Ongoing comparisons to a young Tom Cruise are “not the end of the world,” says 24-year-old Tyler Johnston, whose uncanny similarities to the veteran action star have dogged him for years.
And so the B.C.-bred actor has prepared himself for the strong likelihood that analogies will only intensify with the debut of his Vancouver-set gambling thriller “The Odds.”
“People keep saying that and it’s very flattering,” Johnston said at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, when the feature premiered.
“I mean, he’s a great actor who’s had a great career and done some great movies and produced some great movies. So it’s not the end of the world.”
“And I do see it sometimes myself, actually. When I watch myself I see little glimpses of Tom Cruise. I’m OK with that.”
The resemblance is not obvious in face-to-face encounters with the slim, baby-faced Johnston, a regular on the HBO Canada comedy “Less Than Kind.”
But it emerges undeniably when the clean-cut performer steps in front of the camera, said writer-director Simon Davidson, seated next to Johnston for a round of interviews.
“I did not see Tom Cruise until I put him on film,” insisted Davidson, who notes the similarities are subtle and hard to pin down.
“I can see it physically in his jaw and stuff but it’s just the way he finds the angles, it’s the way the camera loves him, it’s the way he has presence, it’s the eyes.”
“The Odds”‘ action-tinged plot only serves to highlight any parallels that might be drawn — Johnston appears in nearly every frame as the cocky teen Desson, a charismatic ladies man who is inadvertently drawn into an underground gambling ring.
When his best friend turns up dead, the guilt-ridden and increasingly desperate teen mounts a one-man mission to expose what he believes is a murder cover-up.
The young cast is bolstered by Julia Maxwell (“Hot Tub Time Machine”) as love interest Colleen and Calum Worthy (“Daydream Nation”) as classmate Barry.
Davidson said he was inspired by a news article about a Singapore teen who bilked his classmates in a betting scheme.
But he also drew on his own experiences as a 16-year-old delinquent growing up in tiny Wetaskiwin, Alta., just south of Edmonton.
“We would break into cars and when we were really young one of our big things was getting chased,” he confessed, adding he’s not proud of his past.
“One night we got caught (by police). Which was good.”
He said the bust was a life-changing wake-up call that helped set him on the right path. In subsequent years Davidson moved to Calgary for university and later to Vancouver to attend film school.
“I’ve thought about that moment a lot,” Davidson said of the night he was stopped by police, also crediting his parents with helping him go straight.
“I think that’s why I wanted to tell a story about a kid who … comes to a point where he has a choice to make of whether he’s going to go this way or that way.”
Getting his first feature off the ground came with several challenges, not the least of which was casting the conflicted lead character.
Davidson needed someone who could play a jerk but still be sympathetic.
“I was just writing and I thought, ‘OK, we’re probably going to do a lot of casting and cast our net wide and go in search and hunt.’ And then Tyler just walked in the room … and laid it out and just put himself in my mind,” he said.
“I was very intrigued by him, I was very intrigued by his read, by his voice and his, just sitting behind a table, just intrigued by the way he kind of thought about stuff and just talked. And so we didn’t audition, we just cast Tyler.”
Shooting presented more challenges. Davidson said he had just 20 days and $1 million to make the movie. That meant no second unit to help speed up the schedule and no trailers for the cast.
“He just didn’t have a place to sit sometimes,” Davidson said of Johnston, whose upcoming gigs include an appearance on AMC’s “The Killing.”
Davidson joked that his next project should be a “Freaky Friday”-style script that would star Cruise and Johnston as body-swapping father and son.
Johnston admitted to having had similar fantasies himself, noting they typically arise whenever Cruise crosses the border to film one of his big-budget projects.
Still, he was wary of getting swept up by all the comparisons.
“As an actor sometimes it’s really hard to take those compliments because that’s all you hear — even when that may not be the case,” Johnston said.
“At this point I’m just enjoying my experience and having some fun. I’m trying not to take myself too seriously.”
“The Odds” opens in Toronto on Friday.
It’s easy to see why rising young Canadian star Tyler Johnston is frequently compared to a young Tom Cruise. Aside from the uncanny physical resemblance, Johnston boasts an intangible onscreen energy that’s difficult to describe but impossible to miss.
His strong performance anchors “The Odds,” an unconventional teen murder mystery that hits theatres this week. Johnston plays Desson Orr, a mischievous teen gambler who becomes embroiled in a murder mystery when his best friend winds up dead. “The Odds” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last fall, and has garnered comparisons to other darker teen/ college flicks like “Brick” and “21.”
Johnston has already earned a loyal fan following thanks to his role on HBO Canada’s “Less Than Kind,” on which he plays the eccentric young Danny Lubbe. We caught up with Johnston during TIFF to chat about everything from gambling and teen shenanigans to how he feels about those oh-so-frequent Tom Cruise comparisons.
What was your first reaction to the script for “The Odds”?
There’s an element of danger in the script that I don’t have in my own life. I grew up in Coquitlam, which is the ‘burbs of Vancouver. I played hockey three nights a week, and lacrosse during lacrosse season, and did musicals and plays and hung out with my friends. I didn’t have time to get myself into too much trouble – unless you’re talking about suspensions from hockey! [Laughs.]
Obviously there’s an element of mystery here. Are you a fan of the mystery genre?
I am! I used to read “The Hardy Boys” and the “Screech Owl Mysteries” series about a hockey team that used to solve mysteries on their road trips.
Your character is really into gambling. Are you a gambler yourself?
I’ve been to Vegas, where I gambled unsuccessfully. I just played poker, and maybe a couple of slots. I play blackjack with my dad or my family when we’re camping, but we’re just betting pennies or peanuts or something like that.
Did you ever have any secret vices when you were a teenager?
Nothing secret. I’ve never had much of a censor. I was never rude, but if there was ever anything I didn’t agree with I was always totally open with expressing myself and sometimes that would get me into more trouble than it was worth. But I wasn’t one of the teens that would go out and smoke weed. I didn’t drink until I was an adult. I didn’t find myself needing those vices. I was an athlete; I had my sports to keep me occupied.
Who do you think the movie will appeal to?
I think it will appeal to everyone. Teens, and adults too, because there’s a real story. There’s no vampires. We’re not all models. I’m a regular dude, the rest of my cast mates are regular guys and we’re telling a real story. I think people will appreciate that. It’s the storytelling and hopefully the acting that will appeal to people as opposed to chiseled abs and large breasts.
What has the whole TIFF experience been like for you?
Well, it’s my first time here and I’m having a blast. I’m not really one to get super star struck by anyone in particular. I met James Franco last night and Gus Van Sant. We didn’t have any deep conversations or anything like that, but I was at their party and just wanted to thank them for having me. That being said, if I was to see Angelina Jolie walking down the street right now it might be a bit of a different story. Or even Ryan Gosling. I’m a heterosexual male, but he’s a beautiful man! [Laughs.]
Speaking of Ryan Gosling – are there any actors you look up to?
Ryan Gosling is definitely one of them. He’s a Canadian boy. He’s picked his roles very wisely. He is an actor. He also has those chiseled abs, but he’s an actor who brings his characters to life. That’s what I hope to be as an actor. I also love Tom Cruise.
I’m definitely getting some Tom Cruise vibes from you.
Uh huh. Yeah. I’ve been hearing that a lot actually. Which is flattering, he’s done great movies. He’s been getting a bit of a bad rap the past few years, but you can’t deny the work that the guy’s done.
I noticed that you already have a fan site. What was your first reaction when you saw it?
One of my friends had told me about it. I was a little weirded out at first. Of course I was extremely flattered. It felt cool. Someone put the time in to make a website dedicated to me.
I learned on your fan site that you starred in your high school production of Footloose! Have you seen the remake?
[Laughs] I loved my Footloose experience. I got to sing and dance! I’m not rushing out to see the remake. All these remakes are happening, and I’m thinking ‘let’s see some new stuff.’
What’s your dream project?
With all this Tom Cruise talk I think it would be cool to play a young Tom Cruise! Or his son, I think that would be a lot of fun. Maybe in Mission Impossible 6 or 7 I could show up as the young Hunt, his little son.
“The Odds” opens in Toronto at the AMC Yonge/Dundas on Friday, March 2.