‘It was a very rich time for me’

Actor, director and former Stingers football player Clark Johnson found a film mentor in Father Marc Gervais
January 17, 2022
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By Joanne Latimer, MFA 94

Clark Johnson Clark Johnson attended Concordia and played Stingers football in the late 1970s | Credit: Petr Novák, Wikipedia

How do you go from playing semi-pro football to acting and directing hallmark television shows such as The Wire and Homeland?

Clark Johnson isn’t one to dwell on the epic arc of his career, but he singles out Concordia for playing an important role.

“When I drove up to Montreal in my little yellow Volkswagen with Michigan plates, I was invited up to play ball,” says Johnson, on the phone from his brownstone in Chelsea, New York. “Then Concordia became my main film influence.”

As both an actor and director — sometimes wearing two hats on the same project — Johnson’s film and television credits are too many to list. Highlights include Homicide: Life on the Street (1993–1999), The West Wing, The Shield, The Walking Dead and Bosch.

Johnson recently helmed episodes of Your Honor, starring Brian Cranston and the feature film Percy Vs Goliath, starring Christopher Walken.

Born in Philadelphia, Johnson and his family moved to Ontario in the 1970s. He and his siblings sang and danced in musical theatre productions before football became his passion. After three years playing semi-pro ball, he switched gears and became a celebrated storyteller on the big and small screens.

Johnson spoke to Concordia about his transition from football to film, his mentor and his love of Montreal.

How did you end up in that yellow Volkswagen, driving to Concordia?

Clark Johnson: During my senior year of high school, which I did in Ottawa, I got recruited to play ball at Concordia. I decided to go Eastern Michigan University instead, studying architecture and urban studies, but I got kicked out. According to Wikipedia, I got kicked out for stealing frozen turkey dogs, which isn’t true! So I went to Concordia and studied film theory, played football and I also played basketball for one season.

How did Concordia become your main film influence?

CJ: Concordia was where I met my ‘rabbi’ — a Jesuit priest named Marc Gervais. I took film theory courses with Gervais and they rocked my world! Gervais was such a wonderful film source, so enthusiastic and knowledgeable. I was enthralled by the theory side of things.

The Johnson kids did musical theatre growing up, so on a whim, I took a film course with Gervais called “Musical Genres of the 30s, 40s and 50s.” I needed a “bird course” to beef up my GPA. I ended up learning so much from him and took his other courses. I saw great Canadian films there, like Léolo and Black Robe. I kept in contact with Gervais right until just before he died.

It was a very rich time for me, even though I didn’t graduate from Concordia or any other college. NYU Film School accepted me. I went for exactly one day. The guy at the orientation said “You can expect to spend between $15,000 and $100,000 on your thesis.” And I said, “See ya!”

Where there any “Eureka!” moments that stayed with you from when you were a student here?

CJ: Yes! The fact that I could make a living doing film fermented at Concordia. Back then, film was expensive and precious. It wasn’t like you took your iPhone out and won a short film award. It was more pressure. When you made a short film on Super 8, it was a big deal. Film was fun, but I never thought I’d do it after my fabulous, award-winning football career was over. When football ended, I figured I would either drive a cab or be a production assistant (PA) — and I did both.

How did Concordia shape your football career?

CJ: I got drafted by the [Toronto] Argos from Concordia, which wouldn’t have happened if I‘d stayed in Eastern Michigan! So that was a bonus and gave me bragging rights on campus. I played three years of semi-pro, but I got cut from everybody — the Argos, Hamilton, Buffalo, Pittsburgh.

So film really was your second career.

CJ: Yeah. After football, I was a camera assistant, but I was terrible, then I did special effects for a long time because I really like doing it. One of my best friends, Mike Kavanagh, is an effects coordinator [in Toronto]. I’d take phone calls from him even when I was [an actor and director] on Homicide. I’d show up, in my coveralls, with my toolbox and my drill, then go back the next day.

Did you make important friendships at Concordia?

Tripping Wire promo image Clark Johnson played detective Stephen Tree in Emmy Award-winning television movie Tripping the Wire (2005), directed by fellow Concordian Stephen Surjik.

CJ: I played ball with Pat Sheahan, BSc 78, GrDip 81, MA 99, who’s still a friend. [Sheahan went on to become head coach for the Stingers football team]. I just got reacquainted with him last summer when I was filming in the Kingston penitentiary. I got together with him and his family, his grandkids — it was great.

And later on, I met a great guy, Stephen Surjik, BFA 82, a director I worked with on Tripping the Wire, which we shot in Montreal. It won the Emmy that year (2005) for Best TV movie. [And Surjik was nominated for Best Director.]

It’s funny — when I first went to Montreal to play ball, the furthest east I got was Winston Churchill Pub. At that time, Montreal was all about NDG [Nôtre-Dame-de-Grace] for me. Later on, when I returned to make films, I saw the rest of the city, like Outremont and the Main, Schwartz’s Deli. It’s my favourite Canadian city. I miss it a lot.

What’s something you learned on the job — boots on the ground?

CJ: On Homicide, I learned a lot about different styles of directing. Some directors are only good at framing the shot. One time, Kathy Bates came to direct a script for Homicide that was very tough for actors because there were so many emotional beats in every sentence. She came on set the first day of prep — I’ve stolen this line from her — and said “Hey, my name’s Kathy. You can call me Episode Number 207. You guys with the ballcaps, you do your thing. I know you’re good at it. I’m going to work with the actors.” It was very helpful to actors to have an actor’s director. I try to be a little of both, as needed.

What are you working on now?

CJ: I’m trying to tell my parents’ story. They were rank-and-file civil rights activists in the 1960s — you know, pamphlet people. It’s a great story. I woke up at 2 a.m. to do a polish on the script.

My partner, [actress, writer and producer] Monique Alvarez just sold a half-hour comedy, Hialeah: Dade F*ckin County to IMDB/Amazon. I’m one of the producers. We hope to shoot in the spring. Amazon ordered two scripts and they’re ready.

You seem to reject the Hollywood lifestyle.

CJ: Most of my friends are “below the line” — [meaning, not celebrities]. I'd never live in L.A. I don't really move in those circles and do the galas. All my friends are grips and electrics. Those are my people. 

What advice would you give film students?

CJ: You need to find a strong story you really want to tell and tell it thoughtfully.

 

Know a Concordia grad with an interesting story? We’d love to hear it. Email us at magazine@concordia.ca.



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