Play it again, Sam
July 29, 2007
Samuel Johnson plays a Young Weary Dunlop in the stage play Weary.
Photo: Damian White
Secret Life of Us star Samuel Johnson returns to acting after the toughest two years of his life. He speaks to John Bailey about life after death.
Samuel Johnson is weary. It's Saturday night in Albury, and he's about to step out in front of a country audience as legendary war hero Weary Dunlop. Last night it was Wangaratta; next up is Warrnambool. There are diggers watching every night, men who lived the story he's playing out. They'll let him know if he's not holding his bayonet correctly. But the 29-year-old actor's battles aren't confined to the stage.
"We've all got our troubles, not least Weary Dunlop in a POW camp. I don't know, after this play is over, the potential for falling back into a big hole seems likely."
We know him as the puckish, wide-grinned layabout from The Secret Life of Us. For a time, it seemed he was everywhere - doing dozens of voiceovers, stripping down for underwear ads or suiting up to unicycle across Australia for charity. He had a slot on radio station Nova and had scored an AFI award for his TV work.
Two years ago, Samuel Johnson had a plan. He'd earned enough to buy a bush retreat near Daylesford, where he was born. He was ready to walk away from the industry that had embraced him, to take only the gigs he really cared for. A decade of luck and hard work was paying off.
Now his country home is gone - sold to pay off debts. "It got to the stage where if I didn't sell, I'd probably lose the house. But when you lose a girlfriend, losing your house just doesn't matter. I went from riches to rags, I suppose. I ended up with nothing."
In February last year, Johnson's girlfriend Lainie Woodlands took her own life. "I'm not angry with her at all. I'm just really sad. There's a big gaping hole in my life that she used to occupy...and I miss her a lot."
It's hard to face a private battle when you're living in the spotlight, so Johnson quit. "I went back home to the bush," he says, "and did all manner of things. Anything but acting."
He tried to narrate a documentary. He worked in a hotel and at the Glenlyon General Store. He took a floor-sanding contract. "I really struggled to focus on work. I ended up being downright unemployable, and it didn't matter what I put my hand to. I ended up, in a way, crippled by the whole thing. As could be expected, I suppose. So I ended up on the dole. I couldn't really work and I developed a fear of mail. I couldn't open any of my envelopes."
Only a few years earlier, Johnson had graduated from Promising Young Actor status to Household Name. The Secret Life of Us was the drama that put him on the map and still leaves him a little surprised. "It was weird. All of a sudden I was part of pop culture."
Johnson had always imagined himself as a character actor, floating around the fringes of the theatre and television industries. He'd been playing geeks and misfits, he says, since the very beginning. "I never saw myself as a straight-toothed, chisel-jawed, puffed-up pecs kind of actor. I always aligned myself more with the off-beat goofy types. To score the role as a womaniser on a mainstream TV show was a surprise, to say the least."
So why did they cast the young actor, then in his early 20s, in the central role of Evan, the bohemian writer whose interior monologues chronicled the lives and loves of a group of St Kilda twentysomethings?
"I still don't really know. They did ask me to get my teeth straightened and I told them to go f--- themselves. But they gave me the gig anyway."
There's a flash of it - the self-assured cheekiness, bordering on cockiness, that always seemed to animate the Johnson of the Secret Life period. It's not there now, or only occasionally. His recent struggles stripped him of that youthful trait. "One thing I lost was my confidence. When you can't seem to get anything finished, it cripples your confidence."
They were prosperous years, too. His profile shot up dramatically. He scored roles in the telemovie After the Deluge as well as starring in the comedy Crackerjack. And his new-found fame brought other benefits. If you'd turned on the television or radio during the period, odds were you'd have heard his voice over any manner of advertising.
"Partly because I wasn't very selective, I just said yes to everything. I generated more money out of voiceovers than I did from acting."
Eventually, he says, over-exposure took its toll and he stopped recording voiceovers. "Everyone got sick of me and weren't shy of telling me. Including friends and family. So I thought, well, I'll give them a rest. Ex-girlfriends in particular weren't happy hearing me around the place all the time. One of them was known to throw her radio out the window."
Johnson didn't set out to become an actor. At the age of 14, he appeared in his first school play, cast in a role as the mad scientist in The Pink Panther Strikes Again. On opening night he was spotted by the late Rhonda Schepisi, former wife of director Fred Schepisi.
"So I literally got a phone call on the first night I'd ever been in a play. She marched me to the union and demanded that they give me a card, then she drove me to an agent and demanded they take me on. It was somewhat fortuitous and I happened to get the first 20 or so jobs I went for. This career was certainly not designed by me."
At the time he was discovered, Johnson's family were in financial difficulty. His father had enough money to pay for one of the kids to go to a private school for a term. "He chose me despite the fact that my sister had a better academic record. And by the end of the first term, I was earning enough to pay for the school fees that we couldn't afford. I was very lucky. I got an opportunity and I made the most of it."
The money he earned acting enabled the family to get back on its feet, and what was left after school fees went into what has today become the family business, a chain of second-hand bookstores around Melbourne. Johnson still speaks of his early career as if it were something outside him, something he didn't accomplish but was allowed. A reprieve. "It really rescued the family, in retrospect. It helped us dig our way out of what was a fairly grim situation.
"My motivation early on wasn't to act, it was to earn some money for the family because we were struggling. It was very pleasing for me as a young man to know that I could help my old man, who had struggled as a single parent since the suicide of Mum."
Johnson was a toddler when his mother committed suicide. It may help explain how he has been able to talk about the subject with such strength and clarity.
"Even though he was only very young when Mum died in the same way," says his older sister Hilde, referring to Lainie's death, "it's something that's been discussed all his life. I'd like to think that having everybody else's view on that helped him through this."
Johnson says now: "A lot of people don't agree with me on this one, but you've kind of just got to respect their right to live or die. Not everyone's cut out for life. It's not like we choose to be a part of it. We don't choose to be born, so we should at least have the right to choose whether we want life or not."
Those affected by suicide often face a double blow - the impact of the death itself, and the change in the way others treat you. This was the case for Johnson after Lainie died.
"A number of people reacted really badly to it. There were people that were insensitive to the point that they'd come up and say, 'Why? You must know why. Tell me why it happened.' If I could answer that maybe it wouldn't have happened.
"And there were others that just avoided it. The big surprise for me was my dad. He just didn't seem to know what to do. The one person that I expected to usher me through that period would have been him but he was noticeably absent for some reason. God knows why."
"It was hard for the people who loved him," says Hilde, "during that time after Lainie, because he was so withdrawn from everybody." In the past two or three months, though, there's been a change. "Almost back to his old self. Able to laugh, and get that glint in his eye. All that stuff that he is naturally." And of course, he's acting again.
There was a time when Johnson couldn't stand the thought of acting. Now the situation is reversed. "It beats working. And it beats reality. Reality sucks."
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Johnson isn't formally trained. He is, by his own admission, still something of a novice - a "cleanskin". When other actors reference Brecht or Shakespeare, he'll often have no idea what they're talking about. And he'd rather see a band than spend a night in a theatre.
"I'm a little anti-intellectual about theatre. I don't like things to be too...theatre-ish. Theatre that really labours the point, that's too earnest and treats itself too seriously, I find really off-putting."
When he goes to the theatre, he'd rather be entertained than have to work hard to find an obtuse meaning. "Too much theatre is painful to endure. I expect to be gratified more than your serious theatregoing type would."
He jumped at the chance to work on Weary, however. Director Roger Hodgman had directed him in episodes of Secret Life, and Johnson was already a fan of playwright Alan Hopgood's work. And he owns most of the back catalogue of albums created by David Bridie, who penned Weary's soundtrack. "The question was 'do you want to work with your idols?', not 'do you want to do the play Weary?' As soon as I saw who was attached I basically would have done anything to get the gig."
Weary follows the ageing veteran after retirement, when he returns to the diaries of his time in a World War II POW camp. The action switches between the young Weary and his older, wiser self.
There's a sense that Johnson, too, is a different soul from the knockabout guy of his early 20s. He's wiser, though it's wisdom gained the hard way. He might wish that he could turn back time, but he knows we travel only in one direction.
"I wish there was some token that you could use and if you got into a car accident you could pull out your token and say 'all right, I want my get out of jail free card to work now'. Some kind of second-chance system. But of course that's not the way it works."
Weary: The Story of Sir Edward Dunlop is at the Comedy Theatre, August 15-25. Bookings through Ticketek, tel: 132 849
For help or information, visit beyondblue.org.au, call Suicide Helpline Victoria on 1300 651 251 or Lifeline on 131 114.
SAMUEL JOHNSON, 29
1995 Appears in Home and Away as Gus Bishop.
1995 to 2001 Small roles in dozens of TV shows such as Blue Heelers, Stingers and Wildside.
2001 Scores the lead role of Evan Wylde in The Secret Life of Us. Four seasons follow, and Johnson wins an AFI award for best actor in a leading role in a television drama series.
2002 Appears alongside Mick Molloy and Bill Hunter in comedy feature Crackerjack.
2003 Stars in TV miniseries After the Deluge with Hugo Weaving and David Wenham.
2004 Rides a unicycle around Australia for charity CanTeen.
2005 Stars in the black comedy The Illustrated Family Doctor.
2006 Hosts a slot on Nova FM.
2007 Returns to the small screen presenting Lonely Planet's four-part Bluelist Australia series on SBS.
Now Playing the young Weary Dunlop in Weary.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
THE SECRET LIFE OF US CAST MEMBERS
Claudia Karvan, 35
Always the glamour girl of the set, the show's Dr Alex has consolidated her television cachet on Foxtel's showcase drama Love My Way, where she keeps winning AFI awards for her work both as lead character Frankie Paige and as a producer. She has two films in pre-production, and in 2006 gave birth to her second child, son Albie. Daughter Audrey is four, her partner is Jeremy Sparks.
Joel Edgerton, 33
Edgerton left TSLOU and his role as Will McGill in 2002 to pursue what looked like big breaks in Hollywood. He had secured small roles in big films, such as Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, and King Arthur, and important roles in small films such as Ned Kelly and The Night We Called it a Day. From 2003 to 2005, he was in a prominent relationship with Cathy Freeman. Although international fame has eluded him, he has received raves for his work in the recent MTC production of The Pillowman.
Abi Tucker, 34
She could have been a pop star, having won the 1992 finale of New Faces. Instead, Tucker's earned her fame as a small-screen survivor, playing Miranda on Ten's most successful drama (TSLOU, of course) and now playing Grace on Nine's ever dependable McLeod's Daughters. Her music career is ticking along; playing regular gigs, contributing to soundtracks and releasing CDs.
Deborah Mailman, 35
The Secret Life of Us took Mailman's career mainstream, and she continued to fill a wide variety of roles: from presenting Play School to co-hosting (with Cathy Freeman) the SBS series Going Bush. In 2005, she was offered a two-year contract to appear exclusively with the Sydney Theatre Company. In January this year, she gave birth to her first child, son Henry Walter Mailman Coonan.