Stepping into a legacy role like Sam Fisher comes with a few anxieties. For actor Eric Johnson – whose work includes Smallville, Rookie Blue and the upcoming Cinemax series The Knick – not only would he be replacing fan-favorite Michael Ironsides, but he had to do it in a mocap suit, bringing full performance capture (voice, facial, and body) to the Splinter Cell franchise for the first time. The good news? Not only did Johnson bring a fresh approach to Sam Fisher, but he also had a great time doing so. We chatted with Johnson about making the jump from film to games as well as his thoughts on how Sam has evolved and what it was like to see himself walk (literally) like Fisher.
What was it like to have your first role in a game be such an established one?
Obviously I had known the game. I played the series. I had also known Michael Ironside from working with him years ago. He was such a great influence on me early on in my career. It’s a little surreal. I feel very lucky that my first game is such an incredible game coming from a great company. I also feel lucky to be stepping into the shoes of someone I wholly admire. It couldn’t be more ideal.
Did you work with Michael Ironside at all?
He came up while we were shooting and we got the chance to talk and he was telling me some stories from the early days of working on Splinter Cell. I think a lot of the things we associate with Sam Fisher are things he brought to the table, especially early on in terms of making him relatable and giving him that wry sense of humor. So much of who Sam Fisher is and the things we associate with this character were established by Michael Ironside. Just like there are certain things James Bond will always do and there are certain things Batman will always do, no matter who is playing them. We’re working with the parameters he established.
What exactly were some of those parameters that you really wanted to make sure you captured?
A lot of it has to do with his presence. Sam Fisher is not a guy who has to say a lot when he’s in a room. We wanted to make him accessible, to a degree. We wanted him to be relatable so we could see a bit more of his human side. His sarcastic humor was one of the things we looked at. That came into play especially in the scenes with Kobin, which were so much fun. There’s a lot of tension in this game in terms of a ticking clock. There’s not always time for a comedic beat. Between dealing with Kobin and Charlie… Those were the moments where that sarcastic humor came out.
And then there’s how he stands and how he addresses people – just his overall command of a space. Sam Fisher is not going to get into any situation he’s not comfortable with. Those are some of the big things.
Blacklist offers a new look at Sam Fisher. What’s changed for Sam, and how did you capture that in your performance?
One of the big things that changed for Sam Fisher with this game is how he relates to other people. Before, he was the lone wolf, out on his own with Grim in his ear. Now he’s responsible for a team. Sam would be willing to take certain risks if it were just him, but now that there are other lives on the line – people he genuinely cares about – he has to change how he operates. There’s a level of vulnerability to him because of that. He’s going to be making choices he wouldn’t make on his own. There’s a level of compassion and care and dedication that you see that – other than in his relationship with his daughter, Sarah – is a new way for him to operate.
How do you take someone who’s all about authority and slowly humanize him and make him more vulnerable?
I think one of the things that becomes evident as you play the game is exactly what you just said. He does become vulnerable. There’s a level of compassion there but you’ve got to maintain his authority. There’s an internal conflict that comes across in the game and the scenes in terms of trying to work with the team. He wants to do things a certain way but he can’t and I think, initially, you see a lot of conflict and a lack of trust within the team. He’s brought in Charlie Cole, who he does trust even though he’s a bit of an ass. He doesn’t trust Grim and he doesn’t trust Briggs and he doesn’t really trust the President right now. For him there has to be an element of letting go and trusting people and knowing, I’m not going to get through this on my own if I don’t work with this team. There’s a maturation of him in that. He can’t just be the Sam Fisher he’s always been. He has to evolve. It’s evolve or die. He’s an interesting character.
You’re primarily a screen actor. You’re used to sets and props and costumes. What’s it like going into a mocap studio where you have to use your imagination for almost everything?
It’s like doing theater in high school. There was one point – they’re going to hate me for saying this – when we were using a pool noodle as a stand-in for an AK-47. The magic of the animators made it work, but the physicality was there.
You really are reliant on your imagination, which, strangely, becomes very immersive. You have to fully commit to the world. They give you as much information as they can with the proxies and the set design beforehand but then you’re just fully using your imagination. I didn’t expect it to be as creatively fulfilling as it was. I expected it to be much more technical and then I would have to fight for little bits of creativity and performance. It was actually the opposite. They were so supportive of performance and making it authentic and real and honest. That was a word we kept using. It’s feeling false. We need to make this feel authentic. We need to make it feel real.
I give them full credit for the creative team to be so open and have a dialogue. We would be rehearsing, usually the day before… We would do a read-through like a week before, then we would rehearse and then we would shoot. All along that pathway they were open to feedback about what was working and what wasn’t working. I really, really appreciated that. I did not expect that level of open input. It created a dialogue to shape this game and shape the scenes and shape the cinematics in ways that felt authentic and real. I think when you add that to the facial cameras and how we do performance capture now, it just gives every scene a level of reality and authenticity and makes it more immersive for the player.
Tell us something that’s uniquely you that you brought to the role. Maybe something small that you’re really proud of that people might not see right away…
This is going to sound really stupid, but this was a huge deal to me: Just when the character is walking – it sounds so silly because it’s such a small thing – that’s my walk cycle! That’s how I walk. When you’re walking around a level and things aren’t going crazy and he’s just walking around it’s like I’m watching myself walk around. It’s very surreal.
That’s the great thing about performance capture. It’s all these subtleties I’m used to seeing on a TV screen but it’s in a videogame. It blows me away how that whole pipeline works and how immersive and truthful it is to your actions. There are just so many little things they are able to pick up – the slight rise and fall of your chest as you breathe on a line. Sam and my facial geometry lines up pretty well, which is one of the things they said early on that they were happy with because it just makes transferring all that information over much easier. So where he doesn’t exactly look like me because we’re not doing likeness, it looks truthful to me in that whole other way. It’s wild. It truly is.
Do you have a preferred playstyle?
It depends. I love the idea of Ghost [laughs]. But one of my favorite things to do is throw people off buildings. I just absolutely love doing that. When I do a little too much of that and get myself into a situation I end up just trying to shoot my way out.
Do you see yourself coming back to take on the role of Sam again?
If they ask me I would do it in a heartbeat. It was so much fun and, again, as a fan getting to step into a character like this and taking over for someone I admire and respect couldn’t be a sweeter gig.