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September 19, 2017

Noel Johansen Walks the Walk

Herbie J Pilato
  • Somewhere Between

Noel Johansen has a likable face.

At least that’s what the United States Customs officers frequently tell the American-Canadian actor born in Montreal (with a citizenship in the U.K., the U.S., and Canada) during his global travels between various performances on television, film and the stage.

Along with his prominent right half-dimple, which resulted from a bout with childhood chicken pox, Johansen’s likability factor and subsequent charm translates particularly well via the intimacy of the small screen. 

On TV, or in any performance-geared medium (visual or audio), it is standard procedure to measure an actor’s ability by their flexibility and range, as well as by the different roles they choose or are selected to play.  Whether portraying good, bad, indifferent, or unlikable characters, it is the actor’s performance that must remain likable and rise above the standard.

Such is the case with Johansen.

A theatrically-trained thespian with an actress/director mother, and a father who served for 25 years in the British navy, Johansen began his TV career with guest-spots on series like The L Word, Smallville, and Stargate: Atlantis.  He was later seen on shows such as DC’s Legends of Tomorrow (as Lt. General Cornwallis), and in Nickelodeon movies including 2016’s Rufas (a.k.a. Manny’s New Friend, in which he was the villain Mr. Black). 

Most recently he appeared on the ABC summer series Somewhere Between, as Danny Jackson, a mentally-challenged character with deletion syndrome, and appears on DirecTV’s new comedy Loudermilk, and in the Hallmark Channel movie Love Finds Its Way, among others.

Johansen’s appeal as an actor is evident each time, and remains a distinctive quality no matter the type of character he is portraying.  With a balanced measure of modesty and savvy, Johansen likens his workable likability to accessibility.

“If an actor is likable,” he says, “then people will want to connect with you. We all want to connect as human beings…to feel and be understood.”

It’s ultimately about storytelling; the way in which a character is presented, how an actor tells that character’s story, and for Johansen in particular, the combined and continued influential role his parents have played throughout his life and career.

“My mother came from the theatre, and my father went to sea,” he says.  “And even though my Dad wasn’t an artist or an actor, he was a great storyteller.”

Exhibit A:  Johansen’s father once met famed actor Laurence Oliver in a British pub, and had a long conversation.  “But they didn’t talk about theatre,” Johansen recounts with a smile, “they talked about soccer.  He loved telling stories. I love telling stories, and being an actor allows me the platform to do that. 

"It’s not as though I change people’s lives, but it’s why I love doing what I do.  I’m able to bring people into a story, to have that story affect them in some way.  And that’s rewarding and valuable.”

While his father’s artistic influence was implemented somewhat by osmosis, what Johansen acquired from his mother was given with a slightly more direct approach.  As he recalls, “My mom was in the English drama circles back in the day, and that’s where I got the acting bug.  She’s American, but she went to school in England and started her career there, and that’s really where she flourished. 

"And that’s where she is now, but she was in North America for quite some time before she met my dad.

“She was pretty good about encouraging me to act,” he continues.  “She put me in plays even as a baby.  And I grew up watching many that she directed, and other live productions.  At first, I saw more plays than film, and while I was definitely introduced to acting at a young age, I was never really pushed into it.”

Johansen acted to some extent in high school but initially had other career goals on his agenda.  While attending the University of Pennsylvania, he studied history and, for a while, thought of becoming a lawyer.

Upon graduation, Johansen worked for a Washington-based law firm in Europe.  But then he experienced “a kind of artistic expressive evening” in which he was riddled with anxiety, otherwise known as “a panic attack.” 

“That’s the only way to describe it,” he says.  “I just felt the need to express myself in a different way.”

That’s when he contacted his mother who suggested drama school as an emotional and psychological outlet.  After four months of personal coaching sessions with her, Johansen formally enrolled in her British theatrical program, which provided him with the tools to hone his craft and express himself with productive dramatic flair.  “As soon as I did that,” he says, “there was no turning back.”

In total, Johansen’s prestigious artistic education includes the Drama Studio London in England, the Shakespearean Lab at the Public Theatre in New York, and in Canada, sessions with Larry Moss, Ben Ratner, David Ruttenberg and Shea Hampton.

The proof is in the pudding as they say, with plum, ground-breaking roles like that of the mentally-challenged Danny on Somewhere Between, an experience Johansen describes as “unlike anything” he had done before. 

At first Johansen wondered whether he could portray Danny.  But once he read the script, the compelling storytelling techniques he inherited from his father melded seamlessly with the professional guidance he received from his mother, while the character of Danny succinctly came into play and proverbially spoke to him.

“I felt like Danny had a story to tell, and was right away in me, and talking to me,” he says, “…even on the way to the audition.  It was like I served as a vessel for a character that needed to play through me.”

“It was a very odd experience,” he admits, “and I wasn’t prepared for that.  It was like Danny was a part of me that wanted to express itself, and I literally just had to get out the way, and not interfere with what he wanted to say.”

Born with a natural desire to channel his energy in some positive manner, Johansen had first opted to do so with athletics. 

“I played a lot of sports,” he explains.  “I was always passionate about whatever I did…and that passion always translates into expression.  And playing characters like Danny allows me to express myself.  I’m nothing but excited and honored to inhabit a character like Danny, and I take very seriously the implications of what that means.”

Johansen drew further from the observational experiences of his childhood to help enhance his performance as Danny.  He was the oldest child in his family.  His parents split when he was quite young, and he was raised by his mother. 

“I became like the responsible one that got things done,” he says.  “My mother was very loving, but she was teaching full time and directing at night, and I spent a lot of time alone.  I grew up rather quickly in that way.  And when kids grow up too fast because they have to take care of themselves there’s a loss, a feeling of loneliness, and maybe melancholy that, for me, was deep inside, and surfaced naturally through my acting.”

Johansen juxtaposes that sentiment to performing on Somewhere Between as Danny who struggles with deletion syndrome, a chromosome disorder that varies in mental and physical degrees, ranging from basic communication disorders, to a cleft pallet, and to physical repetitive behavior, with traits that Johansen assess are similar to those observed with autism.

In detailing Danny’s place in the world, Johansen offers this clarification, “While autism can sometimes render someone socially and emotionally challenged, deletion syndrome doesn’t really have that component.  That’s why Danny is so vulnerable and emotional.  And yet even though he has a disability, it doesn’t limit him. 

"He makes decisions…pretty big decisions that if he had a severe case of deletion syndrome he most likely would not be able to do.

He’s somewhere in between in the spectrum,” Johansen explains, in reference to the show’s title.  “He has a slight communicative disorder and there’s some physical affectation as well.  But it’s not completely debilitating.”

Johansen tries to somehow connect with every character he portrays and, on Somewhere Between, “A lot of things clicked into place with Danny.  He was abandoned and has a daughter that he can’t see because he’s in prison.  I have a son and I identified with that part of him.

"And while I always liked sports, I felt in between groups in school.  I wasn’t the jock.  I wasn’t the intellectual.  I didn’t totally fit into any one group.  And I think all of those factors culminated in me deeply identifying with the part of Danny.”

For Johansen, all of his work is rewarding including the lighter fare such as Loudermilk, starring Ron Livingston, and romantic comedies like Hallmark’s Love Finds Its Way.   

The Hallmark experience, in particular, Johansen says, “is very feel-good.  And there’s a great place for that in our society and in the world.  Hallmark serves a great purpose in storytelling.”

On Loudermilk, Johansen plays Russell, a character who heads an Alcoholics Anonymous group, which includes Livingston’s lead character Dave Loudermilk, who basically crashes the first meeting.  “I don’t know who he is initially,” Johansen says of Russell’s initial encounter with Dave.

“But Russell is hosting the meeting with a drink in his hand, and for my character that’s not a problem….it’s quite normal…that he’s drinking martinis while heading an A.A. group.”

Dave Loudermilk objects to that development, challenges Russell and, as Johansen says, “that becomes this kind of funny, a subtle back and forth of the reality of drinking as a meeting leader.  It’s a funny scene and it was great working with Ron.  I always admired his work and had seen in him Band of Brothers [HBO, 2001 mini-series], which I had auditioned for when I was in New York.”

“And talk about storytelling,” Johansen declares.  “It was all about storytelling with Ron and making [acting] real and churning the script and making the script serve our dialogue.  It was seamless.  He had the leverage to make our scenes what we needed them to be.  He’s just very giving and a wonderful person.”

Just like Johansen.

“I tell people I’m a connectivity junkie,” he says in reference to his performance theory about audience accessibility.  “Connecting with other people is the biggest reward I have as a human being.

“I grew up in the atmosphere where there wasn’t really stardom, and I feel like the new generation of Hollywood is setting a good standard for that with people like the Jennifer Lawrences and Chris Pratts of the world.  Those folks are amazing and humble.

“We’re all here to serve,” Johansen says of his profession and colleagues, and he means it and proves it, not only with his performances, but as an instructor.  An accomplished voiceover artist (whose vocal expertise has been heard on several animated productions and commercials), Johansen teaches voiceover at a school he co-owns in Canada.

It’s all very full-circle, as he continues to share with his students that which he has learned from his parents and others, including Canada’s renowned  director and acting teacher Larry Moss.

Moss taught Johansen the artistic essence and strategy that he ultimately utilized when interpreting Danny Jackson on Somewhere Between, saying, “Actors are here to serve, to serve their characters, to serve the story, their fellow actors, and to serve the audience, not in a subservient way, but in a joyful way and to have it all of connect to their work and their drive as an artist.”

“When you teach art,” Johansen notes, “that involves a certain amount of healing and enabling people to express themselves.  And because I feel at ease in that, and that I have tools to help folks, all of that becomes incredibly rewarding for me, and keeps me up to the standard that I myself teach.”

“You gotta walk the walk.”

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