GateWorld has had the privilege of sitting down with well over a hundred Stargate contributors over the years, talking about their experiences from each of the series. There are, however, a few that have slipped through our grasp for one reason or another. Now we finally get to catch up with one of our favorites.
We’ve been a fan of actor Dion Johnstone ever since his original appearance as Nelson in the SG-1 Season Three episode episode “Rules of Engagement,” and followed him all the way from Chaka, Lieutenant Tyler, Wodan and Warrick. The young actor has kept himself occupied with a great number of theater projects in recent years. Soon returning to television in the upcoming TV series Defiance, Johnstone recently took time to reminsce with us down Stargate memory lane and talk about what is in store for the future.
GateWorld’s interview with Dion Johnstone runs just over 38 minutes and is available in audio for your listening pleasure. It is also transcribed below.
GateWorld: This is David Read for GateWorld and I’m on the phone with actor Dion Johnstone. Anyone who’s familiar with Stargate [SG-1] has seen this man’s work. How are you, sir?
Dion Johnstone: I’m pretty good, thank you!
GW: I have been wanting to interview you for several years now. I think I had gotten in touch with your agent several years back, and the main response was you were in Toronto doing theatre and, “We’ll try and work something out,” and nothing ever happened, so I’m really pleased that we’ve managed to get together at this point.
So what’s going on with you lately? We haven’t seen you on Stargate in a while. We never saw you on Atlantis or Universe. What have you been up to?
DJ: Well around the time that Stargate Atlantis was put together I had moved out to Stratford to work at the Stratford Shakespeare festival and I ended up doing seven seasons on and off. I’m about to go into my eighth season come this summer. They’re pretty long contracts when you’re working at the festival. They can be anywhere from six to eight months of work. So it pretty much takes you out of the loop for film and television work.
There’s a lot of amazing experiences that I’ve had working at the festival, and there’ve been a few losses as a result of that, too. I know there was a third episode that Stargate ended up doing with Chaka, and we were in quite a bind. I was already locked into the contract and there was just no way that I could get out of it in time to do that episode. I’ve had to lose a couple of opportunities but I think overall I’ve gained a lot of fantastic experience in the long run.
“Nelson” was Johnstone’s first television role, and it would impress the producers enough that it wasn’t long before he was back on the series.
GW:What do you prefer about theatre work that you can’t take advantage of in front of a camera?
DJ: Well, it’s the audience. It’s the live experience. It’s kind of an unbeatable feeling in that sense because you have an audience that’s out there breathing with you. The story only exists through the suspension of their disbelief. So every night you’re creating that performance with that audience and you don’t have that experience on set because you’re quite often playing to an audience of one. You have your crew around you, but you’re really playing to the audience of the other actor, or sometimes just directly down the lens if it’s an intimate close-up.
GW: And you don’t get that feedback from the fans until months later when the episode is released.
DJ: Exactly. There’s two waves when you’re doing film and television. There’s the initial filming of it which is very exciting. Then you leave it for four to six months, a year sometimes. And then the second wave of when it’s released, and people finally get to see it, and you go “Oh my God, that’s what I did. I totally forgot!” [Laughter]
GW: So that’s what it looks like when it’s put together! OK!
I want to jump into Chaka. This is one of my favorite characters from the entire series, and that’s when I really started noticing you. You had done Na’o'nak before, which was masked. And the unveiling is Apophis. Nelson, also in “Rules of Engagement,” another great character. But Chaka is really the one that stands out to me. Tell me about the genesis of this character, when you got to audition for it. Did they come specifically for you or did you have to audition for him?
DJ: This one came specifically to me. At this point I’d done maybe about four, maybe five episodes of Stargate. And what had started to happen is the first episode I did was as a human, and it was in a storyline where there wasn’t a chance of that character coming back. But the producers were very excited about my work and wanted to find a way to continue to incorporate using me.
So I had been approached by one of the directors, Andy Mikita, who was about to direct his first episode, and he talked to me about doing prosthetic work and if I had any interest in that. And he said “Most actors find it very difficult because you’re encased in latex, it’s hard to breathe, you have to sip your meals through a straw, and you don’t get facial recognition for your work. But on the other end it’s a great opportunity for more screen time, to develop your craft, and to stay a part of the show.”
For me I was still very new in film and television and I just wanted any opportunity that I could to continue doing this. So I said, “Yeah, that’d be great!”
So I ended up doing that episode. Sort of a sub-alien.
GW: Oh! You’re talking about “Foothold!”
DJ: “Foothold,” exactly. And then that led to essentially replacing Peter Williams as Apophis until his reveal because he was unavailable to shoot that episode because of his schedule. And that had built enough of a track record with the company that Peter DeLuise came up to me and said, “Listen, I’ve written an episode. It’s going to be my first creation that I get to direct. I’m very excited about it and I want you to play Chaka.”
I was blown away, incredibly touched by that, and honored to have that opportunity. And Peter was very specific. It was great working with him in terms of what he wanted with Chaka. He sent me on a bit of a mission in terms of different things to research.
He wanted me to look at Maasai warriors, the tribes that have a spiritual walkabout when a teen leaves the village and goes out into the woods and has to come back a man, either by bringing back food for the tribe or finding their spirit animal or making some sort of a connection. He wanted me to do research in tribal areas. He wanted me to watch “Enemy Mine.”
GW: Very good movie. Lou Gossett. Lemme ask you this. Were you asked to watch “Thor’s Hammer” and “Demons” at that point, because those were the Unas episodes. Or was he wanting you to stay away from them?
Johnstone as Chaka in Season Four’s “The First Ones”
DJ: No, he wanted me to watch them. He said the problems they had had initially in building the costume is it was very restrictive. The actor who had played the Unas in “Demons” had a very difficult time. It was hard to breathe, he had started to develop a rash underneath the suit. His ability to rotate his head and arms to create a natural movement was very hampered by the costume. Peter wanted me to observe that, to see how we could, with this costume, make it as real as possible.
So to do things like any time you could rotate your head and torso in an opposite direction it gives that torque to a body which is a very natural movement and helps escape that person in a rubber suit. They’d done a lot of work to make these new prosthetics more breathable. I would still be encased in it most of the day, but every effort to keep me cool and keep me hydrated would be taken.
In fact they were shooting “Demons” just before we shot my first episode of Stargate, “Rules of Engagement.” And that was my first television gig. So they invited me on set to watch the shooting of that episode.
GW: Oh, so you already saw it! OK, that’s perfect. That’s cool that you were considered from that early on. Tell us about your impressions of Chaka and his journey. He went on quite a little journey with Daniel, and later we’ll get to his second episode in a minute, but tell us about filming that with Michael Shanks.
DJ: Oh, that was awesome! I had worked with Michael in a production of Hamlet maybe two years prior. He had played Hamlet and I was Horatio. So we already had a chemistry, a natural connection which we were able to bring to the roles. And quite early on there was a struggle, when we first started the shooting, to really find the character, to get the makeup, the latex, his voice and the story, to get it all to sync so that you really believed that you were looking at a different alien being.
GW: Not just a man in a suit.
DJ: Exactly. And it was finally when we hit the scene when we were shooting in the caves and were sitting by the fire pit and passing the food back and forth where Peter let us go off-script and he said, “Just sort of improvise this scene.” So quite a lot of that scene is the two of us just jamming and improv-ing. And that’s where our energies really came to the front.
It was at the same time that the makeup work and the lighting and everything all just synched. From that point on we really had Chaka. Chaka was really locked down.
GW: Did you get any input into helping design the language? Because when there was a word that was used, I didn’t even realize this until years later, they kept it. DeLuise was literally building the dictionary of Unas language.
DJ: I didn’t have input into the construction of the language. That was handled down to me along with the bible, so I was able to see where the root words of where all this came from. Actually these were the root words. The input that I had was how I filled the language.
I know Peter wanted me to go and have a think about how Chaka would meditate. I took a camera with me and went off into the woods with some friends. I said, “I just want you to film me. I’m going to explore a day in the life of Chaka,” just to figure out his physicality.
“I met my father-in-law like this!”
And they were great, too, because on set when I had the costume fitting I said “Oh, this is phenomenal. Can you give me some time in the caves? I’ve got my video camera, and I just want to play around because I want to see how this mask essentially works. What angles make it look real, what doesn’t work about it.” And they said, “Yeah, go ahead!” They sent me with one of the wardrobe ladies and she filmed me and I got to play around and I would put all of that into my imagination. I developed the chant that he does.
GW: [It was] very ritualistic. Was that on purpose or did that just kind of appear?
DJ: That just naturally evolved. It’s almost like being lulled into a trance. It was sort of under the breath and is hard to understand at first. As Daniel’s listening he was able to make up the components. That was essentially written in the script, they wanted an effect like that, but a lot of that came from me just jamming, trying to come up with a rhythm that internally felt right.
GW: Up until that point, except any of the ones that were taken over by any of the Goa’uld, we just assumed that they were animals, and it was in this episode where it was, “No, these people are not specifically civilized or extremely intelligent per se, but they do have their own culture and their own set of rituals and guidelines of right and wrong” and this and that.
That was one of the special things about that show, that you go to see this culture evolve on screen from your preconceptions of what it was before, which was mindless killers. And then we got to see him again in “Beast of Burden.” What a way to go! So I guess you were contacted a year later, saying “Can you come back?”
DJ: Yeah, exactly! And unfortunately at the time I was committed to doing a season of Shakespeare with Bard on the Beach in Vancouver. Just at the time that the production came up. So we had a bit of back and forth between Bard and Stargate productions trying to find out When we could shoot this, because … “I need to be able to do it. But we can’t compromise the production with Bard.”
In the end they had to push the schedule a little bit earlier in order to get the shoot done. But what it meant was Peter DeLuise, who again had written it and was to direct it, didn’t get to direct it. So that was tough.