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Life's lessons hard
May 25, 2008
A series of personal tragedies left actor Samuel Johnson barely able to function but now, finally, things are beginning to look up, writes Paul Connolly.



The classic recovery trajectory, says actor Samuel Johnson, includes a few "slips". "They don't tend to say relapse any more," he explains, rolling a cigarette with slightly trembling fingers outside a cafe on Acland Street in St Kilda, a Melbourne suburb he came to know - and ultimately dislike - during his star turn in the 2001-05 television series, The Secret Life Of Us.

The slip Johnson, 30, is referring to occurred in September last year when, a few months after he checked out of a seven-day detox program and while drunk, he assaulted a man at Sydney's Star City casino. Johnson, who features on Australian Story: The Sum Of Sam on ABC1 tomorrow night, pleaded guilty but escaped conviction for the assault in which he stomped on a man's head.

As the court was told, at the time of the offence, Johnson was receiving treatment for depression following the February 2006 suicide of his partner, Lainie Woodlands, 20. Her death, he says, brought on the darkest period of his life from which he thought he would never emerge.

Recalling the casino incident, Johnson rubs his face with his hands, at length. When he looks up you can't help but see how his once puckish face is now dusted with the kind of world-weariness that comes with age and having seen what's around some of life's corners.

"I didn't start the fight. But I overdefended myself," he says, adding that, at the time, he couldn't afford to mount a case for self-defence. The whole thing wouldn't have happened if I hadn't have been drinking. I would have just walked away. But I was overprotective of [girlfriend] Sarah [Hallam]. He [the man Johnson assaulted] was the one who took umbrage."

Johnson remarks, without a hint of the refreshingly imperfect grin that once featured prominently on television and in movies such as Crackerjack, that it was a "sobering" experience: "I'm not a violent person. I hate violence. As much as the whole thing was a storm in a teacup, a dust-up in a bar, it certainly helped remind me of what I was trying not to do. All of a sudden I was a thug.

"I was on [774 ABC] radio soon after and a guy texted [presenter] Jon Faine's show saying, 'Now you've got alcoholic thugs on the station' and I was thinking 'That's not me,"' says Johnson, who receives weekly drug and alcohol counselling. "I'm not tough at all. I'm an actor. The whole incident was very regrettable but I learned a lot from it."

It's now eight months since the casino fracas and events since have given credence to Johnson's claim that it was a slip and not a slide into another hole.

He's working again, "with a new-found professionalism" (shooting Rush, a Channel Ten series about a critical incident response team), and he's revelling in family life in suburban Melbourne with casting director Hallam and her five-year-old son, Khye. "I'm a typical 30-something and I love it. Dinner parties, games nights, controlled environments," he says.

He has also found meaning by doing volunteer work with the charity Open Family Australia, which provides outreach support and services to at-risk young people.

Most often, he says, volunteers offer nothing more than a toasted sandwich and a secular, "non-judgmental ear", although youths are directed to more obvious forms of help if needed. More recently, Johnson has been engaged by an Open Family project that has led to 10 marginalised youths writing, acting in, directing and filming a five-minute short film. Mentors for the group include actors Bill Hunter and Joel Edgerton and it is hoped the film will be screened at festivals such as Tropfest.

The film, Talk To Me, was conceived by the youths in March during a five-day retreat in the Victorian spa town of Hepburn Springs that Johnson calls the "best week of my life". "Most people walk past these kids thinking 'Get a job, get a haircut,"' he says. "They pigeonhole them straight away. But these kids, who are not homeless per se, are caring, talented and complex. But they are so often judged, even by their own parents."

Before I even think of it, Johnson points out that at various crisis points in his life he has thrown himself into a charitable cause, such as in late 2003 when he undertook a 33-day, 1000-kilometre unicycle ride from Sydney to Melbourne to raise money for cancer charity CanTeen. Johnson - who was familiar with CanTeen because one of his two sisters was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma when she was 11 and he was 10 - was looking for grounding after unexpected fame had knocked him from his orbit.

"I was losing my grip on reality," says Johnson, who admits that, for a few months while making The Secret Life Of Us, he was alarmed to find the line between him and his character, Evan, becoming blurred.

"It was like the classic moment in Zoolander when [Ben Stiller's character] looks in a puddle and says, 'Who am I?' "

Johnson smiles but it's as if he brings up Zoolander to mock himself because he fears it all "sounds so trite, so cliched".

That said, Johnson felt unmoored for all his popularity, celebrity and money - and he supplemented his TV and film work with an on-air gig at Nova radio station as well as voiceover work for so many products you could almost hear his throaty voice narrating your dreams. He felt he'd become someone he'd never imagined becoming.

"I was prone to superficiality, instant gratification and general selfishness. But I wasn't so far gone that I couldn't see it," he says. "It was the classic 'money doesn't buy happiness' lesson. The more I worked, the more I earned, and the more stressed I became." In an effort to rediscover his positive attributes, he did the unicycle ride and he went "back to his roots" to live in his home town of Daylesford where he mixed with "level-headed" people and did odd jobs such as working in the local bar and picking potatoes.

Did he find what he was looking for? "Yes," he says. "I found out a lot about myself and I found love. So it was the right decision." Love came in the form of Woodlands, whom Johnson met in the only nightclub in Daylesford. Suspecting she was younger than the 21 years she said she was, and not wanting to hurt her feelings, he kept a wary distance early on. "So I waited and I'm glad I did," he says. "But there was something so infectious about her. I'd never met anyone who loved so wholly and sweetly."

Johnson says it is often the case that people with a positive exterior hide a sadness within them. Accordingly, in the years they were seeing each other, Johnson didn't see Woodlands's suicide coming.

"It was a blindside of the highest order. I realise now there was a whole side to her that I didn't know, that she didn't share with me or her mother. I don't know how you can harbour such a secret. It's unhealthy. And it often has dire consequences. I've been brought up to be transparent in my emotions to myself and others so, to me, it's almost incomprehensible to hide such a secret."

Suicide touches everyone's life, Johnson says, and he dismisses his story as a "common tale". But he has been affected by it more than most. Three months before Woodlands's suicide a friend of his, Heather, also took her life.

And when Johnson was a baby, his mother committed suicide. I suggest it must have had ramifications as he grew up but he insists that's a false presumption. "I didn't know her enough to miss her," he says. "You've got to have something to lose it.

"And my dad was effeminate and a disciplinarian - I found out why when he came out of the closet at my 21st birthday. He stole my thunder at that party. Two weeks before, he asked me if he could bring his boyfriend to my 21st."

His father, he says, disciplined him when needed but was also supportive and loving.

"So it felt like I had a mum and dad in one," he says. "I don't feel like I missed out. And as cruel as this sounds, my mum was a pretty mixed up and unpredictable individual due to various mental health issues.

"So I'm quite happy to remember her through her poetry and not reality. In reality, she was quite hard to love and live with as far as I've been able to find out. I'm quite happy living with the romantic notion of her. So for me it's not a loss."

Woodlands's death was something else entirely, sending Johnson into a drug- and alcohol-fuelled downward spiral. As Hallam tells Australian Story, "[Johnson] couldn't work, he needed to sell his home. There was definitely a domino effect from losing his partner."

So far had Johnson fallen that his friends had him on suicide watch, although Johnson says he never seriously entertained taking his own life. But he got low enough to lose his "belief in love" and was at a point where he could never see himself recovering.

Woodlands's death was exacerbated by a lengthy and heartbreaking legal dispute between her estranged parents over where her body would be buried - her father wanted her body buried in Sydney, her mother, and Johnson, wanted her buried at Hepburn Springs outside Daylesford, Victoria. Johnson spent a lot of money on legal costs.

It was more than a year after Woodlands's death - by which time Johnson was broke and on the dole - that he finally realised the extent of his depression and associated drug and alcohol abuse and sought professional help. "I knew I couldn't address my problems until I cleaned myself up," he says. He checked himself into a detox program in the Daylesford hospital where he was born.

His decision was, he says, made easier because he realised he had much to live for, not least Hallam and her son. Former friends, they were reacquainted at Heather's funeral and they got closer as they helped each other grieve.

"If Sarah hadn't have popped up at that stage I dare say I'd still be in a fairly self-destructive cycle," he says. "She's not only taught me how to love again, she's taught me how to function on a day-to-day level.

"I can now complete tasks and work to a deadline again, all those things you take for granted in good times. Men would be rolling around at 40 still pissed and inconsiderate if it weren't for the love and level-headedness of women."

Open Family Australia has also played a major part in Johnson's road to recovery and he says it's no coincidence he sought out the charity when he did. Open Family and the short film project, he says, have given him evidence that good can come from bad.

"Do you want to fall victim to the tragedies in your life or turn them around into a positive?" he asks. "That's up to you. For me, I can hardly believe that Lainie's death could result in something so good. So positive."


He's working again, "with a new-found professionalism" (shooting Rush, a Channel Ten series about a critical incident response team), and he's revelling in family life in suburban Melbourne with casting director Hallam and her five-year-old son, Khye. "I'm a typical 30-something and I love it. Dinner parties, games nights, controlled environments," he says.

He has also found meaning by doing volunteer work with the charity Open Family Australia, which provides outreach support and services to at-risk young people.

Most often, he says, volunteers offer nothing more than a toasted sandwich and a secular, "non-judgmental ear", although youths are directed to more obvious forms of help if needed. More recently, Johnson has been engaged by an Open Family project that has led to 10 marginalised youths writing, acting in, directing and filming a five-minute short film. Mentors for the group include actors Bill Hunter and Joel Edgerton and it is hoped the film will be screened at festivals such as Tropfest.

The film, Talk To Me, was conceived by the youths in March during a five-day retreat in the Victorian spa town of Hepburn Springs that Johnson calls the "best week of my life". "Most people walk past these kids thinking 'Get a job, get a haircut,"' he says. "They pigeonhole them straight away. But these kids, who are not homeless per se, are caring, talented and complex. But they are so often judged, even by their own parents."

Before I even think of it, Johnson points out that at various crisis points in his life he has thrown himself into a charitable cause, such as in late 2003 when he undertook a 33-day, 1000-kilometre unicycle ride from Sydney to Melbourne to raise money for cancer charity CanTeen. Johnson - who was familiar with CanTeen because one of his two sisters was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma when she was 11 and he was 10 - was looking for grounding after unexpected fame had knocked him from his orbit.

"I was losing my grip on reality," says Johnson, who admits that, for a few months while making The Secret Life Of Us, he was alarmed to find the line between him and his character, Evan, becoming blurred.

"It was like the classic moment in Zoolander when [Ben Stiller's character] looks in a puddle and says, 'Who am I?' "

Johnson smiles but it's as if he brings up Zoolander to mock himself because he fears it all "sounds so trite, so cliched".

That said, Johnson felt unmoored for all his popularity, celebrity and money - and he supplemented his TV and film work with an on-air gig at Nova radio station as well as voiceover work for so many products you could almost hear his throaty voice narrating your dreams. He felt he'd become someone he'd never imagined becoming.

"I was prone to superficiality, instant gratification and general selfishness. But I wasn't so far gone that I couldn't see it," he says. "It was the classic 'money doesn't buy happiness' lesson. The more I worked, the more I earned, and the more stressed I became." In an effort to rediscover his positive attributes, he did the unicycle ride and he went "back to his roots" to live in his home town of Daylesford where he mixed with "level-headed" people and did odd jobs such as working in the local bar and picking potatoes.

Did he find what he was looking for? "Yes," he says. "I found out a lot about myself and I found love. So it was the right decision." Love came in the form of Woodlands, whom Johnson met in the only nightclub in Daylesford. Suspecting she was younger than the 21 years she said she was, and not wanting to hurt her feelings, he kept a wary distance early on. "So I waited and I'm glad I did," he says. "But there was something so infectious about her. I'd never met anyone who loved so wholly and sweetly."

Johnson says it is often the case that people with a positive exterior hide a sadness within them. Accordingly, in the years they were seeing each other, Johnson didn't see Woodlands's suicide coming.

"It was a blindside of the highest order. I realise now there was a whole side to her that I didn't know, that she didn't share with me or her mother. I don't know how you can harbour such a secret. It's unhealthy. And it often has dire consequences. I've been brought up to be transparent in my emotions to myself and others so, to me, it's almost incomprehensible to hide such a secret."

Suicide touches everyone's life, Johnson says, and he dismisses his story as a "common tale". But he has been affected by it more than most. Three months before Woodlands's suicide a friend of his, Heather, also took her life.

And when Johnson was a baby, his mother committed suicide. I suggest it must have had ramifications as he grew up but he insists that's a false presumption. "I didn't know her enough to miss her," he says. "You've got to have something to lose it.

"And my dad was effeminate and a disciplinarian - I found out why when he came out of the closet at my 21st birthday. He stole my thunder at that party. Two weeks before, he asked me if he could bring his boyfriend to my 21st."

His father, he says, disciplined him when needed but was also supportive and loving.

"So it felt like I had a mum and dad in one," he says. "I don't feel like I missed out. And as cruel as this sounds, my mum was a pretty mixed up and unpredictable individual due to various mental health issues.

"So I'm quite happy to remember her through her poetry and not reality. In reality, she was quite hard to love and live with as far as I've been able to find out. I'm quite happy living with the romantic notion of her. So for me it's not a loss."

Woodlands's death was something else entirely, sending Johnson into a drug- and alcohol-fuelled downward spiral. As Hallam tells Australian Story, "[Johnson] couldn't work, he needed to sell his home. There was definitely a domino effect from losing his partner."

So far had Johnson fallen that his friends had him on suicide watch, although Johnson says he never seriously entertained taking his own life. But he got low enough to lose his "belief in love" and was at a point where he could never see himself recovering.

Woodlands's death was exacerbated by a lengthy and heartbreaking legal dispute between her estranged parents over where her body would be buried - her father wanted her body buried in Sydney, her mother, and Johnson, wanted her buried at Hepburn Springs outside Daylesford, Victoria. Johnson spent a lot of money on legal costs.

It was more than a year after Woodlands's death - by which time Johnson was broke and on the dole - that he finally realised the extent of his depression and associated drug and alcohol abuse and sought professional help. "I knew I couldn't address my problems until I cleaned myself up," he says. He checked himself into a detox program in the Daylesford hospital where he was born.

His decision was, he says, made easier because he realised he had much to live for, not least Hallam and her son. Former friends, they were reacquainted at Heather's funeral and they got closer as they helped each other grieve.

"If Sarah hadn't have popped up at that stage I dare say I'd still be in a fairly self-destructive cycle," he says. "She's not only taught me how to love again, she's taught me how to function on a day-to-day level.

"I can now complete tasks and work to a deadline again, all those things you take for granted in good times. Men would be rolling around at 40 still pissed and inconsiderate if it weren't for the love and level-headedness of women."

Open Family Australia has also played a major part in Johnson's road to recovery and he says it's no coincidence he sought out the charity when he did. Open Family and the short film project, he says, have given him evidence that good can come from bad.

"Do you want to fall victim to the tragedies in your life or turn them around into a positive?" he asks. "That's up to you. For me, I can hardly believe that Lainie's death could result in something so good. So positive."

"I was prone to superficiality, instant gratification and general selfishness. But I wasn't so far gone that I couldn't see it," he says. "It was the classic 'money doesn't buy happiness' lesson. The more I worked, the more I earned, and the more stressed I became." In an effort to rediscover his positive attributes, he did the unicycle ride and he went "back to his roots" to live in his home town of Daylesford where he mixed with "level-headed" people and did odd jobs such as working in the local bar and picking potatoes.

Did he find what he was looking for? "Yes," he says. "I found out a lot about myself and I found love. So it was the right decision." Love came in the form of Woodlands, whom Johnson met in the only nightclub in Daylesford. Suspecting she was younger than the 21 years she said she was, and not wanting to hurt her feelings, he kept a wary distance early on. "So I waited and I'm glad I did," he says. "But there was something so infectious about her. I'd never met anyone who loved so wholly and sweetly."

Johnson says it is often the case that people with a positive exterior hide a sadness within them. Accordingly, in the years they were seeing each other, Johnson didn't see Woodlands's suicide coming.

"It was a blindside of the highest order. I realise now there was a whole side to her that I didn't know, that she didn't share with me or her mother. I don't know how you can harbour such a secret. It's unhealthy. And it often has dire consequences. I've been brought up to be transparent in my emotions to myself and others so, to me, it's almost incomprehensible to hide such a secret."

Suicide touches everyone's life, Johnson says, and he dismisses his story as a "common tale". But he has been affected by it more than most. Three months before Woodlands's suicide a friend of his, Heather, also took her life.

And when Johnson was a baby, his mother committed suicide. I suggest it must have had ramifications as he grew up but he insists that's a false presumption. "I didn't know her enough to miss her," he says. "You've got to have something to lose it.

"And my dad was effeminate and a disciplinarian - I found out why when he came out of the closet at my 21st birthday. He stole my thunder at that party. Two weeks before, he asked me if he could bring his boyfriend to my 21st."

His father, he says, disciplined him when needed but was also supportive and loving.

"So it felt like I had a mum and dad in one," he says. "I don't feel like I missed out. And as cruel as this sounds, my mum was a pretty mixed up and unpredictable individual due to various mental health issues.

"So I'm quite happy to remember her through her poetry and not reality. In reality, she was quite hard to love and live with as far as I've been able to find out. I'm quite happy living with the romantic notion of her. So for me it's not a loss."

Woodlands's death was something else entirely, sending Johnson into a drug- and alcohol-fuelled downward spiral. As Hallam tells Australian Story, "[Johnson] couldn't work, he needed to sell his home. There was definitely a domino effect from losing his partner."

So far had Johnson fallen that his friends had him on suicide watch, although Johnson says he never seriously entertained taking his own life. But he got low enough to lose his "belief in love" and was at a point where he could never see himself recovering.

Woodlands's death was exacerbated by a lengthy and heartbreaking legal dispute between her estranged parents over where her body would be buried - her father wanted her body buried in Sydney, her mother, and Johnson, wanted her buried at Hepburn Springs outside Daylesford, Victoria. Johnson spent a lot of money on legal costs.

It was more than a year after Woodlands's death - by which time Johnson was broke and on the dole - that he finally realised the extent of his depression and associated drug and alcohol abuse and sought professional help. "I knew I couldn't address my problems until I cleaned myself up," he says. He checked himself into a detox program in the Daylesford hospital where he was born.

His decision was, he says, made easier because he realised he had much to live for, not least Hallam and her son. Former friends, they were reacquainted at Heather's funeral and they got closer as they helped each other grieve.

"If Sarah hadn't have popped up at that stage I dare say I'd still be in a fairly self-destructive cycle," he says. "She's not only taught me how to love again, she's taught me how to function on a day-to-day level.

"I can now complete tasks and work to a deadline again, all those things you take for granted in good times. Men would be rolling around at 40 still pissed and inconsiderate if it weren't for the love and level-headedness of women."

Open Family Australia has also played a major part in Johnson's road to recovery and he says it's no coincidence he sought out the charity when he did. Open Family and the short film project, he says, have given him evidence that good can come from bad.

"Do you want to fall victim to the tragedies in your life or turn them around into a positive?" he asks. "That's up to you. For me, I can hardly believe that Lainie's death could result in something so good. So positive."

"So I'm quite happy to remember her through her poetry and not reality. In reality, she was quite hard to love and live with as far as I've been able to find out. I'm quite happy living with the romantic notion of her. So for me it's not a loss."

Woodlands's death was something else entirely, sending Johnson into a drug- and alcohol-fuelled downward spiral. As Hallam tells Australian Story, "[Johnson] couldn't work, he needed to sell his home. There was definitely a domino effect from losing his partner."

So far had Johnson fallen that his friends had him on suicide watch, although Johnson says he never seriously entertained taking his own life. But he got low enough to lose his "belief in love" and was at a point where he could never see himself recovering.

Woodlands's death was exacerbated by a lengthy and heartbreaking legal dispute between her estranged parents over where her body would be buried - her father wanted her body buried in Sydney, her mother, and Johnson, wanted her buried at Hepburn Springs outside Daylesford, Victoria. Johnson spent a lot of money on legal costs.

It was more than a year after Woodlands's death - by which time Johnson was broke and on the dole - that he finally realised the extent of his depression and associated drug and alcohol abuse and sought professional help. "I knew I couldn't address my problems until I cleaned myself up," he says. He checked himself into a detox program in the Daylesford hospital where he was born.

His decision was, he says, made easier because he realised he had much to live for, not least Hallam and her son. Former friends, they were reacquainted at Heather's funeral and they got closer as they helped each other grieve.

"If Sarah hadn't have popped up at that stage I dare say I'd still be in a fairly self-destructive cycle," he says. "She's not only taught me how to love again, she's taught me how to function on a day-to-day level.

"I can now complete tasks and work to a deadline again, all those things you take for granted in good times. Men would be rolling around at 40 still pissed and inconsiderate if it weren't for the love and level-headedness of women."

Open Family Australia has also played a major part in Johnson's road to recovery and he says it's no coincidence he sought out the charity when he did. Open Family and the short film project, he says, have given him evidence that good can come from bad.

"Do you want to fall victim to the tragedies in your life or turn them around into a positive?" he asks. "That's up to you. For me, I can hardly believe that Lainie's death could result in something so good. So positive."




Australian Story: The Sum Of Sam screens tomorrow on ABC1.

Source: The Sun-Herald




http://www.smh.com.au/news/people/lifes-lessons-hard-for-samuel/2008/05/24/1211183178808.html

Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
(Anonymous)
Sep. 16th, 2010 09:09 pm (UTC)
Great Post
Great Post.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Floor Sanding Bournemouth
http://www.acornfloorsanding.co.uk/
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