Jonathon Lloyd Walker (Rankol) - Flash Gordon
Jonathon Lloyd Walker was born and raised in Henley-on-Thames, England. He began acting at an early age, something he continued to pursue after his family moved to Canada when he was a teenager. His early work included roles in the television movie Volcano: Fire on the Mountain; the series Viper; and appearances on The X-Files. He also played Mark Twain in The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne TV series. Walker's recent credits include the feature film Shooter, co-starring Mark Walhberg; ABC's comedy series Men in Trees, with Anne Heche; and the SCI FI channel series Stargate: SG-1. Walker is currently starring as Rankol, Ming’s chief scientist, in SCI FI's Flash Gordon TV series. Darren Rea caught up with him as Flash Gordon was due to start broadcasting in the UK...
Darren Rea: Apart from the money, what was it that attracted you to the role of Rankol in Flash Gordon?
Jonathon Lloyd Walker: [Laughs] Apart from the money, what attracted me? Well they pitched me the idea of the character and they told me first about this strange way that he was going to be moving around and also they gave me back story to the character and the layers and the nuances of where the character was going to evolve through the first season.
That's really what sold me on it. I though: "This is going to be a layered, nuanced character that's going to have a hell of a lot of subtext to play.
As an actor, I love to play subtext more than text - it's vastly more interesting to me - and this was a character that was going to have all of those things going for it. And I thought this would be a good, fun challenge as an actor to play this.
DR: You've done a lot of work where you've been a guest star on a show, where you just turn up, do your work and then go home. Do you prefer being on a show where you don't feel like an outsider, and where you can see your character evolve?
JLW: Again, money aside [laughs], I much prefer having a role that I get to play out over 22 episodes, because you know that you're going to get an opportunity to explore elements of that character as you move along. Hopefully you do. I've certainly seen some show's - there's been one of the guys doing Law & Order - were you're going to be basically playing the same stuff every week. But I knew with this that it was going to evolve and move along. So, it's much better to do that.
I'd also say that it has to do with what the energy is like on set. If I were doing a show for 22 episodes where, with the people I was working with, it was really difficult - the energy was bad and nobody got along - that would be a bit onerous, and I probably would crave being back in a situation where I could walk away from it.
Flash was a really good environment, and a lot of fun, and it made it an easy choice for me.
Although, I've had some good fun doing guest star roles, or even back earlier when I did a lot of day player stuff - because it's fun to pop in, do your bit and go. Certainly, the more interesting work is the stuff where you get to spend more time. So series leads are better than guest stars, I think.
DR: Is it hard to walk onto a set as a guest star and try to fit in to a cast that knows each other fairly well? And, knowing what that's like, do you go out of your way to make guest stars feel welcome on Flash?
JLW: That's a very good observation, because that's exactly the case. Very often, when you are a guest, and you walk onto somebody else's set they set the tone. So, if you walk on and the energy's bad, or the actors have an ego and they're just difficult, you know it's going to be hard work. You know that you're going to have to tip-toe around and just tread lightly.
So I was very mindful of that in terms of this show. I thought: "Well, we want everyone else to come and do their best work and feel welcome."
The energy on the set was always good top to bottom anyway. There were no big egos and everyone got along and enjoyed the process. So it was much easier to make that available to other actors.
So that's what we did. I would say, if you were to ask the vast majority of people who came on our show, they would say that it was a really easy set to walk on to.
DR: When you mention "Flash Gordon" to most people there are two images that instantly spring to mind. They'll either think of the black and white serials with spaceships on strings, or the cheesy '80s movie [pictured below]. How would you sell the new series to people who have these preconceived ideas planted in their heads about the characters?
JLW: How I would sell it is that people can come at things sometimes with preconceived ideas of what it's supposed to be and either they will be happy or unhappy with the end result. I think that at the end of the day that our series, as it moves along, is definitely its own take on Flash Gordon.
It's very different from previous takes of Flash Gordon. Some people are happy that it's different, other people aren't. There's a huge fan base for that '80s movie. I didn't particularly like the '80s film, but I continually hear of people who think that it's just absolutely fantastic.
So I think that there are different tastes and people are looking for different types of things. We're trying to do our own version of the premise and it'll work for some and it won't work for others.
I know the show. We did 22 episodes and, as the show moved forward and as everyone got more familiar and more comfortable with the show that we were making, I think the show got better and better. So, I sort of encouraged people to stick with it in terms of the fact that I knew that the show continues to improve as we move along. And the last six episodes, in particular, are just absolutely brilliant.
So, that would be my sort of take on it. It will be a fit for some people and it won't for others. And hopefully people will regard it well.
DR: For American TV shows it's traditionally come down to the ratings as to whether a show survives. You can have the best looking, cerebral show, but if you don't pull in the audience the networks are quick to drop you. Do you know what the audience figures for Flash Gordon have been like and whether a second season is on the cards?
JLW: Yes ratings have, in the past, been the absolute barometer by which success has been measured. But what's happening now is that the nature of television is diversifying. Now you've got a vast new number of outlets. There's programming on the Internet; you can Tivo stuff and watch it later... So it's very hard to establish a ratings number that actually means anything.
Ratings across the board in every network, particularly in the States, are down. So they are just not the barometer they used to be. So, that's the first part of it.
The second part of it is... we're very fortunate that we're on a network like SCI FI. Because SCI FI, unlike let's say an NBC or an ABC in the States, will make a commitment to a show and they'll say: "We're going to do a season of this and then we'll see where we're at in terms of doing a second season."
Whereas NBC or ABC may say: "We'll air three episodes and, even though we've got 16 in the can, we'll kill it because we're not happy with the reaction."
So we were guaranteed to go through our first season. As far as a second season goes... There are a lot of factors involved beyond just the hard ratings numbers. Advertising dollars are spent in certain demographic regions, and I know the show has done very well in some of the key demographics that the network are happy with. I also know that a lot of people Tivo the show in the States - where they recorded it and watch it at another time - and those numbers aren't tracked by traditional ratings.
Both Stargate: Atlantis and Flash Gordon have been rated some of the highest Tivo numbers for the network. So that's a factor in their decision for Season Two as well.
At the end of the day I don't know if it will get a second season or not. I've heard mixed things. I've heard some people say that they'll absolutely do it, and other people who've said: "No, maybe not."
So, we're all in a bit of a state of limbo at the moment waiting to see what will happen.
DR: If the show does go on to run for years and you get fed up with playing Rankol, or you feel that there is nowhere else for him to go, how would you like to leave the show?
JLW: Well... I think rather than dying in a fiery crash [laughs] I think that probably the best way that I would like to go out is to have his fate be nebulous. So, in other words, if he were cast out and disappeared into the wilderness, or cryogenically frozen and put in a tank somewhere so that we're wondering if he'll ever get out or not.
Those sort of things would certainly be fun because it kind of leaves it open ended and it leaves open the possibility that if you were potentially not thrilled about the way the character had evolved, or you'd got tired of playing it or wanted to move on to other projects, at least it gives you the opportunity to revisit it at some point down the road if you wanted to.
I have a great relationship with the creators of the show and the producers and, I think, that if I were to do it for three, four, five seasons and then suddenly wake up and go: "Oh God, I just don't want to do it any more. I don't want to have that plate on my head any more." I could probably ask them to figure out a way to kill me off, and they will be okay with it.
DR: You've worked in theatre, TV and movies. Where do you feel most at home?
JLW: They're all very different. In terms of the acting and the way you approach them and the style of work, they're all very different. I don't do a lot of theatre any more, but I've always loved the live nature of it and being able to hear and sense an audience. There's something that gives a very visceral energy to a performance. And, of course, you're doing it live so if you screw up you're in big trouble [laughs].
Television is a great amount of fun because you get to do an enormous volume of work over a stretch of time, and build a character, find nuances, develop layers and all those sorts of things.
I do really like making films. I had a great opportunity to work on a film last year, called Shooter [pictured right], with Mark Wahlberg and Danny Glover. It was directed by Antoine Fuqua, who did Training Day, and it was just a great experience to work on something where you could take a full day to do a one and a half page scene and really work it and try and get every beat of it right.
That was a tremendous amount of fun, and just to work on some of those great old sound stages in Los Angeles, and being able to play in that world, was a lot of fun.
DR: Because of the way films are shot, do you have a difficult time getting under the skin of your character than you do when doing TV or theatre?
JLW: It's part of the process with both film and TV, but particularly film, when you know that you're going to be shooting everything out of sequence. You have to go through the script and track the character yourself, to figure out where you are in given situations, and then make sure that when you go to shot a scene that you are in the place where you sense you should be in terms of that arc.
It hasn't happened to me, but I've heard situations where somebody's been cast in a film where three quarters of the way through they bed the leading lady, and have that big romantic moment. And, literally, they walk on set for the first time and shake each other's hands, say: "How nice to meet you. Okay, let's get into bed."
That's just the nature of the business. That's just the way it works sometimes and you just have to adjust to it. I don't actually mind it, because what you end up doing is you focus on each individual scene. And, yes, it's part of an arc and you have to track where you are, but you really get to dial into that emotional moment of that scene.
I think it's fun. It's a challenge. It is a funny way of doing things, but it's a very interesting one.
DR: With the advent of DVD actors are asked to take part in behind the scenes features and audio commentaries. Is that something that you enjoy being a part of?
JLW: To be perfectly honest, it depends on whether I like what they've come up with.
What's become quite popular these days is doing these kinda made-up scenarios - where you're doing some publicity stuff where they'll get you to pretend that something's happened and play out a scenario. It's supposed to be behind the scenes but it's been made up. I'm a bit loathed to do those to be honest. Because they're not written, then they're more up to the will of people to kind of fabricate, and they don't always come off. I always feel a bit lost in that situation because, although I have done improv in the past, I'm much better when I've got the words in front of me and somebody's actually spent the time to write the stuff down and then I can just perform it.
So, that's always a bit loathsome to have to do those things. But I don't mind doing the behind the scenes; here's a day in the life of...; or them filming me going through the makeup process or me talking about the character off camera. I don't mind doing any of that, that's all fine.
DR: If a movie were to be made of your life what genre would it be, and who would play you?
JLW: [Laughs] It would probably be a very surreal comedy and as far as who would play me... that depends. If I was being hugely egotistical and completely deluded then I would say get someone like Hayden Christensen. Then I could live in the belief that I am that good looking. But if I were being a realist, I would say Tim Roth could play me.
DR: Have you attended a sci-fi convention yet? And if so how did you find the experience?
JLW: I haven't been to a convention for Flash yet. I have done science fiction conventions before, for a couple of things. I wrote for The Outer Limits, so I've been to them as a writer. I got invited to one because I'd been in The X Files, even though I had a very peripheral role in it. I also went to one for a television series I did called The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne that was on SCI FI in the states and had a very cult following. About 300 people showed up because four or five of us from the cast were going to be there.
Science fiction conventions are a very interesting and strange environment, because people are just so passionate about all manor of science fiction and fantasy. Some of them really get into it fully with the costumes and stuff. Imagine if they did a West Wing convention and had people turning up in suits and pretending to be a senator from Ohio. People just wouldn't do it, but with science fiction you get everybody out bringing their swords and wearing their Dalek outfit - it's very strange.
I had a great time with it, but it can sometime dip into the surreal. I had a woman who very meekly came up to the table I was sitting at and said: "I wanted to give you this. I drew you a picture and it's of you and I just wanted you to have it as a present."
I said: "Thank you" and took it from her and it was a picture of me in character, drawn in crayon, riding a Pegasus. Now, there was no Pegasus in the show, but she just liked the idea of me on a Pegasus.
I think for some people it's that fancy dress thing, where they may be an accountant by day and their secret dream is to be in Starfleet. So, when these conventions roll along, they get to put on their uniform, pick up their tricorder and shoot somebody with a phaser. More power to them if that's what they're into great.
DR: So far you haven't been typecast. Is that something that you worry about when you accept a role - that this will be the character that people remember you for? And, for example with Rankol, that you'll end up attending conventions for the rest of your life with a plate on your head?
JLW: [Laughs] No. I count myself lucky that I've had such a wide range and such a variety of different types of roles that I think it would be odd for me to suddenly be typecast as just one character.
You're point is valid. I mean, if this show were to go to six, seven, eight seasons, and I linger around as Rankol for that length of time, you do run the risk of getting pigeonholed into that type of a situation. Hopefully I will have either the good grace to work on other stuff that keeps that from happening, or I'll know when it's time to be done.
Careers are long and fortunately I've had a good amount of luck and I hope to continue to play lots of different kinds of stuff.
DR: Other than acting, what would your ideal job be?
JLW: Well, I'm too old to be a professional footballer... so if I had to go and do something else that wasn't in the industry, then I would probably go back and try and fulfil the dream that I had from younger years of being a pilot. I'd probably go back and take my pilot's licence.
DR: Thank you for your time.
With thanks to Marek Steven at Grafikmedia
Flash Gordon begins broadcasting in the UK on the SCI FI Channel from March 2008.
Visit the official Flash Gordon site at: www.scifi.co.uk/flashgordon
This interview was conducted on 24 January 2008