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In real life, Samuel Johnson is better at being sad than at being happy, he tells Andrew L. Urban, so his role as the melancholy Gary Kelp in The Illustrated Family Doctor was just the opportunity for him to step up to a leading role – as an anti hero. But he was terrified he’d fall foul of the ‘flimsy tricks’ and bad habits acquired over years of acting in commercial television.

Looking much healthier than in his latest role as the increasingly unwell Gary Kelp in The Illustrated Family Doctor, Samuel Johnson, the familiar face on a million TV screens from shows such as The Secret Life of Us, After The Deluge, Good Guys Bad Guys and many more, is holding an orange juice as we meet in the lobby of a casual Sydney hotel, shaking my hand and introducing himself, “Samuel…” as if I didn’t know. His smile is sincere, and as we head toward a quiet table on the outside terrace of the hotel café, he rushes off to find someone to wipe the rain water off the table. 

Samuel Johnson, Sam to most people, is unlike most people. Certainly unlike most actors. For a start, he’s remarkably candid about his craft and his enthusiasm is endearing, but then I learn that his role in The Illustrated Family Doctor, is “the first job that I’ve actually talked up.” He flew his whole family from around Australia to the Sydney premiere. And the reason is that he’s damn proud of the end result. “My expectations were more than met,” he says. “Which is why I’m so surprised. Actors are typically down on their work; I think anyone who takes pride in their work will only look at the faults in their work, no matter what industry they’re working in. It’s not an anal actory thing … it’s a matter of wanting to do the best you can.”

"the best ill you can"

This time perhaps it was a case of ‘the best ill you can’… his character Gary Kelp is shocked to discover that his father's body was 'harvested' for organ transplants – with his mum’s (Sarah Pierce) blessing. Back at work for the publishers, Info Digest, Gary’s computer screen pulses with goitres, tumours and diseased monstrosities, images from The Illustrated Family Doctor, a medical guide that Gary is condensing for the mail-order market. The assignment and images disturb Gary, but veteran colleague Ray (Colin Friels) encourages him. Then he starts inheriting the symptoms he is reading about: a rash on his neck travels to his arms and then his face. His eyes become infected. He starts to piss blood. Jennifer (Kestie Morassi), Gary's girlfriend is a nurse but she can't help him – besides, she's sick of their relationship. Meanwhile Gary finds himself more and more intrigued by Ray's daughter, the mysterious and secretive Christine (Jessica Napier). Company boss Bob Boundary (Brian Meegan) is starting to carve up his work force in the name of efficiency. And a mysterious underworld figure known as Snapper Thompson (Paul Sonkkila) is stalking Gary in the company corridors.

In this particular role, Johnson surrendered himself to director Kriv Stenders more than ever. “I was entirely in his hands; it’s the first time I’ve worked so symbiotically with somebody. There was an element of trust I normally reserve for family members. His passion for the project and his belief in me inspired that.”

Part of the reason for Johnson’s satisfaction is perhaps the fact that Gary Kelp is such a melancholy character. “In real life I’m infinitely better at being sad than at being happy,” he concedes. “So I started off ahead [laughs]. I find it much easier to access the darker side. Why this is I’m not too sure. I’ve got depressive inclinations – as does everybody. I’m just in touch with it, I’m not scared of being sad or of having an extended doldrums … I think happiness much more a myth than sadness. Finding happiness is oxymoronic. The happiest people are the ones that’re on top of their sadness.”

With that personality trait, Johnson found playing the “flaccid, placid, passive” Gary Kelp less of a challenge than he had imagined. But then it wasn’t the character that first daunted him: it was playing the lead. “If anything, the script attracted me for its downbeat nature, about Gary being sick and getting sicker” he says. “And I was reading for the lead role, so I was out of my usual territory. I knew this would take a greater level of concentration and commitment. For an actor the thought of holding up a film is a daunting one, especially if you see yourself more suited to the peripheral / character characters. I’d never pictured myself playing the lead in a film. I had to get used to that idea…the only way it was going to happen was if I was cast as an anti hero. So luckily such a film came up! [laughs]”

"candid about his fear"

Johnson is candid about his fear on taking the role. It was going to be stretch. “Yes, considering where I’d been for the last few years … I’d picked up some nasty habits, as every actor does in high turnover, long term television. You kind of end up faking it after a while. I was terrified that I’d over act and rely on these flimsy tricks that I’d learnt how to use well in commercial television…dom.   [laughs] But I felt I had to step up and I wanted to step up … there were other projects around at the time, so it was also the first time in my life as an actor I had to make a choice between roles.”

Having seen the film, Johnson says he’s glad he “made the right decision.”

Published March 3, 2005

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