Working either side of the camera suits Clark Johnson just fine. Over three decades in film and television, Johnson has become one of very few people capable of shifting effortlessly between acting and directing.
Born in Philadelphia and transplanted to Montreal, Johnson went to Montreal's Concordia University before later attending Eastern Michigan University on a football scholarship.
Although he was drafted by the CFL and later played briefly with the NFL's Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers, Johnson had creative ambitions. He spent much of the eighties collecting acting credits, with small parts in films like Nowhere to Hide and Adventures in Babysitting before landing regular roles in Canadian-made series such as Hot Shots and Night Heat.
All the while, though, Johnson had a passion to direct, which he first expressed by directing music videos for his sister, jazz singer Molly Johnson. In 1993, he landed the role of detective Meldrick Lewis on the NBC crime drama Homicide: Life on the Street. Homicide also gave Johnson the opportunity to direct several episodes, and suddenly he had a second career.
After directing episodes of TV series such as NYPD Blue and The West Wing, Johnson eventually became known as the go-to guy for launching series and directed the pilot episode of HBO's The Wire and The Shield, among others . On the big screen, he has directed features such as S.W.A.T. and The Sentinel.
And yes, he still acts. Johnson also took a lead acting role in the final season of The Wire, playing an earnest Baltimore newspaperman.
Most recently, Johnson has been in Toronto directing the pilot for King, a new police drama starring Amy Price-Francis as a no-nonsense cop. He recently spoke to us from the downtown set.
King is the ninth series you've launched as a director. Does that put any extra pressure on you?
Nah, I like doing that. This is my first one up here in Toronto. And King was written by a really good friend of mine, so I can't let him down.
Do you have pilot directing down to a fine art?
The first thing is finding a star. We saw a million actors before we found Amy. I wasn't quite convinced before the audition, and gradually she just became the character, which is amazing to see when it happens. Now she completely embodies this character. The same thing happened with Michael Chiklis on The Shield.
I hope Michael Chiklis sends you a nice fruit basket each Christmas ...
[Laughs]Michael and I are still pretty close, so that's all right.
Do you now consider yourself more a director than an actor?
No, I'm an actor who directs. Probably always will be.
In the eighties, you co-starred on the Canadian cop show Night Heat. Did you get to keep the funky outfits?
That's the trouble with playing a cutting-edge narcotics detective - you've got to wear what's topical at the moment. My kids tease me about outfits I was wearing last week, let alone in the eighties.
You cut your director's teeth on Homicide. Do you still use those lessons today?
What I learned on Homicide was that each show deserves its own look. The city of Baltimore was a character in Homicide, and I really picked up on that. So Baltimore was also a character in The Wire, L.A. was a character in The Shield and now Toronto is a character in King. You want to celebrate the city you're in. I also saw a lot of different directors and a lot of different styles on Homicide. They all inform you, you know?
Besides launching The Wire, you also starred in its last season as city editor Gus Haynes. How did you research the role?
It was easy for me because [ The Wire creator]David Simon came from the newspaper world, so he wrote the city editor that everybody wanted. I called myself the patron saint of journalism. After that last season, I got to go to press dinners and hobnob with the superstars of print media, which was really cool. I could have gone another season playing that character.
Are you a rabid fan of The Wire, like everyone else?
You know, I haven't even seen The Wire. I'm going to sit down someday like all The Wire crackheads and watch a bunch of them, but so far I've only seen the ones I directed.
Have cable shows like The Wire and The Sopranos erased the status distinction between TV and film?
In some ways, and that's fine, though I take exception to people watching Gone with the Wind or Lawrence of Arabia on their iPhone. I'm happy with kids making YouTube movies, and cinema being diverse, but there's still that visceral experience of sitting in the dark with 300 other people watching on the big screen.
What other directing projects are you working on?
Right now I'm working on a movie about Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian journalist who took on the Nigerian government over oil in that country. I'm also writing my parents' life story, which is an ongoing project. My parents were peaceniks and civil-rights activists. We moved to Canada from the U.S. because they were an interracial couple, and that wasn't easy at the time. It's a great story, but getting a movie made is so freaking hard.
Have you ever wondered why you're the go-to guy for so many police dramas?
You know that quote from Al Pacino in The Godfather - 'Every time I think I'm out, they pull me back in…' I keep trying to get away from cop dramas, and then I get a great script like King. And the drama genre always lends itself to the cop life, because there are so many life stories to be presented that just aren't about guns and robbers.
This interview has been condensed and edited.