The Raven's Mortal Partner
Paul Johannson has no problem relating to the character he plays on Highlander The Raven, who's partnered with an Immortal and spends much of his time studying her. The actor/filmmaker has been interested in eternal life for years.
"I've been fascinated with immortality since I read The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde, or the first early Anne Rice novels," he noted in a recent interview from his Paris apartment. "Even as far back as the first time I remember being told about Lazarus coming back from the dead in catechism. Always the idea of somebody who can rise from the dead - or Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or something like that - I've always felt those were very fascinating parts of our consciousness."
For Johansson, the fact that Nick Wolfe can die is part of the appeal of playing the ex-cop turned contemporary white knight. His character's mortality represents a big difference for Johansson from most of the Highlander regulars and affects the dynamic between Nick and Elizabeth Gracen's Amanda, a powerful Immortal who appeared several times on the previous television series.
Though Johansson was more familiar with the premise from the Christopher Lambert films than the long-running series starring Adrian Paul, he was immediately taken with the pitch for the spinoff series which began airing in 1998, as well as the enthusiasm of the producers. "I liked the idea of me not being Immortal - I liked the idea of them bringing in a guy who was kind of the liason between humanity and immortality," said the actor. "In the first version of the show, they didn't have a co-lead who was somebody who could die. In this one, we could see him breathe and eat and love and hurt and cry, living next to an Immortal, and see what that was all about."
Johansson must spend much of the year in France to film the show, so accepting the role took some consideration: the previous Highlander ran for six years. After meeting with the producers, he was offered the role without an audition, though he had wanted to audition for the previous series and never did.
"I had a pretty good year coming into this, I'd kind of stepped up my work, and they took notice, I guess," he recalled. "I spoke French in my interview, and I'm fairly well-read - my background is in literature - and that helps in this character. I have a love of types of things like this. My favorite things to read about are history; I just finished a biography of Julius Caesar."
In the series pilot, Nick Wolfe left the police force after losing his partner following a betrayal by his mentor, who turned out to be the thief and murderer framing Amanda for his own crimes. While Amanda has an extensive, centuries-old rap sheet of her own, she also fights for justice and deplores unnecessary killing; she has taken the heads of Immortals, but rarely touches a gun. Thus Nick and Amanda have very contrasting backgrounds and methods, but oddly similar values when it comes to protecting the innocent.
Johannson's role model for Nick Wolfe was Rick Deckard, Harrison Ford's character from Blade Runner. "He played it very truthful, very close to himself, and his own sense of morality crept through. He had a job to do, he had to do what he had to do, but when it came right down to it, he had his lines in the sand, too. I think at times Nick holds his tongue more than I do - I can go into lengthy and pretty libelous ways of defending myself verbally, but I think Nick is a little bit more likely to bite his bottom lip and walk out of a room. It's hard for me to do that. Maybe I could learn something from him."
Nick's relationship with Amanda "is very tempestuous, it's been very rocky - it's one of those kinds of loves that you think maybe your life would be better without, but then it would be empty," Johansson explained. "I think Amanda is the alter ego to Nick, in that he would have loved to have had the opportunities she has, and to have been not a cop but a thief. Every cop, I think, really envies the thief's mind, the ability to go to the other side." Amanda's history gives her an exclusivity, "but that's part of the world I think Nick's glad he's not a part of. This character bridges that gap."
It's unclear how attached these two characters will allow themselves to become to one another: any romance between them is clearly doomed, like all love between an Immortal and a mortal, but they have strong chemistry based in part on the charisma of the attractive performers. "We had an idea of Moonlighting when we were developing the show, that there would be that kind of banter and love with more of a Mission Impossible-type thing going on." Johansson thinks it also has a dynamic like The Avengers.
"I find it absolutely titillating," he added. "I've always felt immortality was fascinating, because you can't ever really know whether it's possible or not possible. I don't think there's any documented proof that anyone's ever gone over and come back in any way. We talk about it, we watch X-Files, everyone has their theories, but what's the truth? So it's experiential that way. We get to see it through Nick's eyes."
Though he has rapier and dagger training from having performed Shakespeare onstage, Johansson has almost no background in fencing - the trademark of previous series star Adrian Paul - and little martial arts training, just boxing. Though he has always been a talented athlete and was recruited by the Atlanta Hawks to play professional basketball, he would prefer to see Nick's ingenuity developed rather than his fighting prowess.
"I've always had the idea of borrowing from a great movie from years ago, the first Heat starring Burt Reynolds. Back in the '70s, he was the hot cat, right? He made this movie about a guy who was deadly with everything except guns and knives. He could use a credit card, an ashtray, a pill bottle to disable you or hurt you or kill you. That's the type of character I want Nick to be - he'd be a McGyver-esque-type fighter where he could sort of adapt to the environment. They let me have some fun with that, but I don't have any training and I can't do a Jean-Claude Van Damme kick behind my head and scratch my eyes at the same time."
Born in the U.S. but raised in Vancouver, the son of hockey star Ching Johnson of the 1954 Stanley Cup-winning Detroit Red Wings, Johansson trained during college to play in the N.B.A. "My lifelong goal, I really wanted to get a medal in the Olympics - it was something I had destined myself to," he recalled. "I had made the Canadian team, I was touring the world, I was ready to go for the preliminary qualification tournament, I had offers to play pro ball in Europe. But something happened. The fire went out in me just moments before it was all coming together. I sat down with my dad and said, 'I need a profound change in my life. I don't know what I want to do, but I don't want to be a professional athlete.'"
Armed with a college degree funded by his athletic scholarship, Johansson set out to become a writer, but was recruited by a talent scout to appear on the popular daytime soap Santa Barbara. Remembered by millions of viewers as the hunk in a widely-distributed Diet Coke commercial, he has appeared since on Dharma & Greg, Lonesome Dove: The Series, and Beverly Hills, 90210, as well as the films She's So Lovely and the upcoming release Evil Never Dies. Though his father was disappointed initially in his son's choice to give up his athletic dreams, "after I started getting jobs and I got my first series and my second series, after things started rolling, he's warmed up to my acting now."
Johansson still writes and recently directed his first movie, Conversations in Limbo, a short film based on the Oscar Wilde short story "Day of Judgement." The film stars Jason Priestly, Costas Mandylor, and Johansson's good friend Nick Cassavettes - the son of film director John Cassavetes and actress Gena Rowlands, two of Johansson's role models (when I interviewed him in his apartment in Paris, he was watching the elder Cassavetes' Shadows, dubbed in French).
"I'm a huge fan and a friend," he said of Nick Cassavetes. "The two best gifts I've ever gotten in my life - one's from Robert Downey Jr., it's the scarf that Charlie Chaplin wore when he won his honorary Academy Award, Robert got it from his widow and gave it to me as a gift for helping him prepare to play him. Nick gave me a book, The Films of John Cassavetes, and he inscribed the inside, he 'My father would have been very proud of you,' and he signed it. I'm really grateful."
The actor would like to find a way to juggle directing and writing with performing, "but if I had to make a choice, I'd direct and write, unless I found the role absolutely something I couldn't say no to." He hopes to direct episodes of Highlander The Raven, as Adrian Paul and other actors have done on the previous series: "I spend a lot of time with the directors on this show and it's something that I feel I have a real knack for. I think I'm a better director than I am an actor."
He's also working on his screenwriting credits, having finished a horror script which he plans to take back to Hollywood to try to sell over hiatus, "very Stephen King-ish, I thought it would be fun, it's about three demons that were locked within rocks." He is also working on a conspiracy-theory thriller and "I'm writing a story about an older woman who hires a young handyman who becomes her best friend."
Along with his partners in Los Angeles, he hopes to be able to produce his own material. "I want to be in a situation where basically I have access to the best - the best scripts, the best people, the best minds. I want to be surrounded by genius. It's very hard to fail when you have wonderful people working around you, like Nick Cassavetes or the great directors whom I want to work with. I want to develop and create my own ideas, but to help me realize these ideas, I want to put people with me that motivate me and that make me better."
Most of Johansson's ambitions are in film; "television pays well and it's great access to the market, but the time frame doesn't allow you the freedom to take chances. You have to get all your shots done, otherwise you're in big trouble." When choosing material, "I look for ingenuity, things that I haven't read before. I don't like to go back over ground we've already covered. I think events should create reactions rather than people's acting, it really bothers me when I see an unnecessary or unrealistic response to something. I like to see wit, I like to be surprised. What I like in scripts is, do the people relate to each other in a real way, or are the types of situations set up so that these people are set to create events?"
On Highlander The Raven, he hopes to do "something new and bold and adventurous," but "the moment it gets to the point where it's repeating itself or we go back to doing the kinds of things they were doing in the original Highlander, that's the point when I'd like to get off the boat," he stated. "So as long as we keep going there, I'd like to be around."
He has a few concerns about the vast fan network, worrying that his comments may offend someone, then realizing that anything he says is sure to offend someone, and not wanting to fret about that. "It's the land of the Immortals, the internet and the conventions," he said. "If I went to a convention, I'd want to see someone who was an Immortal, not an actor! For me, I appreciate being appreciated, but I am so much about the work. That's not a diss to the fans, I'm just saying that I think what I do well is, I show up, I create and I contribute. I think those people are more interested in seeing Elizabeth's character and Adrian Paul's character, because that's the fantasy."
But Johansson loves the access to people which his vocation provides. "I get to see the world, I get to see the people, people are allowed to see me," he pointed out. "I can say something through my characters and certainly through my writing that will be heard."
Even if Nick Wolfe isn't an Immortal, the work will provide its own kind of immortality for Paul Johansson.