Jonathan Walker (2008)
I felt so sorry for Jonathan Walker. Speaking to him, it was obvious that he put in a lot of effort and time into creating his character for the 2007 Flash Gordon. It paid off somewhat, as his character was the best thing in the series. But unfortunately, the show was one of the worst pieces of SF I have ever had to watch. Still, Walker was a thoroughly nice chap, and I’d like to see him in an SF role again. This interview is from Death Ray 12, published before the news came out that there wouldn’t (unsurprisingly) be a second season.
In SciFi’s Flash Gordon, planetary dictator Ming has a new chief scientist, Rankol. But is he evil though? Jonathan Walker, the man who plays him, certainly is not.
Rankol is undoubtedly the best thing about the new Flash Gordon. A conflicted genius, Rankol is a deviate, one of those inhabitants of Mongo born a mutant thanks to the planet’s contaminated water. The show got off to a rocky start, fans not happy about Ming’s lack of mercilessness, and the hopping back and forth between Mongo and Earth, among other things. But Flash, Dale, Ming et al had to bear the expectations of an audience to whom Flash was a household name, an SF icon. They were bound to be disappointed, no matter what. Rankol, who was entirely new, did not. Furthermore, he’s the most nuanced of all the series’ characters. Deviates are generally executed on Mongo, but Rankol’s intellect makes him of great use to Ming, despite his gross physical deformities. Rankol works for the man who has committed genocide on his kind. You can’t get loyalties more divided than that.
Breathing life into this interesting creation is Jonathan Walker, a British-born thesp who has long been a citizen of Canada (in a welcome break from current Hollywood mores, he doesn’t play this demi-villain as a Brit). Taking a break in the UK, the passionately bigs up his show.
Guy Haley: How is it appearing in a show with such an iconic history?
Jonathan Walker: It’s a great deal of fun. But what really drew me to it was the strength of Rankol, he’s a character who is not based in the original Alex Raymond comic strips, and as such they’ve really given him a lot of interesting nuances and layers, a lot of subtext. All of that really appealed to me. Of course doing something that is based on such a cornerstone of the genre is exciting too.
GFH: Would it have been less interesting to play one of the original characters?
JW: To be perfectly honest with you, I originally read for Zarkov, but they decided that they wanted a more comedic take on the character. But they were really interested in me and decided that they would offer me the part of Rankol, and I am glad that it worked out that way, because whenever they are dealing with those other characters – Zarkov, Flash, Dale – they’re all pre-existing characters that come toploaded with expectation, and they are somewhat template characters, whereas Rankol is a chance to paint outside the lines, if you will. I didn’t want to have to recreate a character that four other actors had played, or be constrained by the rules of the universe of how a character was supposed to be. It was a good opportunity to start afresh.
GFH:Your character is among the most interesting in the show…
JW: Well thank you, I think you will see as the show goes along that the storylines become more complex, we get more into long story arcs as opposed to standalone episodes. The show does go through a bit of a transformation after about episode six. It really figured itself out, they found their feet. Rankol develops as a character, a very intriguing one, and there’s a lot of mystery about him…
GFH:Yeah, he’s a bit of an outsider isn’t he?
JW: Oh, total outsider, yeah. He is a deviate, and deviates basically carry around physical and mental deformities from drinking polluted water. They are either cast out, or, as you will find out later on in episodes, there is a mandated cull, where babies born that have a deformity are immediately killed. And somehow he managed to elude that, and only because of the strength of his intelligence, was he able to survive and end up in this enormously powerful position, having this influence over the leader of that world.
GFH:How did he survive?
JW: We haven’t yet in the show gotten into his back story, but I am quite excited by the potential if I do, indeed, come back for a season two.
GFH: His legs are the most deformed part of him, one flipper leg, and one what I believe the crew call “the baby foot”. Rankol has to move around on an anti-gravity ring. His gliding about is visually effective. How is this effect achieved?
JW: If you were on the phone with a magician and you said, god I really love that trick where you cut the women in half, how do you that, they would be very unlikely to give you a straight answer. Part of the joy of it is being uncertain of the trick and that’s what I think makes it work so well. So I’m not going to give away Rankol’s secret.
GFH: Well, however you do it it, the costume must be quite constraining to your movements…
JW: Yes it is, it’s definitely a tricky thing. I was very conscious of that from early on, and I wanted to be sure that that effect wouldn’t impede my performance. We have a very brilliant special effects team, so it works very, very well. We’ve used it in a number of different ways, the effect, and you’ll see in some of the episodes, it’s really quite remarkable.
GFH: He’s a bit of an anti-Zarkov really, Rankol… Is he evil, or just a pragmatist?
JW: I wouldn’t say that he is evil, he certainly does some things that are questionable and a bit ruthless, but at the end of the day he is driven by a desire to do something that is actually decent. As the show goes on some of those layers start to reveal themselves, and it will make an audience ask, “Is Rankol really a bad guy or isn’t he?” And that’s a huge amount of fun to play, because, yeah you know in an unstable political situation, sometimes there are people that rise to power that have other agendas in mind. Rankol’s certainly one of those, so it would be up to the people who benefited or suffered as a result of that agenda to decide whether he is a hero or a villain.
GFH: He’s a very measured, very patient, very ironic character, very glum. Is he like you?
JW: No! That was definitely a character choice. One of the things that was left open for me was to paint in the details of his physicality. My delivery was part of what cemented the idea of me getting the part. I said early on to the producers, “Why does he have this plate on his head?” they told me it was because he’s got a brain deformity. And I said, “what does it do, what does it cause?” And they said, “Well, we don’t really know…” That was my opportunity to fill in the blanks for myself as an actor, so I decided that obviously his brain abnormality not only provides him with his great intelligence, but it also causes him a great amount of pain. I’ve got friends who suffer from migraines, and often what they say is that when they feel one coming on but it hasn’t fully landed, they can stave it off just by being very quiet, and behaving in a very restrained fashion. And I thought that was interesting, so I worked it in that he’s in a state of pain that he has to manage. That’s why he’s so subdued. But that’s definitely a character thing, it’s definitely not me, I think that if you spoke to some of the other actors you’d know that on set I’d be the one causing trouble!
GFH: It must be difficult to cause too much trouble in that costume!
JW: The nice thing is that you you can sneak up on people, because the way the costume moves, they literally cannot hear you coming. Suddenly you’re seven feet tall and standing over them. That makes them jump!
GFH: So you’re never in a position where they’ve gone to lunch and they’ve left you in the corner…
JW: You know what, it did happen on a couple of occasions! We’re in the middle of a scene and the lunch bell rang and everyone just buggered off. But they fortunately remembered me and came back.
GFH: You were in an episode of Stargate, how does appearing as a guest in a series contrast with being a series regular?
JW: Oh, that’s a good question. As a guest star, when you step on set is you have to measure the energy of the place, because if you’re walking into a show that’s got big egos, or a tension or stress about it, you have to make a decision on how you’re going to behave. Luckily in the case of Stargate, it was a really easy show to work on both because everyone there had been doing it for ages, most of the crew were still the crew who had been doing it from season one. And all the actors were in such a groove with their characters. But there’s definitely a difference with Flash Gordon, in that I got a to be part of setting the tone. I could make that experience of coming in fun. So we collectively made a decision, as the cast, that we were all going to enjoy the process, not only with each other, but to make it easy for people coming in to have fun and play and do their best. It’s very hard work to come to set in an environment that’s toxic. I’ve had the experience where’s that’s been the case. Flash was always — it sounds a very stereotypical answer but it’s very true — it was the easiest show I’ve worked on in terms of the energy on set, everyone had a lot of fun, there was a lot of camaraderie, the crew all got along well, there were no big egos.
I’ve been on sets with people on press days, where there’s like ten chairs out, and there’s been a big argument over who gets to walk out first. Who bloody cares? It’s doesn’t matter, and on our set it’s not like that.
GFH: How do you think it went down? Because to be honest, reception was mixed…
JW: The network’s idea was to make this a Flash Gordon for a new generation, but I think a lot of people came pre-loaded with an idea of what Flash Gordon should be, and unfortunately a lot of them had were very different ideas, because some of the people were fans of the film from the 80s, some of the Buster Crabbe serials, some of the Filmation version, and every one of them has been a bit different, so it was hard to meet those expectations.
I know that the producers and the writers learned a lot from both the positive and the negative reactions, and as a result implemented changes and tweaked things. A vast amount of the season, particularly the second half of the show, takes place on Mongo versus on Earth, certain characters’ contribution was increased, other characters decreased or disappeared. There was definitely an evolution in the show as it went along. I’m very, very proud, particularly of the second half of the show.
I might just sound like I’m trying to be the PR actor giving the correct quote, but I wish in many ways that we could get some of the people who had reviewed the pilot only, who didn’t like it and wrote it off, to look at the back end of the show. Granted, you reviewed what you were given, but sometimes a show is the sum of its parts, not the one piece that you previewed. I wish in some ways that we could get some of those people back to see it again, because I think their opinions would be changed. The show found its feet about halfway through and gets progressively better. We really ended on a high note. Based on fan feedback that I’ve heard, and a couple of reviews I’ve read, we’ve definitely built converts, and we’ve won back some of the people who we lost earlier on, with the strength and the quality of the latter episodes.
Definitely give it a second chance if you didn’t like the pilot. I’m the first one to admit that we had some issues at the beginning, that we had some bugs to work out, and some things, in retrospect, might have been done differently from the outset if we’d been, you know, really aware of it. But we did learn lessons as we went along, and in the end, by the end of the day, I think made a really good show.