Men We Admire: Dion Johnstone

Being a HUGE Stargate SG-1 fan, I considered myself extremely fortunate to be able to interview Sarah Deakins back in April. So when I found I had the opportunity to tap the advice and mind of Dion Johnstone I was ecstatic. Dion has played several characters in one of my favourite TV series of all time, which on its own would make this an exciting piece for The Man Sphere. But as you delve deeper into this versatile actor’s profile, you discover a wealth of stoic presence and wisdom that wrap an indomitable warrior spirit…the sort of spirit that motivates truly successful men to hone themselves and their craft to perfection.

Name: Dion Johnstone

Age: 36

Occupation: Professional actor

Relationship status:  I live with my girlfriend Lisa Berry. We’ve been together for almost 4 years.

Pets: None, but we’d love a dog in the next year or so.

Car: 2008 Silver Ford Focus.

Gadgets: iPad, 2 Apple TV2’s (Livingroom, Bedroom), Wacom Cintiq 12X (basically a digital art pad with amazing pressure sensitivity).

Stats: I’m 6’1”, 185 lbs. I train in Krav Maga and am learning a bit of boxing and muay thai skills.

Favourite instruments: I used to be a jazz trombonist when I was younger. That fell away as I pursued acting. Later I fell in love with drumming and while living in Vancouver I bought myself a djembe. My dream was to drum the sunset down at wreck beach and I’m happy to say that was a dream fulfilled.

Sports: I’m not a big team sports person. Not since grade school. I do like training at the gym ( a combination of weights and functional training). My biggest passion is Krav Maga (an Israeli self defense system). I started training in Vancouver then left it for a few years. Recently I’ve found a studio near my home in Toronto and have been able to pick up the practice again. It’s humbling but also very exciting.

How did you get started on your current career/lifestyle path?

I first encountered the world of acting when I was a student in Edmonton. I was in 9th grade and I saw an audition notice for the Citadel Theatre’s Teen Festival of the Arts. This festival was incredible! Running annually over a period of 9 days, it featured new plays written by established professionals for young adults, a battle of the bands, comedy sketches and more. I was in music at the time and auditioned with my jazz trombone. To my delight I was cast in a musical (Planet of the Lost Swing Babes) and played a solo in the onstage band. Each performance both the talent of the actors carrying the show and the enthusiasm of the audience watching it blew me away. After every performance we’d leave the theatre and pass the school buses jammed with kids from every school and in that moment, to those people, we were like rock stars. It was an overwhelming experience to have as a kid and as each performance passed, my desire to be an actor grew. When Teen Fest closed that year, I was determined to be a part of it again, but this time I would be onstage.

Did you have any mentors who helped steer you on this path?

I certainly did. I’ve been blessed with having many mentors along the way, but without two in particular I might not have started. First of all, when I started highschool I met my first drama teacher Mary Frances Fitzgerald. Immediately she recognized my passion and encouraged me to follow my instincts. This included not only acting but also playwriting and directing. In my last year of highschool she took a risk and allowed the first production of her season to be a play written and directed by me. She gave me a modest budget for production and trusted me to pull the project off. I can’t describe how much that degree of faith empowered me. Likewise, in my third year of the Teen Festival, I played my first lead in the musical Big River. Our director was Maralyn Ryan, and she too had a big influence on my career. Maralyn had run an extraordinary children’s theatre in St. Albert and to this day a significant number of her charges have successful careers in the arts. That season she was artistic director of the Teen Festival and she took me behind the curtain to show me how the real business of theatre worked. It was with this knowledge that I was able to produce my play at school. She gave me ideas of how to approach the media and how to inspire my actors, stage management and crew. Between Maralyn Ryan and Mary Frances Fitzgerald I learned that with the right approach and hard work, any dream is possible.

How has your work contributed to your development as a person or the lives of others?

The great thing about being an actor is you have the opportunity to continually grow. I’ve often played characters that have demanded I leave my comfort zone, and to do so I’ve had to confront my own fears. It has often been a scary process but in the end I believe that it makes me a better actor and a better person. I have also found great joy in contributing to the development of others. While performing at Stratford I did a lot of teaching through the education department and with Shakespearience Performing Arts I’ve been able to continue this process. What inspires me is the moment when a student suddenly not only “gets” the words but also wholly “embodies” the thoughts and ideas. The excitement they feel at this awakening is both palpable and thrilling. It’s like a new world of possibility has opened up to them. This moment of transformation is what I’m constantly rooting for them to experience.

If you had one piece of advice for someone just entering your field, what would it be?

Keep training. Raw talent is important but I believe training helps you focus that talent. There are huge demands placed on actors in both theatre and film and television. Production values in both are very high and actors are expected to “deliver” the goods. Whether performing at high intensity 8 shows a week, or receiving new dialogue moments before shooting (on a relentless schedule), training gives you a foundation to stand on, so that no matter the craziness around you, you can still remain centered and professional.

Do you have a personal work philosophy?

It’s a basic one but I think a good one. Treat everyone with respect. Maintain a positive attitude. Always do your best. Avoid gossiping about others.

What do you do for fun? Draw. Read comic books. Watch movies with my lady. Connect with my friends.

What motivates or inspires you? I’m lucky to be surrounded by friends and colleagues who are committed to evolving on a physical, spiritual and professional level. Their desire to achieve more inspires me to demand more from myself. I’m further blessed to matched with a partner who has the same goals in life.

What has been your greatest achievement?

I think my greatest professional achievement to date is my time spent at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. It has been a real honor to perform on those stages and over seven seasons I’ve been given opportunities to learn from such incredible actors as Brian Bedford, Seana McKenna, Colm Feore, Christopher Plummer and many, many more. My greatest personal achievement is attracting Lisa Berry into my life. She has made me a better person in so many ways. She constantly challenges me, is always supportive, and brings out my sense of humor. People have often seen me as this uber intense guy, and to be fair, I can be quite focused, but Lisa has always seen through that and recognized my fun and silly side.

What is the one thing you hope to achieve?

An abundance of energy, so I can give more to my family, my career, my friends, and to myself.

What are you reading (or watching) these days?

I’ve been watching BBC’s Luther, starring one of my favorite actors Idris Elba. He is such an intelligent and visceral actor. Also Game of Thrones, which reminds me of Shakespeare’s history plays, mixed with elements of fantasy. It’s a fantastic show.

I used to be a comic book artist when I was young and after almost 13 years have rediscovered my passion. I’ve started using Photoshop to do my coloring and can finally produce the work I only dreamed of as a kid. Here are two portraits of a superhero I created for my gal. The first I colored using traditional media, the second using different techniques in Photoshop.

Thinking back to a time when you had to make a hard choice, how did you decide, and do you feel, in retrospect, that you made the right move?

I’m currently building towards a prominent career in both Film/TV and Theatre. Maintaining a balance between the two mediums isn’t easy. From time to time the demands of one bump violently up against the other. I remember one time working on Stargate SG-1 and playing an alien named Chaka. The episode went over well and I was told they had interest in doing another. In the meanwhile I auditioned for Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach and was cast in a season of Shakespeare. I had fantastic roles in two different productions. We were a few weeks away from starting rehearsals when Stargate came back with a new episode. I was very excited by this but it meant I had to pull out of Bard which was something I couldn’t do. I’d made a commitment to the company when I took the roles that I would honor the contract; going back on my word would risk creating bad blood. With much regret I told Stargate I couldn’t do the episode. Baffled, they offered to pay me more. I said I was honored but because I’d already signed a deal I couldn’t break it. Stargate then asked if they could negotiate with Bard personally. I agreed so long as they understood that if they couldn’t come to an agreement with Bard, I would honor my contract with them. Now many actors would break the theatre contract in favour of the more lucrative TV offer. Given how up and down the business of acting is you can’t really fault them for making that choice. But in this case, Bard had been very supportive of me, giving me my first roles in the city and some of the first leading roles of my career. I wanted to deal with them as fairly as I could. In the end Stargate didn’t win Bard over. Despite their best efforts they couldn’t reach a compromise. But they were so impressed with my commitment that they rearranged their schedule to shoot the episode earlier and even increased my pay rate! So in the end by taking the hard route and negotiating in the fairest way possible, I got to do both projects and come out a more valuable actor!

If you had it all to do over again, would you change anything?

If I had to go through my life again I would relax more. I would take my breaks and allow myself to have more fun. I always felt like the rug was going to be pulled from underneath me at anytime. I felt like I had to be perfect or people would reject me. Sure it brought a great deal of precision to my work but let’s be honest, true brilliance comes from daring to be messy. Life just isn’t perfect. So why harness yourself to that standard?

What’s next for you?

What’s your next big idea, project etc.? In January 2013, I start rehearsing Julius Caesar for Chicago Shakespeare. I’ll be playing Marc Antony, a dream role of mine. Directed by Jonathan Munby (who’s directed at the Donmar Warehouse and Shakespeare’s Globe to name a few) the show will have a topical vision, and is one I look forward to being immersed in. Until then I’ll be continuing to develop my work in Film/TV.

What one piece of advice would you give to your own son in the hope of making him a better man?

Well, if I had a son I guess I’d tell him that life is really short, so don’t spend time not believing in yourself but rather get out there and go for it!


Dion Johnstone’s Website: http://www.dionjohnstone.com

Dion Johnstone on IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0426909/

Dion Johnstone on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/DionJohnst

Dion Johnstone artist page: http://hypolitus.deviantart.com/

Dion Johnstone on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/dionjohnstone