Johnathon Schaech is a veteran actor and writer from Baltimore, Maryland. His films include That Thing You Do!, How to Make an American Quilt, Quarantine, Takers, 5 Days of War, The Legend of Hercules, and Phantom. His television series include Time of Your Life, The Client List, Ray Donovan, Star-Crossed, Texas Rising, and Blue Bloods. He can next be seen in the DC Comics series Legends of Tomorrow as Jonah Hex, and the independent film Marauders
What made you want to become an actor?
I took one acting class in college at the University of Maryland and I just realized I could do it. I’m from Baltimore and they were shooting a movie there. It just put it all into perspective for me. I thought, “That’s real. I could really do that.” That’s what catapulted me to go to California.
I told Jason Patric once, “You are the guy that inspires me to be an actor.” That was after I’d started acting. But before that, the guy that inspired me to be an actor was Tom Cruise. He was in Top Gun and Risky Business. I thought, “That guy…that’s who I want to be! I could do that.” Tom Cruise really motivated me. Really inspired me. He’s a hardworking man.
What was your biggest fear?
Not being taken seriously because of the way I look. Because I’m a pretty boy. People kept wanting to take pictures of me but I wanted to really explore more of who I was on the inside, not the outside. They kept putting me in commercials, so I saved my money and paid for just acting classes and rent. I studied with Roy London. He was a great coach and I was very blessed to be in that class for over three years.
What was your lowest point?
For my very first job, I got the lead in a Franco Zeffirelli movie. He’s a big Italian director who did Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet with Mel Gibson, and he hired me as the lead in this movie, The Sparrow. There were all of these Shakespearean actors. He put me up at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts to study for dialect. And at the end of that movie, before I even made it home, he had phone calls made to tell me that they were going to dub my voice. In other words, they were going to use another actor to speak my lines. As I landed back in the United States, I found that not only was that going to happen after I just spent almost a year doing this movie, I found out that Roy London had passed away. I didn’t realize it at the time, but as I was calling him from the set of Zeffirelli’s movie, he was on his deathbed. Then, I was lost. My acting teacher was gone. I didn’t really have anyone. It looked like the end of my career.
What kept you from walking away?
I had incredible faith in God. And it always felt like I was destined to do something. I just pulled on that. My father had moments of depression when I was younger, and that happened to me during that time. I could feel it. I was a very physical young man, so I started to physicalize it. And I found that — of all things — skydiving helps. I kept saying to myself, “If you want to end all this, and you want to basically end your dream, then challenge yourself. Jump out of a plane!” I’d be free-falling and would freak out and then ask myself, “Do you want to let this man ruin your life?” I talked to Roy as I went up there in the plane. I used to skydive outside of Santa Barbara where he was buried. And each time, I had to pull the cord or not pull the cord. It was a choice. There was an emergency cord that would deploy, but you really had to get the cord pulled at a certain altitude or you were in serious trouble! And every time I pulled the cord. I jumped thirty-two times.
I worked really aggressively to get other roles to make that movie not the end. I was turned down a million times. And then this is what has always happened in my career. I get a call to star in this movie called Lily, which I thought was this artistic film. And at the end of it, I found out it was Poison Ivy 2! I didn’t get that! I thought I’d found an independent film I could really put my chops into. But it was Poison Ivy 2. I got little parts like that, and then I won a role in How to Make an American Quilt.
That has crossed my mind every year for the last twenty-five years. Every year. I was going to go back to school one year. I actually applied to Yale because I had done enough work. Probably should have done that one! That would have been great! But I didn’t.
Now with a kid, it’s different. It’s constantly working out and constantly working on ourselves. Trying to find out about projects that agents aren’t necessarily talking about. And when you are working, you are working so many hours! It’s crazy.
Who has been your closest ally?
My parents. They’ve been there through everything. They’re still with us. I’ve never had the career where there’s one thing that defines me. I’ve done a lot of different work. That Thing You Do! is a good movie—everyone loves that movie—but it wasn’t a big success at the box office. So it wasn’t something I could lean on for a long period of time. They weren’t offering me a lot of films because of it, even though it was Tom Hanks! I had to go out there and get these jobs. Maybe some of them I shouldn’t have taken. No one ever told me not to take a job. Being from Baltimore, when they offer you money to act, it’s hard to say no. But really, what I should have done is just stayed home.
Acting has cost me two relationships. Two marriages. They both were due to the fact that I was on some set, somewhere I shouldn’t have been, trying to make something that wasn’t going to be anything more than it was.
What was the audition that changed your life?
It was the day I met Tom Hanks. There was this confidence as an actor that I was going to be with another actor. And one of my favorites! It was so competitive, but I just had this take on it that I knew was going to be special. I was so scared but so excited, and he was just such a welcoming soul. As soon as I walked through the door I thought, “I’m going to be able to perform today. I’m really going to get to do what I was trained to do.” And I did! There’s lines in the movie That Thing You Do! where the lead singer quits. I didn’t listen to any other auditions, but I’m sure everyone just quit and walked out. But I decided I was going to sing it: “I quit, I quit, I quit.” And of all the things I’ve ever done – that’s the famous line! People always talk on social media about how they are going to quit like Jimmy from That Thing You Do!.
That day when I auditioned, I tapped that microphone (which wasn’t there), and I sang it. And when I left, he came out and got me. Right there, I knew my life had changed for the better. Even though Zeffirelli took my voice away, I was going to get my due.
What were the words that kept you going?
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” It’s called the serenity prayer. It’s used by people in Alcoholics Anonymous, but my parents gave me a plaque when I first came out that I always kept by my side.
How do you think you have changed?
As soon as I had a child, I changed more than ever. I’m more professional. I’m just better at what I do. All that chaos that was inside my head about not being enough, all from the day that Zeffirelli did that to me. Why he did it. The other reasons behind it. I trained so hard before it, and even harder after it. But like Roy told me, this is such a competitive field. And I don’t take it so personally anymore. I don’t blame myself anymore. I just move forward. I take action on the things I can change. I just take action. As soon as I know I can change something, I go for it in a positive way. In as kind and humble a way as I possibly can.
What words do you have to inspire others?
The thing you are auditioning for is never the thing you are auditioning for. In everything that you do…it’s not about getting the job. It’s about growing as a person and as an artist. You can never quit on that.