related thing that ever happened to you?
I would always fall asleep during the latex application for Chaka (and also Wodan in Metamorphosis). Try as I might I just couldn't stay awake and when I'd conk out, my head would clunk forward. This made it extremely difficult for the make-up artist (Dave Dupuis) to do detailed work. One morning I woke to find an assistant holding me up with her hands while David finished me off. What an image that was!
Any upcoming TV projects we should look for? :)
I have no upcoming TV projects since for the last while I've been focusing on theatre, but you can see me in Dreamcatcher and The Core.
What kind of Jazz do you like? Who are your favourite musicians?
I like all kinds: swing, big band, be-bop. My favorite artists include: Glenn Miller, Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, Miles Davis and Harry Connick Jr.
I was wondering if you had any dance training, your movements as Chaka seem so effortless, that it seems to me you worked very hard to make it appear that way.
I did take some dance training (modern, jazz and ballet) while in theatre school. This definitely helped in terms of making Chaka's movements fluid.
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