Eric Johnson isn't what you'd call a slacker. As we talk, it's only a little before 7 a.m. his time, and he already sounds upbeat, focused and ready to attack the day -- which is fitting for a guy who's taken on the title role in Sci Fi Channel's new "Flash Gordon" series, premiering Friday, Aug. 10.
And even though he's already many weeks into production, he maintains that for him, this new adventure just gets more and more exciting. "I was a little worried that after we got into the realities of making this show, that the enthusiasm would wane," he says. "But it's actually been the exact opposite."
It's not the first project he's taken on that's been rooted in comic-book lore -- many viewers will remember Johnson from his role as a rival to Clark Kent in "Smallville" -- but for someone who obviously is excited about donning the mantle of a comic legend, Johnson's roots in the medium don't stretch back to his childhood as you might think. "I was too lost in my own fantasy world to be getting into anybody else's," he explains. "I was a kid with a wild imagination, and I never quite got into comic books."
Flash Gordon has been around since the first Alex Raymond strip was published in 1934, and he's returned in many incarnations since. As for the Sci Fi Channel's version, "it's set in contemporary times," Johnson says. "What I think Peter Hume, the show writer, has done -- and the producers have done ... they've taken the modern spin on it to allow audiences to identify with this character a little more."
But this isn't a reimagining, as Johnson makes clear. The series begins right where the original Raymond strip begins. "We're starting this from day one. We're not picking this up that this has been happening and Flash is this incredible guy. He's just a regular guy.
"It's also the creation of a hero," he explains. "The thing that I really respond to with Flash Gordon is that he's not a superhero. He has no special powers. He has no fantastical abilities -- he's not a mutant, so to speak. He's just a regular guy. And I think that's what makes this show a little bit different, in a sense. He's a regular guy who's doing the right thing, and going to fight for the little guy and going against all odds."
As a lad from Alberta, Canada, Johnson arrived at his career path in what he dryly describes as typically Canadian fashion. "I was a horrible hockey player," he admits, chuckling. "It became very apparent that that wasn't going to be my career path as a young Canadian boy.
"My parents needed to send me somewhere on the weekends to get me the heck out of the house, and there was a girl in our neighborhood who had taken a summer acting class, and I decided to sign up and, of course, had a blast being the center of attention and decided, 'You know what? This is a lot of fun. Sign me up for the rest of the year' -- and absolutely hated the entire year until we did our year-end performance in front of the audience," he says. "And from the time I was about 14, there hasn't been much else that I've wanted to do. I find it's incredibly rewarding."
Johnson's rewarding career path initially spirited him from his hometown of Edmonton out to the West Coast several years ago, eventually bringing him and his wife to L.A. "Of course, what happens when you move away?" he asks, rhetorically. "They find a reason to get you back -- which we fully knew was going to happen, so now we're back up in Vancouver shooting 'Flash Gordon.'"
Some people might find the necessity of such boomerang relocation annoying, but Johnson is more amused than aggravated. "It's funny," he says. "When I left Alberta, originally, I seemed to work in Alberta more than anywhere else. And now that I've left Vancouver, they have a way of pulling us right back, and we couldn't be more happy about that."
But they could be happier, still, in general. And they are. "[We're] expecting our first child, which is pretty exciting," Johnson understates. His wife is due in October. "We'll still be shooting, too. It should be interesting. You'll see the 'Tired Flash Gordon' episode, where Flash is sitting down in a lot of scenes, and (saying, in a groggy voice), 'I'll be right there. I just need some coffee,'" he says, laughing.
When Johnson isn't on the set saving the world as Flash Gordon, he says he and his wife keep busy saving the world in other ways, as active and engaged environmentalists. "It's sounding cliche now, but we have been, for years," he says. "Without sounding pretentious or anything like that, social and environmental change is very important to us -- finding better ways to do things. I think that there's always a better way to do things, and we should always be looking for those answers. So that's something that we find very important -- the idea of ethical business, sustainable businesses."
Committed to the cause as he is, at present Johnson is absolutely immersed in the role he's playing and in the one to which he's getting ready to commit as a father-to-be, leaving little time for summer fun. He sums up his 2007 vacation plan in two words: "Um, Comic-Con?" he says, halfheartedly trying to convince himself that a convention of comic enthusiasts -- at which he's scheduled to appear as part of his "Flash Gordon promotional duties" -- qualifies as legitimate downtime. But even the savior of the universe gets a break once in a while, even if he's not able to travel. "We have a two-week hiatus," he says. "I think I'm going to take my wife to a nice, quiet spa on Vancouver Island for a couple of days."
For a guy who starts his day handling 6:30 a.m. interviews, that doesn't sound like a bad idea at all.
Sci Fi Hopes 'Gordon' Isn't a Flash in the Pan
Eric Johnson on 'Flash Gordon'