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Interview: Wil Johnson

10th March 2011

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Wil Johnson has played Detective Inspector Spencer Jordan since Waking The Dead started in 2000.

Wil JohnsonIn his late 30s, Spencer is Boyd's right hand man. Before joining the Cold Case Unit, Spencer worked for the Atomic Energy Constabulary during which time he saw a horrific murder scene.

Spencer is driven, focused and extremely ambitious. He temporarily moved out of the Cold Case Unit last year following numerous disagreements with Boyd but returned when Boyd needed his help to capture serial killer Linda Cummings.

Going back to when it first all started, how did you getting the role come about?

Just before I went in to see them for Waking The Dead, Clocking Off had just started and I had a main storyline in that and I think it was because they saw me and they became interested and maybe thought, 'Let's pull him in for a meeting'. So I went in and did a reading and I was offered the role the next day. It was quite quick really.

Across the nine series, do you have any favourite memories that stick out?

Two actually. One was in series three, where I had a storyline that involved my family. Normally, apart from Boyd's character, we don't actually delve into peoples' past. In Waking the Dead it's more about the chase but in this particular storyline the case we were working on involved these bodies found in a house that I used to live in as a child and it was all connected to my past and my family.

That was quite a good story for me because it was a very emotional journey as well as trying to solve the case.

Also, in series five, where I got shot was quite a nice little cliff-hanger storyline. Again, it was certainly skeletons from my past that came back to haunt me in the form of a former best friend of mine who was intricately tied into the case.

It was nice to finish series five and have the whole nation say 'Are you dead or are you alive?' It's very interesting being stopped in the supermarket and someone saying 'Are you dead?' and replying, 'No, I am very much alive actually – not sure about the character though!' It was very surreal!

Have you had a favourite guest star that you've worked with over the series?

It's really hard actually because there have been so many great actors who have worked on the show. I would have to say James Fox. He was in one of the stories and he's an icon. I only had one brief scene with him but I had a lovely chat with him and it was nice to meet him.

Also, in series three I worked with Earl Cameron. He's been in James Bond and he was one of the first black actors to get a lead role in a movie in England in the fifties, I believe. So he was an iconic person to work with because of his history. That was incredible.

We've just had so many I've lost track of who's who! We've had incredible people and they've all been absolutely lovely – and I'm not just saying that because it sounds good in an interview – they actually have been very lovely people, so it's been great.

You play a Detective Inspector – did you go and shadow any police or do any research when you got the role?

I didn't go out with any police per se but I did spend a lot of time speaking to the initial police consultant, a former Detective Superintendant David Bright who worked with the Met and Scotland Yard for 30-odd years.

It's great when you hear the information from someone who was in the field. They're giving you those firsthand experiences and it gives you something when you do a show like this.

One of the things I took away from him – more than the factual information – was how they cope with all the grimness. He said humour. He said you'd be surprised when you go down to investigate the situation. You might see some terrible sights but you have to share a joke with your colleagues. The only way to offset the grimness and the bleakness is to laugh, otherwise you go mad. Your perspective of the world will become totally warped. So, throughout the series there has been a lot of humour peppered, which is vital because it's so real.

Spencer gets to do a lot of stunts. Do you have any in particular that stick in your mind?

One of my favourite stunts was in series four when I had to chase a bus across Hammersmith Bridge. We spent all day filming and I was sprinting full pelt all day. I was completely smashed the next day.

It was great though. I really did chase after that bus and I really did catch it – it wasn't a trick of the camera. At one stage I had to ask if the bus could drive faster because I was actually passing it! I used to be a sprinter so I was quite fast. Any excuse to run and I'll run so I can show off a little bit!

There is a fantastic dynamic between yourself, Boyd, Grace and Eve. How does Spencer fit in?

Spencer, especially in series five and series eight, is a bit of a moral compass in the team. He can muck in and do what he needs to do but if Boyd does something that Spencer objects to, he will say.

In series eight we did have clashes and we did have run-ins and that was part of the reason why he left the unit. He just thought 'I can't work for a guy that has one rule for him and one rule for us and he's always breaking the rule.'

Spencer is all about the rule and sticking to the rule but at the end of the day, when the chips are down, he'll always have Boyd's back. That is very clear and evident. Spencer may have a moan about this and that but at the end of the day he will always come back, which is why he's back in series nine.

In series nine we have the new character, Sarah Cavendish. What does she bring to the team?

In the first story I'm very wary and very suspicious of this person because how can you have a cold case unit and effectively have two Detective Superintendents? So automatically there's suspicion. As the series progresses Spencer has a respect for her.

Having two Detective Superintendents is just not the norm; it's not how it works. But she is vital, she is good at her job and Spencer respects that and because she comes from another unit she brings something else to the table, which is useful – she's not just occupying space.

Sarah Cavendish has a back history; when do alarm bells start ringing for the team?

Sarah has an incident with a gun in episode one where she goes a bit overboard and we're saying 'Hang on a minute, steady!' It was a bit shocking for us because we can get a bit heavy-handed and we do what we need to do when necessary but for those circumstances it was completely overboard. It's like, 'Whoa, where's the fire? There's not even any wood or any matches! Why are you overreacting in such a vicious way?'

Boyd and Spence are there when it happens and it does alert them that there's a back-story to this woman. A DSI who's been kicked down to our unit and then we go out to look for a potential suspect or witness and then she reacts like that.

As the series progresses it reveals itself, that there is real trauma in her life.

What was the last day on set like?

It was quite jovial – lots of jokes from Trevor Eve. It was a very funny day. The mood was light. We got down to the work, did what we had to do. It was strange, when you come to the end of something like that.

It probably won't be until September that it'll hit me, 'There's no Waking The Dead to go to.' At the moment it's business as usual – you finish Waking The Dead and move on to something else and then you come back to it. It's only when there is no coming back to it, which will be later on in the year, that it will really hit, that it's not there anymore.

But I feel very blessed, very fortunate to have been involved in such an amazing show with a brilliant team of actors and some of the best writers, directors and producers.

It's an award-winning show. We won an Emmy – that's a huge accolade. To be involved in that year-after-year – it gets the viewing figures and people love it. I mean, how many people can boast that? Not many. To have the consistency of excellence that it's had over the years—never dropping the baton, always trying to better itself—you learn from that process.

It's been a valuable and vital part of my life and what I've learned from Waking The Dead I've taken on to other jobs, which is what it's all about – working on something and gaining experience and when you take it on you give something to another production and Waking The Dead has given me the platform to do that. So I will be eternally grateful to Waking The Dead for that.

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