Beneath the Sea: Interview with Phantom's Johnathon Schaech

By , Contributor

Alan Mercer

Actor Johnathon Schaech

In 1998, Johnathon Schaech was cast as the legendary escape artist/magician Harry Houdini in the TNT made-for-TV movie Houdini. His work garnered the actor critical praise from Variety, in an article citing "an exceptional performance by Johnathon Schaech." The project was executive produced by Trilogy Entertainment’s John Watson and Pen Densham (who also wrote the script and directed), both of whom were also impressed by the actor’s efforts.

Almost 15 years later, when the two were helping cast the 2013 feature film Phantom, they wanted Schaech to be a part of it. As far as what role the actor would play, he had his heart set on a particular one right from the start.

“When I first read the script, I thought, ‘Would they give me the character of Pavlov?’” says Schaech. “’He’s really critical to the whole storyline. Am I asking too much?’ So I asked them and they said, ‘Well, there’s actually this other role we’d like you to do.’ However, because I had nerded out on the Pavlov, role, I began working on it as if it was already mine.

“A big table read of the script was scheduled with the entire cast including Ed Harris, David Duchovny and William Fichtner, and I was set to read for another character. On that day, as I was driving to the studio, I got a phone call from Pen Densham. He told me that the actor who was set to read for the part of Pavlov wouldn’t be able to make it, and could I read that role as well. I said, ‘Yes, of course,’ and then thought to myself, ‘If the acting gods are working, they’re working right now.’

“I got to the table read, did my thing, said good-bye to everyone and left. Fifteen minutes into my drive home I received another call, this time from [executive producer/director/writer] Todd Robinson. He said, ‘I’ve talked with everyone here and we want you to play the role of Pavlov. You brought so much humanity to this character that I want to continue the [creative] process and explore this role with you.’ I couldn’t believe it. I started shaking so much that I pulled over to the side of the road. It was a dream come true.”

In Phantom, Dmitri “Demi” Zubov (Ed Harris) is the Soviet captain of a Cold War submarine who is secretly suffering from a medical condition that affects his perception of reality. He is also haunted by demons from his past, and that poses a problem for Demi when he is sent on a classified mission. His command is subsequently challenged by Bruni (David Duchovny), a rogue KGB agent determined to seize control of the sub’s nuclear missile. Like all the characters in the film, there is a specific reason why Schaech’s character was chosen to take part in this operation.

“Pavlov is a political officer on board the submarine, so he’s not necessarily a solider like the rest of them, even though he was properly trained to do certain things, including command the ship,” explains the actor. “Bottom line, though, the real reason he is there is that the Communist Party always put a political officer on board the ships because they didn’t trust the military.

“One thing you often read about political officers is that they were usually the ‘cheerleaders’ for the motherland, and that was very much a part of the Pavlov character. Initially, he’s very much the cheerleader and is like, ‘Everything is great. Look, we’re doing something wonderful. We’re making history.’ Then, however, the deeper issues of what was really going on begin to surface. These are things that Pavlov is unsure about, and this pushes him not only past his political ambitions along with overall ambition of doing what he feels is the right thing, but also to a far deeper place. He ends up being challenged by those he calls his friends and to look inside himself as opposed to just going along with the rhetoric.

“As an actor, what I used to help me with this performance was resisting the lure of mediocrity and, instead, having Pavlov rise up to the challenge of trying to do something great with his life as well as stand up for what he believes to be the right thing,” continues Schaech. “The way Todd wrote it, my character was the moral compass of the storyline. So I had to make personal choices in order to constantly have that response inside myself to then bring to my performance.

“The thing is, I didn’t leave Baltimore at the age of 18 to come out here to Los Angeles and do mediocre things with my life. I came out here to do something special, and as I learned, it wasn’t to become famous. It was about doing great things with my life, and the same was true of Pavlov. Politically, he wanted to rise up to greatness and do great things for his country. Acting-wise, I was faced with greatness all around me on the set of Phantom with individuals like Ed Harris, David Duchovny and William Fichtner [who plays Demi’s executive officer, Alex]. Every morning these guys would show up to work with their A-game on, so my biggest challenge was to always try to rise up against the danger of mediocrity and take risks. I think that’s how the inner dynamics of Pavlov were created.”

Does the actor have a favorite scene from Phantom? “There’s one where my character has to stand up to all his comrades and call out their leader, the captain, and make them see what he sees, which is that they’re wrong,” he says. “That was tough. There was a ton of submarine jargon that I had to get out, while at the same time hit emotional beats and make sure that the entire crew heard what was going on and what the truth was.

“So that was a big scene, but the most memorable scene for me is a really private, intimate one I had with Ed Harris. In real life, when you’re serving aboard a submarine, you get to know your fellow crew members and what they like to do. Ed and I both enjoy baseball, so on the day we shot that scene, he went to his truck, pulled out two baseball gloves and tossed me one. Before we got into that submarine to film that scene, the two of us started playing catch and running lines back and forth. That’s one of the greatest moments of my career that I’ll always remember, I feel very blessed that I got to be a part of this movie.”

From beneath the sea to flying high above the clouds, Schaech can next be seen as pilot Captain Haining in Japanese filmmaker Takashi Shimitzu’s sci-fi thriller 7500. As with Phantom, he made very specific choices when it came to playing this character.

“When you’re a captain, you can’t show anyone that you have problems,” notes the actor, "and when faced with difficult situations, you start to look at your life differently and what you may have done wrong. The thing is, you won’t be able to make amends if things go wrong in a very final way, if you know what I mean. So that was the big thing for me when playing this part. When the you-know-what hits the fan, I knew my character had to win out or else he would never be able to make up for anything he may have done wrong in his life.”

Schaech is also looking forward to audiences seeing him in the upcoming Showtime cable TV series Ray Donovan and the miniseries The Appomattox. “With Ray Donovan, I’m getting to work with people like Liev Schreiber and Elliot Gould, and in the next episode I’ll be working with Jon Voight,” he says. “So I’m stepping back into the ring with some of the greats. These guys are terrific, and, again, I came to Los Angeles to become the best actor I can be, and I’m getting to act with the best, first in Phantom and now Ray Donovan. I always dreamt of being a movie star, and although I’m not one in real life, the cool thing about Ray Donovan is that I get to play one. That’s fun,” enthuses the actor.

“As far as The Appomattox, that’s another great role. The story is based on the American Civil War and how all the generals and captains were in the same school before the union split, so now they’re fighting against their comrades.

“I’m often cast as foreign individuals, and it’s fortunate that I can pull off accents. It’s always such a compliment when someone tells you that they’ve heard some of your previous work and want you to, in this case, play someone with a German accent. My character of Johann Mueller is an immigrant who arrives by boat to America, comes ashore and is basically told, ‘If you fight for us, you can become an American citizen.’ There was this hope, this dream of freedom in America, so right away my character is given a musket and put on the front lines, like many of these people were. I’m having a ball working on this as well.”

Born in Edgewood, Maryland to Joseph Schaech, a Baltimore City police officer, and Joanne, a human resources executive, the actor broke into the industry doing commercials. He eventually moved to Los Angeles to continue honing his craft. Schaech spent four years studying with the  legendary acting coach, the late Roy London. During that time, he had small parts in various productions before landing the lead role in Franco Zeffirelli’s period piece Storia di una Capinera (Sparrow).

“That was pretty much trial by fire, especially because I had to do an English accent,” recalls Schaech. “I was put out there with Vanessa Redgrave, Sinead Cusack, Frank Finlay along with other great Shakespearean actors of the time, and Franco Zeffirelli made me step up to the plate. For my screen test I did a scene from [David Mamet’s stage play] Speed-the-Plow. I guess there was an edge or rawness to my performance that intrigued Zeffirelli, and he basically cast me because of that.”

How to Make an American Quilt, The Doom Generation, Woundings, Prom Night, Quarantine and Takers are some of the actor’s other film credits. On TV he has appeared in variety of made-for-TV movies as well as such series as The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., Models, Inc., Time of Your Life, Masters of Horror, Cold Case and CSI: Miami. In his spare time, Schaech is actively involved in helping protect arts education in public schools and serves on the board of directors for the charity Adopt the Arts. He also supports the national nonprofit organization TACA (Talking About Curing Autism), which helps educate, empower and support families affected by autism.

There is no denying that acting is one of the most difficult and unpredictable careers to pursue, but whenever the going gets tough, Schaech has something that he can turn to in order to help him soldier on.

“I recently found some letters that my father wrote me when I first moved out here,” he says. “Being a policeman, he didn’t know anything about show business, but one letter will put it in perspective for you. Every time he walked up a flight of stairs, he didn’t know what the suspect was doing up there or what would be waiting for him.

“The fear and adrenaline would hit him no matter what, and he said, ‘That’s the same thing you will have to face, the unknown, and it’s the unknown that we’re scared of. When I get to the top of those steps, the suspect might have a gun. Well, I had a gun. If he had a knife, I could somehow get rid of it. If someone was being hurt, I could stop that. I found I was able to get through every single day even though I had a fear of the unknown. It’s the unknown that’s going to get you, but just know that if you keep God in your heart, you’ll make it.’”

Please note, all photos of Johnathon Schaech by/courtesy of Alan Mercer, Houndini poster copyright of TNT, and all Phantom photos copyright Phantom/RCR Distribution.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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