GateWorld: That was the compromise, though. It got you back but you had a different voice behind the cameras giving you input.
Dion Johnstone: But the cool thing about that as well, too, is Martin Wood ended up directing it and he was fantastic. He said he loved what I had done in “The First Ones” and trusted me with the character. Whereas in “The First Ones” it was very much an evolution process with Peter, all the way through pretty much, to really figure out who this guy was.
And in “Beast of Burden” I felt like I got to run with it. I knew who he was, everyone trusted me with what I was going to do with him, and I got to play out the situation at hand, which was a great storyline with oppression and slavery.
GW: He leads a revolt!
DJ: Exactly! Oh yeah.
GW: And doesn’t exactly do what Daniel wants him to do near the end there. That was a powerful show. I remember that was a great episode to rewatch. Did you see Patrick Currie’s performance int he subsequent episode? Have you ever seen that?
DJ: I have!
GW: Very different take on it. The mannerisms and everything else, they’re more fluid. I remember watching your performance in “Beast of Burden” and “The First Ones.” And if he gets surprised by something it’s like “What?! What was that??” Whereas Patrick was just much more fluid about it, which in my opinion, it was really hard to see that as the same character.
The only thing you could was say “OK, this has been a couple of years. A lot has happened to him. He’s building a culture. He’s kind of growing up and chillin’. That’s the only thing that I could think of to sell it. Other than the same makeup design. This is a different person underneath, it’s specifically a different portrayal. You can’t ask someone to say, “Do it like that actor did.” What did you think?
DJ: I thought it was great. I would have loved to have played it, to be honest. And it took me a while. I couldn’t watch it for a while because I was quite close to the character. I waited a couple of years and then finally saw it, and I really liked it.
It’s difficult to step into the rhythm of a character when it’s been that specially drawn. You really have to go in, as you’re saying, and just put your own interpretation on it. And, thankfully, enough time had gone by that you could go, “Well, time has gone by and he’s become an ambassador by this point.” He’s had enough interaction with different cultures, with human culture, that that could fly.
GW: He would have been influenced by them.
DJ: Exactly. Sort of the Iron Man movies. The first Iron Man, [with] Terrence Howard as Rhodey, and Don Cheadle. Completely different actors, and at some point you’ve just got to go with it.
GW: Absolutely. That wasn’t the least of your makeup work on the show. Did you like all that stuff applied to you? I know they did everything they could to make you feel comfortable, but at the end of the day doesn’t it really wear on you?
DJ: Oh yeah. It’s a war of attrition. Those were, I would say, on average, eight day shoots where you’d be up at four in the morning, you’d be in the makeup chair for three hours to get on set for blocking at 7 AM, and I was the last one to leave pretty much on each day so I’d be wrapping at about 8 PM, I’d get home, eat, go right to bed, and start the whole thing all over again. I would fall asleep in the makeup chair and basically wake up when it was all done.
GW: They were really good about letting the actors do that if there were a lot of prosthetics.
DJ: Totally. Every now and then I’d feel someone tipping my head back up because I might start to slide off the chair. [Laughter] It’s hard work. There were times we had big struggle with the lenses.
GW: Oh yeah, keeping them straight. And I bet they were irritating.
DJ: Oh yeah, from the time they go in your eyes are wearing down. You’re battling not wanting to take them out, because the more you take them out the more raw your eyes get, but the longer you keep them in the less oxygen gets to your eyes and the more sore they get.
What we eventually discovered was if we’re doing a master shot where you’re not really going to see the eyes, let’s keep them out. And when we start pushing in to medium and close-up then we’ll pop them in so my eyes have the best chance to stay healthy.
I had to find my own Zen place. I would find in-between takes I’d be very quiet and monitor my breathing. They’d have big fans blowing. I could get into my trailer, they’d have the air conditioning on full blast. If not, there were big fans on set for me. I would just zone, go into my little oasis. And when time came for action, boom, explode with whatever energy was needed. If you’re too high for too long you get very heated inside the suit and it can become claustrophobic.
I’m pretty good with that stuff, but having an awareness of that, I really tried to keep my energy dialed down so I could make it through all the shots hat we needed to get.
GW: You know, it’s an amazing thing, prosthetics. You appeared as Wodan in Season Six. That was the episode with Nirrti where she had been let go by the SGC and began experimenting on another culture. If I remember right you were basically an elephant man. Holy cow, the prosthetics for that!
DJ: I had a bulging eye!
GW: I know, out of the side of your head! Tell us about that guy.
DJ: Peter DeLuise directed that episode as well. I swear, Peter, for me, working with him was like getting a film education at the same time because he had his list of stuff that he wanted me to research and watch.
One of them was The Elephant Man. He said, “We need to find this guy’s voice. It’s got to somehow work with the [false] teeth, it’s got to be audible but there’s a certain voice that we’re looking for.”
GW: Very meek, and not imposing, just really worn down and “I’ve been through a lot.”
DJ: Mhmm! Until he snaps.
GW: Quite literally!
DJ: Yeah! [Laughter] That one took a couple of days into the shoot to really find, before the voice settled. At one point Peter came up to me and was like “There we go, that’s what we’re looking for.” It’s great! It really reminds me of when I was in theatre school and the mask work that we did that was part of my training. We did neutral mask and character mask.
And so a big part of the process for me is in-between takes, because you have so little time from the time you get the part till you’re shooting, I would go into my trailer and just sit in front of the mirror and just look at the face and find out, “What can I do with this? What expressions work? When I express surprise …”
GW: Because you have to over-exaggerate under the mask in order to make anything show through, right?
DJ: Exactly, yeah. And I found, for example, with Chaka, I found there was an air pocket in the snout, so if I gave a puff of air into that it would make the snout flare. It’s a nice little touch that I just discovered by playing in the mirror. I could have him snort in surprise or irritation to give his nostrils a good flair.
GW: The other character that you introduced and Alex Zahara picked up and continued in a subsequent episode was Warrick. “Forsaken.” Another race. That was interesting, in that episode you’re introduced with his species, the Serrakin, and then you’ve got the humans. And of course SG-1 is thinking the humans are going to be the good guys, because, A, they’re telling them this story, they’re spinning this story to them, and B, they’re more relatable.
And you’ve got a species who’s, I imagine, specifically designed to look malevolent, to add that effect, I’m sure that was there. And in the end you find out, “No, he’s actually the warden. He’s in charge of them.” Tell us about that character.
DJ: Well it was a fun character to play. It was great because of that situation, where the whole episode is a real twist. Andy Mikita directed that one. I remember, for him, he was talking about, “We want a real cultivated sound to his voice. This is a very educated man, he’s a gentlemen.” He has a human wife when you see the photograph. He’s got a deep love for his family. It was really cool to play that knowing that they are set up looking very sinister at the beginning.
And it was also great because of the battle sequences, the big gunfire sequence at the beginning. Any of the episodes where I got to be pitched in the middle of the fire play was always fun to do. It was amazing choreography that they put together.
GW: That one I think may have been, if I were in your position, just as difficult for me as Chaka because when we next see him we actually meet more of his family and we understand more about him as a character. He loses his wife in the episode where Sam goes and helps him try to win a race. Did you see that one?
DJ: I didn’t. Yeah, that’s “Space Race.”
GW: It’s a different portrayal. It’s not as different as your Chaka and Patrick’s Chaka, but it’s a good episode, so you should definitely check that out. This is one of the ones that I’ve been wanting to ask you for the longest time because we were seeing you regularly every season. What is the guest appearance that you wanted, if any, that got away from you? Did you audition for any roles on SG-1 that you didn’t get that you really wanted?
DJ: [Laughter] Funny enough, my first episode, I didn’t audition for Nelson. I auditioned for Captain Rogers. And that was a role that I wanted and found I didn’t get it but had been cast. And I thought, “Well, that’s great,” because this is still my first gig.
Funny enough, the guy who ended up playing Rogers, Aaron Cravin, this was also his first gig, so the two of us met on the day they invited us to set, and became fast friends. As we were shooting the episode they were still doing a lot of tweaking and rewrites. Then we hit the point of the final scene of “Rules of Engagement” and they were still having trouble with the writing of it.
So we went into our trailer and just started hashing out a couple of different ideas, different ways of how to resolve the final lines of text, came up with an idea, went up to the director, Bill Gereghty, who was directing, and said “What do you think about this?” He ran it by the producers and said “We love it! Do it!”
I remember here we are shooting and at one point he said “Yeah, just point he cameras on them. We want to focus on Dion and Aaron.” And after that, through that experience, we became really good friends and have maintained a close friendship ever since. It’s funny, it wasn’t the role that I had gone for but it opened up a whole bunch of doors.