Samuel Johnson OAM is tucking in to a schnitzel sandwich at the Tallarook General Store, an all-in-one regional milk bar/post office/fish-and-chipper about 80 kilometres north of Melbourne. It’s as far away from the bright lights of the entertainment industry as you could get, as a black fly hovers lazily above his head, occasionally coming in to land.
This is something of a reunion, as five years ago Johnson and I met for lunch at his property a few kilometres from here to do an interview for this newspaper. I was moved and perplexed by the unconventional encounter, eating dim sims and drinking Jim Beam in Johnson’s back paddock on a chilly winter’s day. “He’s great company, but unpredictable,” I wrote in the July 2016 article. “By turns cagey and open, lucid and fanciful, wildly gesticulating and spitting flecks of fried food.”
Samuel Johnson is returning to the screen in Eden, his first acting role since his Gold Logie-winning performance in Molly.Credit:Stan
The 43-year-old cuts a similar figure today. By his own admission, he is an earnest creature, completely ungroomed in a dirty grey hooded-top, hair greasy and wild. He often takes his time to find his words, with yawning pauses between sentences sometimes stretching to a full minute. A screen door screeches through the gaps as locals file in and out to pick up milk or buy a pie, never giving us a second look.
We’re here to talk about Johnson’s first acting role in six years, after he quit the game to focus on raising $10 million for cancer research via the charity he co-founded, Love Your Sister. He says he turned down several prime offers over the past few years, including one role on a Cate Blanchett project. “It boiled down to a time thing,” Johnson says. “Shooting a drama takes a long time and takes me away from my fundraising, but shooting a show (such as Dancing With the Stars, which he won in 2019) takes up very little of my time and has a great upside for the charity.”
Love Your Sister surged past its goal, having raised more than $13 million and counting, and Johnson decided it was time to return to the career that made him famous. The only trouble was, the phone was silent. “Naively I thought I could just slot right back in, but not much happened,” he says. “And because I’m a jobbing Melbourne actor, I could never get any of the Sydney gigs.”
Eventually Johnson was handed a script for a role in a glossy new drama, Eden, which airs on Stan* this month. He plays Detective Ezra Katz, a downtrodden local cop investigating the disappearance of a young woman in an extravagantly photogenic, drug-addled version of Byron Bay. “The script bounced off the page and I finished it quickly – that happens rarely,” he says. “I couldn’t wait to know what would happen next. If I’m that excited reading it, I’m going to do everything I can to get my name on the list.”
The series director, John Curran, Skype-called Johnson, wondering why he was considering the role. “I explained that I didn’t retire, I just quit until I achieved something different, and that that different thing had been achieved,” he says, chewing on a stray piece of tomato. “And I told him that if he wanted me on his set, there were certain non-negotiables. He agreed and I was hired.”
Johnson’s non-negotiables included no less than two takes per scene – he couldn’t be rushed as is common with many fast-moving television shoots. “That was my biggest problem during the Molly Meldrum telemovie,” Johnson explains. “I didn’t feel I was given enough time to produce something great … The scene might only come alive in take six, but the commercial realities don’t allow for such creative frippery.”
Johnson says he has a soft spot for his Eden character, a downtrodden policeman. “He’s broken, which I relate to. He hasn’t quite figured out how to deal with his pain, which we all relate to.”Credit:Lisa Tomasetti
Speaking of Meldrum, Johnson says he has conflicting feelings about the role that won him a Gold Logie in 2017. “It wasn’t an easy character to play,” he admits. “I enjoyed the challenge but I didn’t love the character I was portraying in the same way that I love Detective Katz.”
Johnson has a soft spot for the eccentric, embattled Katz – who returns to Eden after a viral video scandal derails his career. “He’s broken, which I relate to. He hasn’t quite figured out how to deal with his pain, which we all relate to. His values point true north, despite his apparent flaws. And he’s a good egg.”
Johnson could be describing himself, the ultimate well-meaning egg. After COVID restrictions kept him in Byron Bay for the duration of last year’s four-and-a-half month Eden shoot, he immediately returned to work at Love Your Sister. The charity includes an online “village” of 800,000-plus people and commemorates his sister Connie, who died in 2017.
They have released five books, including the most recent title, Dear Mum, in which notable Australians write letters to their mothers. “Long ago I gave my life to (Love Your Sister), and I’ve visited 1200 towns since my sister’s diagnosis. And we don’t just drop in and grab the money and run, either … I’m meeting with MPs, visiting hospitals, visiting primary and high schools, doing free pop-ups at street level. I’m outside libraries, and Caltex and Bunnings.”
Now his acting drought is broken, I wonder if we’ll see more of Johnson portraying different characters. “It’s a bit like alcohol – I enjoy a drink but I don’t want to get blotto every day,” he says, cackling. “The old buzz did come back. I did a couple of terrific scenes with exceptional actors … I was glad to see that I hadn’t lost it entirely, it was like getting back on a bike.”
He was particularly impressed by the young talent working on Eden, including up-and-coming stars Sophie Wilde and BeBe Bettencourt, and new-wave Hollywood names Keiynan Lonsdale and Cody Fern. “These kids are so much better than I was when I was their age,” he says. “The pool of young actors now is so large, and they are so skilled. Every time I was with the kids, they acted the absolute pants off me.”
Johnson says he was impressed with the calibre of the young actors in Eden, which includes Sophie Wilde and BeBe Bettencourt.Credit:Lisa Tomasetti
Johnson says he finds acting emotionally taxing these days. He is focusing on writing his own one-man show, loosely inspired by Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, rather than waiting for the phone to ring. “Fighters always leave a little bit of themselves in the ring, and I think actors do too,” he explains. “There’s a part of yourself that you leave with every character that you might not ever get back. It’s a weird exchange, and if treated disrespectfully can be a dark magic. Acting has the potential to kill you, to turn you into a shadow of yourself, and to take you further away from yourself than you should be. So, it’s not to be trifled with.”
Samuel Johnson and Rebecca Breeds in Molly, for which Johnson won a Gold Logie
Johnson admits that while he would love to go back to Byron Bay should series two of Eden get the green light, acting is something he’s still willing to leave behind. “Unless it presents a serious benefit for the charity, it’s not something I’d contemplate again,” he says. “But never say never, though, right? I never thought I’d be back here talking to you. As always, I’ll take the world where the world takes me.”
His sandwich is now finished; Johnson is ready to hit the road. “See you in another five years?” I offer. “If not before,” he says with a small salute, already out the door.
Eden premieres on Stan on Friday.
* Stan is owned by Nine, publisher of this website.
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