If you haven’t heard of New Zealand actor Emmett Skilton then you probably have yet to discover the brilliance of the kiwi comedy-drama series The Almighty Johnsons. If this is the case, find it on Netflix, buy the DVDs, hell – illegally download it if you must!, however you can get your hands on it – it’ll be well worth your while! Emmett, who plays youngest brother Axl Johnson in the series, speaks all things TAJ and more below.
Please note: There are some slight spoilers from the series in this interview!
Firstly, you’ve been in Los Angeles for quite a while now. What have you been up to?
Sure have. I originally came here for The Almighty Johnsons’s SYFY promotion last year and since then I have worked on various projects, a favourite being a feature film called Bella, being released later this year/early next year. And I have, of course, been exploring this giant country as best I can – Central Park in New York in the snow is a definite favourite so far!
I hear you’re also returning home to New Zealand soon to do some theatre. Is that correct? Can you tell me anything about that?
I’m working on a theatre show called Between Two Waves, performing in August, which highlights climate change and its effect on Auckland and the greater world. It’s something I feel very passionate about and it’s something we have been looking to get on stage for a few years now so it’s very exciting for it all to be coming together.
You’ve been acting for quite a long time, since you were quite young. I hear to be successful in New Zealand you really have to be good at a lot of different things creatively – so much so that you’re caterer on set may also be your stunt man – do you see this as true, something you’ve personally come across and think it’s just the nature of the New Zealand television business?
I don’t see it as vital for survival, but there is definitely huge benefit in that, and it is definitely something that exists. Some of our best actors are also very skilled directors or even make up artists, and I think there is a great benefit in that you begin to look at your craft, be it acting or something else, from a different angle, gaining perspective on things you may not have otherwise.
Has there ever been any moments of doubt where you’re just like, “Shit, I can’t do this! The competition of actors is just too high”? etc. and how to you keep that self belief and dream going in such a big competitive industry?
Being in the US, there have been tiny moments of that idea entering my head, but it has never been enough to overwhelm me. It’s important to remember that there is no one else that can actually act like you or bring your qualities to a character, so if nothing else, you have such a unique look and behaviour that may just be right for the job.
So you’re probably best known for your role as Axl Johnson in TV3’s The Almighty Johnsons. Where were you when you found out you had won the role and what was your reaction?
I was in the living room of my family home in Tawa, Wellington, and my agent called me. I don’t remember if I was sitting or standing but I ended up laying on the carpet, looking up at the ceiling, feeling the biggest relief.
Did you feel pressure, as someone who was a relatively unknown actor at the time, as well as working with some major NZ screen veterans, to take on such an important leading role?
There was definitely pressure and as Dean [O’Gorman – who plays brother Anders in the series] has said a few times – even when you get the job, you are still waiting for that moment when they ring you and tell you they’ve made a mistake, and this was no different. Even during the first meetings I had with the production team I was told something along the lines of “you’re at the helm of the ship, Emmett” – you can imagine how I took that.
I’ve got to ask – You’re totally starkers in episode one and then continuing on with three seasons of some pretty intense sex scenes. Were you comfortable with the nudity on screen?
I was, and not necessarily because I’m comfortable with exposing my body. I believe it’s important sometimes in order to tell the best stories, and we had such a great team of writers, producers and directors, who I trusted to not only handle the nudity of our show well, but only use it when it was important for the story telling, and so I felt very comfortable because of that.
Did you forbid your friends and family from watching due to the “oh my, don’t watch!” scenes in the series?
It was more Mum’s friends I was worried about, so I would warn her so she could pass it on. I think that kind of encouraged them in the end, to be honest.
Axl goes through such a big transformation from the beginning of the series to the finale. I mention, of course, S3E3 “Bergerbar” in which Axl comes close to committing suicide on more than one occasion. For a lot of people it took you from being seen as a good actor to being seen as a great actor. What was the response after filming those haunting scenes and the transformation of Axl as a whole?
Firstly, thank you, I appreciate your kind words. Secondly, that episode in particular was a pivotal time for Axl. It was the episode where he finally accepted his fate and decided that he needed to ‘man up’ and do what he needs to, not exit out the side door. This really propels him toward our finale in which he completes what he needs to, no matter what, by putting himself to the side for the sake of the world. People began to identify Axl as the man he had been striving to find within himself – pretty cool for a guy who started out hoping he could do “cool shit” as Odin.
They say that there are no real new ideas anymore yet this show seems to be such an original concept which people have embraced. Are you surprised how well the show did locally and continues to do now internationally?
I really am surprised. It is unique in how it blends genre and worlds and because of that I see how it appeals to a wide audience, but the international recognition it is getting I really didn’t see coming and I am so grateful that it is affecting so many people in the way that it is!
Do you think that Dean being in The Hobbit and Keisha Castle-Hughes, now in Game of Thrones, is the reason for the extra attention?
That will definitely feed into it but currently it seems to be the global Netflix release which has brought the show into so many more peoples minds than cable or television could have.
It says on your IMDB page that you also are one of four brothers, is the show a case of art imitating life? (You weren’t secretly struck by lightening at age 21 were you? haha!)
I sure am one of four and, no, currently living 27 years lightening free, fortunately, though I do get a little curious every time I see a storm coming.
The show looked like it was a lot of fun to film. Was it a fun set to be on and do you have any fun stories or bloopers you can share?
It was always fun. Such a great cast and crew who were not only focused on making a damn good product, but were always keen to find the light side of every situation. There was one scene we shot, in the last few episodes, where the Pacific God of the Sea comes to Axl’s house and throws dead fish and other sea life at him, showing him exactly what he needs to do as Odin, because the effects are already showing in the ocean. Well, not only did I have fish thrown at me, but also an octopus, which, just on CUT at the end of the take, its ink sac exploded at my face. Needless to say we took a break for a few hours while I cleaned myself up and we got the horrific smell out of the studio. And the worst part of all that – we didn’t end up using the scene, it was an already packed episode and we couldn’t fit it in … You may notice that in one scene Zeb is cutting up fish – those were the fish that were thrown at me.
Despite all the craziness that happens on the show, one of the show’s core value is friendship – especially the bromance between Axl and Zeb. Did you have as good of a connection with Hayden Frost as seen on screen?
Hayden and I, being a few of the only younger actors on set, struck up a friendship very early on, and his immense knowledge of film and theatre made him a fascinating buddy to be around, so our relationship was definitely as strong, just the things we did, compared to Axl and Zeb, were sliiiiightly different.
Do you think Zeb or Dawn were the most screwed over (metaphorically speaking, of course) by the Johnson family during the series?
Oh shit. That’s a tough one. I think anyone having to deal with Bragi is one unlucky human, but I think they both had so much love invested in the Johnson Family that I would like to think it was all worth it in the end.
Whose God power do you wish you had?
Ullr’s ability to win at everything. Never Ty’s power of “Mr Freezy”.
How do you think Axl would have coped if he went through with the marriage to Eva?
He wouldn’t have? He’s such a positive, optimistic guy, it would have driven him into the ground!
The finale episode seems to have people divided. Some people think the show should have continued on for another season whilst others think a fourth season was unneeded and would have only cheapened the series. Were you happy with the way the show ended or would you have liked it to go for another season or more?
I was happy, for two specific reasons. On a personal level, I had set out to build Axl into a man, as I saw this series as a coming of age story about a boy navigating his way to manhood, and we achieved that. Secondly, our goal was to tell a story where these unlikely men completed a task in their world, beyond their own choice or control, to save the world. We achieved that too. So even though we could have created new story lines with these men as gods or these men as mortals, we nailed what we set out to accomplish, and I will forever be satisfied with that.
If the show did go on for a fourth season, what would you have liked to have seen happen to your character?
That one is left up to the Gods, so to speak, but I definitely think some Mortal Axl vs God Odin would be in order, for good, or maybe not.
There seemed to be an instant connection between Ty & Eva and Anders & Helen when each other met, but when Axl met Hanna there was almost no connection or even any warmth between them. Do you have a theory on why this was?
Yes. It was a choice by the producers to not elude to the fact that Hanna and Axl were destined to be together, and so they chose not to show that slow motion “God Effect”, as we call it. You might recall Hanna saying that she felt it the moment she laid eyes on Axl, though, and Axl felt it too, so just for story telling reasons, our producers wanted to keep the mystery of “Who is the real Odin, Mike or Axl”. Either that or it was just bad acting?
What were your favourite episodes or story lines throughout the series?
I really loved episode 7 in season 3 [Typical Auckland God] where Axl stays in Whangamaungamoa, guiding Thor through a hard time in his life. There was something very satisfying about Axl making his own decisions, free of his family, and he learned a lot about his place in the world through his relationship with both Thor and Suzie.
Lastly, were you a fan of mythology before you were cast in the series? Did you do any research before/after getting the role?
I wasn’t NOT a fan, but I certainly wasn’t educated beyond knowing who Thor was, for example. Through out the series, discovering all the ways that James Griffin, our creator and writer, had weaved Norse Mythology through the series made it so much more rich and exciting to read, knowing he was exploring thousand year old stories and bringing them into modern relevance.