In 1994, Justin Whalin took over the role of Jimmy Olsen in the second season of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. In February 1996 I interviewed him, together with several other Lois and Clark personnel, for a big feature in SFX.
What was it like stepping into a character that was already established?
"It was difficult. The fans of the show were really strong fans, and that's great. And when you have fans like that, they support the cast that's on the show. They want the characters that they're used to. I'd known Michael Landes for a really long time, who played Jimmy before, and he's a really good actor. Him leaving, it wasn't anything personal or anything like that, but I decided I couldn't do the same thing he was doing. I didn't come on the show and try to be him or try to do the character in the same way he did it in any way. So I came on and just did what I do.
"I totally put the character a different way. I tried to base him more on the comic book: kind of an orphaned kid who has raised himself and lived on the streets and all that stuff. I just went in the opposite direction and it was a little tough for the audience at first to get used to. You've got to remember: nobody asked them if they wanted Jimmy changed, nobody asked them if it was okay with them. I think at first they were like: 'That's not okay with me.' So that's hard. I've never done anything else where I've replaced anybody. I've come into shows where they've already been on a while, but I haven't replaced anybody. You've got to give the audience a little while to get used to you, and thankfully the audience got used to me. They're real happy, I guess, with me now, but when I started they weren't so happy!"
Were the rest of the cast okay with you coming on board?
"Again, I don't think they were asked, and Michael was their friend. But they were so great to me when I first got here, all of them. They were so good about it. They welcomed me, they made me feel comfortable. Dean and I are very good friends now, really really good friends. They just really made me feel comfortable with coming into the situation. They didn't put any more stress on me. You work with these people all the time, 12 to 15 hours a day, and after a year of doing that you develop some relationships with people. Sometimes it's hard to come into a show because relationships have already been developed. These people know each other so well, and you're like this new thing all of a sudden. It's like somebody being brought into your family. They were really welcoming and very cool."
Were you watching the series during Season One?
"I'd seen two episodes of the first season. I'm hardly ever home and I don't get to watch a whole lot of TV. But I'd seen it and I knew the show well, and I'd seen what Michael had done with the show as Jimmy."
Did you have to audition for the role?
"I did have to audition. The first year that Lois and Clark was on, I did a series for Warner Brothers called It Had to Be You with Faye Dunaway. So the people at Warner Brothers knew who I was and knew my work, so I only had to meet with Bob Singer and Randy Zisk. That was one audition. Then the next day I went again and that day I had it. So I had to audition but it wasn't a very stressful auditioning process. It was very quick, it took two days, because the people at Warner Brothers were familiar with my work."
Were you a fan of Superman in the comic books?
"I think every kid growing up is a fan of Superman. I never read comic books; the only comic book I ever read is Richy Rich. But I watched the Superman movies, I watched the old, old TV show. Superman is such an icon. I did an interview for CNN about three months ago; they asked me if, when I was a kid, I ever dreamed about being Jimmy Olsen. Nobody ever dreams about being Jimmy Olsen! Everybody wants to be Superman! How many people do you see running around with a camera going, 'I'm Jimmy Olsen!'? No, as a kid I wanted to be Superman. I tied a pillowcase to the back of my neck and ran around."
You got closer than most of us, though. You're on a TV show with Superman.
"That's right. He's my buddy."
Would you like to see more episodes with Jimmy as a more central character?
"As Season Three progresses, you're going to see more and more of Jimmy. In the comic books and the TV show Jimmy was getting in trouble almost as much as Lois. This show is Lois and Clark. It's not the regular Superman story, it's a little different. It's more about their relationship. The marriage comes closer and they start really getting together and having a relationship. This brings me into the picture more because you need another character who doesn't know about Superman. So I think you're going to see more of Jimmy getting into trouble."
How closely is the Daily Planet office designed to look like a real newspaper?
"You're asking the wrong person. I've no idea how much research was done. To me it's just a set. I go there, and I've got my script and I show up."
You've not been following real photographers round?
"Not personally. I never get to leave the office anyway, I'm still getting coffee for Lane Smith. I'm a coffee boy. This is a fantasy show. It's fantasy, it's an adventure, it's romantic. It appeals to a real broad audience. It's not trying to be a show about a newspaper. That's not the purpose of the show. The show wants to be about Lois and Clark's relationship. It wants to be about Superman and his exploits. I don't think the newspaper is a major thrust of what we do."
Are you getting much fan mail?
"Yeah, I'm getting some fan mail. I'm getting more than I've ever got, and I've done four or five other series. This is the longest consistent job where people see me all the time. So yeah, I'm getting more and more fan mail, and it's nice. It's nice to be appreciated. Especially as, after the first couple of episodes aired, everybody was like: 'Kill him! Somebody string him up! Thumbscrews, somebody!' That was difficult because that was the first time that I did anything where anybody said anything bad. I didn't get bad reviews from Lois and Clark, but I got bad reviews from the audience, off the internet or whatever. I was like: 'Wow! They want me dead! Oh my God! Mid-life crisis time!' But after about five episodes they settled down, they started to get used to me and they started to like me. Now, they're wonderful and they say really nice things. The fan mail that I'm getting is really wonderful, and it's really nice to get it."
You started acting very young.
"I was eleven. I got into acting because I had a crush on a girl; I took an acting class to be close. The teacher said I had some natural ability and asked me if I wanted to represent the school in an open call for a big play that had come to town. It was called The Little Prince. I got that part and I did that play for two years, playing the little prince. Then I started doing some commercials. I met a casting director from General Hospital; he asked me to come down and audition for a part and I got that part. From there I just kept working and working and working, so I've just been really, really lucky."
What other things have you done that we might have heard of?
"I'm sure you've heard of Charles in Charge, I'm sure you've heard of General Hospital. Child's Play 3, Serial Mom."
What's John Waters like to work with?
"He's a nut. He's crazy but he's so funny. I'm one of the first people John Waters has ever hired without meeting first. Because I was working here, I couldn't go to Baltimore to meet him. So he only saw me on tape. So I hadn't met him, and he hadn't met me. I fly out to Baltimore to do this film, and all I've heard is stories about John Waters, how zany he is and crazy, and he lived up to every single one of them! Talk about a guy who's definitely doing his own thing, but he does it so well. I've done a whole lot of stuff. I've done twelve TV movies, I've done four or five features and I've done five series. But when you do a John Waters movie; I don't care who you are, you listen to John Waters, because it's his genre. He created this whole look and feel and genre. So there's never any doubt about what he's saying. If he tells you to stand on your head while you deliver that line: 'Okay! Sounds interesting!' It's not really reality acting and it's not comedy acting. It's this weird, different kind of... I don't know. But it's definitely his thing. So you go in there with a lot of: 'I've got to trust you. Please don't mess me up.' You just go with him, and you just have to trust him. He's hysterical, he is so funny to hang out with."
The other title that's infamous over here is Child's Play 3. Was the controversy over that reported in the States?
Basically, it was blamed by the media for causing two young boys to murder a two-year-old, although there was absolutely no evidence to suggest that either boy had ever seen that particular film.
"Oh my God! I heard something about this but I thought that was here. I didn't know that was in England. So I'm infamous there now. I can show up and be banned."
Child's Play 3 has gone from being an inconsequential little horror film about a possessed doll to the most evil film ever made.
How long do you see Lois and Clark going on for?
"I don't think it can go on indefinitely. I think it can go on as long as the relationships are honest, the stories are good, and - to be honest - the writers don't ever make the audience feel like they're cheating them. There has to be no fear of doing something that's never been done. The marriage stuff is cool. I don't know if they're going to be married or not be married or what. Like last year in 'Tempus Fugitive', she learns that he's Superman, then she forgets. As good an episode as that was, that really pissed off a lot of people. You can only do that so many times before an audience starts getting disillusioned. If something's going to happen, they want it to honestly happen. If it's not going to happen, fine. They'll sit there and wait and hope that it happens, but if you tease them with it they start to get upset, and I think the show has to be careful with that.
"I think it has to keep growing. The thing about shows that's different from life, is that life is always changing. You never really know what the hell's gonna happen. Shows are manipulated. Their stories are manipulated; what's going to happen is manipulated. In life you can't do that. Life will throw some really weird stuff at you, and sometimes TV shows are afraid to throw that kind of stuff at you. If this ever becomes a show where Superman has a bad guy to defeat every week, and you know that this villain's going to be tough, it's going to be hard for Superman but eventually he's going to win, that'll work for a while. But that'll only work for so long. Part of the reason the show's been successful is the romantic relationship between Lois and Clark. I think that keeps people coming back; they like those two characters and they want to see them together, they want to see them happy. It could never just be about Superman beating up people."
Have you got anything lined up for the hiatus?
"There's some talking about a lot of stuff. I may do another John Waters film, there's a Wes Craven film I may do, a Linkletter film I may do. We've got two and a half months still. I'm not at the point where I'm just being thrown every movie I want to do yet. I'm still knocking on the doors, and it's still too early to have been cast because I'm not going to be available for two and a half months."