Superman on Television

Interview with "Smallville" Actor John Schneider

Scott Neely is the editor/writer/designer of Dining & Entertainment magazine which is published for the suburbs of Philadelphia in the U.S.A. On November 23rd, 2004 Scott had the opportunity to interview John Schneider (who plays Jonathan Kent on the TV show "Smallville"). Scott kindly gave permission for the Superman Homepage to re-print this interview.

John Scheider John Schneider: Scott?

Scott Neely: Yes?

John Schneider: John Schneider.

Scott Neely: How you doing?

John Schneider: I'm good. How are you?

Scott Neely: Great. I gotta tell you, this is a pleasure to talk to you. I grew up with you and the Dukes and I was about eight-years-old, actually nine when it came out, and that was it. You were like the man. [laughter]

John Schneider: [laughter] Well thank you. I appreciate that. That's good to hear.

Scott Neely: Yep. This is a real pleasure to speak to you.

John Schneider: Well how long have you been writing?

Scott Neely: Actually for a while. I'm actually I've been writing, but I'm primarily an artist. I do children's books mostly.

John Schneider: No kidding.

Scott Neely: Yeah, I do Scooby-Doo and Strawberry Shortcake. I was up all last night finishing a Strawberry Shortcake book. But my main gig is doing that. And I do a mass media type work. A lot of Cartoon Network stuff.

John Schneider: Oh, fantastic!

Scott Neely: Yeah, so this is like a sideline for me. A fun part that I design the magazine and do the writing and stuff like that.

John Schneider: That's great! Good for you.

Scott Neely: Thank you. I had read that when you were first cast in Smallville you said that you were looking to do like a family-oriented show. Do you think that there's a real lack of Hollywood producing them right now?

John Schneider: Well, yeah, and until I saw National Treasure I didn't think anybody was going to make anything I could go see with my kids again, but it was fantastic.

Scott Neely: Really?

John Schneider: Oh yeah. It's so good. And there's nothing on there you wouldn't want your kids to see. I don't know if you have kids or not, but -

Scott Neely: No, I don't.

John Scheider John Schneider: It's a one to go with the nieces and nephews. It's really fantastic. So, yeah, there was a distinct lack of what I would call family programming on television. Where you could sit with your whole family and everyone could actually enjoy themselves. There's a lot of stuff that's for kids and there's a lot of stuff that's for adults, but there's very few things in there for both, and it's hard to do things that are for both.

Scott Neely: Do you think the reality shows kills a lot of that?

John Schneider: No, I think we were doing it before that. Before that, it was 'dad is an idiot' sort of a show that was on television, or 'mom secretly wants to sleep with her boss' sort of a show all because 'dad's an idiot.' That was the family values they were depicting on television for a long time. I think in an odd way, reality television - some of reality television - like Fear Factor, like now Swapping Wives is actually some of the best stuff on television. We sit and we watch Fear Factor with our 10-year-old. She loves it, we love it, we get to go "Ewww" when they eat the bugs, and we get to get excited about the car stuff, because you know...Dukes. I'm still a car guy. Have you seen this wife swap things? Swapping Wives?

Scott Neely: Yeah, actually there's another one called Trading Wives, and there's like a couple more. Once one does it they all do it.

John Schneider: Yeah, Nanny 911, and all that stuff. All that stuff is on, but I saw on the Swapping Wives one, I hope that's the right one, there was an episode that we just saw a couple of days ago where this big construction worker guy went through a change by virtue of this show that will change his marriage, it will change his relationship with his wife, with his kids, and with his grandkids when he has them. It definitely made him a much better man. So, my hat's off for that. I believe that television is supposed to do that. And it's supposed to make us ask some uncomfortable questions. It's supposed to entertain us too, but occasionally it's supposed to push us into a corner and make us want to be better people.

Scott Neely: Actually, I've learned quite a few things from Queer Eye For the Straight Guy. [laughter]

John Schneider: There you go.[laughter] Now you'll never wear a black watchband with brown shoes!

Scott Neely: There are some things guys just don't ask. You gotta figure it out on your own, y'know?

John Schneider: Exactly. So I don't think that reality television is the monster that people had made it out to be.

Scott Neely: Do you think it's inundated with it now?

John Schneider: I think there's quite enough of it, but perhaps like any thing else when there's - if you're playing basketball and a really good team comes to play, you're gonna have to get better at what you do. So people that make my kind of television are just gonna have to get better at it. I have a company and have an office at Warner Brothers, and we're in the process of developing movies for television and television shows that hopefully will be the answer to that. If I can do it...a television show that even comes close to changing somebody's life the way this Swapping Wives did the other night for this guy, then I will consider it a career well spent.

Scott Neely: You know what one of the funny things is, you're talking about family-oriented material and I had just read a review in Entertainment Weekly, a guy had done a review for upcoming release of Knight Rider on DVD, and he said pretty much said, "Well, with Knight Rider they got an idea to do a cool car show just likes Dukes, but without the racism." Meaning, it was a direct slap against Dukes, which is really idiotic when you think of it.

John Schneider: Our car was not racist, oh my God.

Scott Neely: Well, in terms of the show too. They just slap a label on it, which is ridiculous. But to get to the family values thing, there was an episode in Dukes where there was a black truck driver that was played by a character actor that had been on many different shows, and it comes down to the only reason I remember it, is because of the one line that Uncle Jesse said. The guy said, "What are you folks helping me for? I'm just a stranger." And Uncle Jesse looked at him and said, "Well, a stranger's just a friend we haven't met yet."

John Scheider John Schneider: There you go.

Scott Neely: That's a great line.

John Schneider: There you go.

Scott Neely: I don't care where you're from, that's a great line and it just stuck with me, cause a lot of that stuff is true.

John Schneider: See now, that's what Dukes was about! Dukes didn't know color. They have no idea.

Scott Neely: Well people see the flag on top of the car and they go, "Oh, that show." And it's like you have to sit there and defend it, well no, you just have to watch the show.

John Schneider: You have to watch the show and see, yeah. Oh well, very narrow-minded people.

Scott Neely: Well, and now you're on a show where the father figure is actually a very important integral part of the show.

John Schneider: Well thank you. That's why when I read it I wanted to do anything I could to be on it, because there was so few shows like it, as I said earlier. Four years ago, five years ago, where the father was an integral part of the life of the family at all. It's fantastic to be in it, especially when your son's name is Clark Kent and the audience knows what he's going to wind up being.

Scott Neely: Right. Well, if had landed anywhere else in the world he would be a completely different character.

John Schneider: If he had landed into Lex Luthor's, or pardon me, Lionel Luthor's yard...

Scott Neely: Well he could have landed in Russia or South Africa, and maybe could turned up a completely different -

John Schneider: That's interesting that you say, because truly if he had just have landed across the street, if anybody else would have found him, he probably wouldn't have been Superman later on.

Scott Neely: Yeah, which they've actually done comics on, like a "what if."

John Schneider: Oh, cool.

Scott Neely: Yeah, they've actually done that, like what if he'd landed in Russia, it was called Red Son.

John Schneider: Oh, that's great.

Scott Neely: Yeah, there's been a lot of comics that have been like that. Actually, one of the interesting things about the comics is that Batman always refers to Superman as "the big, blue Boy Scout."

John Schneider: "The big, blue Boy Scout!" [laughter]

Scott Neely: Yeah, and you always go, "well that's kind of a put down" though, but Superman has always had a core set of morals and values that he could only have gotten from Jonathan and Martha and the Kansas background and there's a line that he will never cross, and I thought that this is really one of the most intriguing parts of the show for you is that your character is the one forming this kid life.

John Scheider John Schneider: Well, yes. But because Jonathan doesn't know that Clark will be Superman. Superman doesn't exist in our world. Clark is my son on the show, but he's no different than anybody else's son except he has these abilities, but they don't really come into play because you don't raise someone with abilities, you raise someone with a conscience. We all have the ability to do what's right, and well all have the ability to do what's wrong. It's how you formulate your decision on how to do that that really shows how your parents have done and how you've been raised. Clark is like Chasen, my son, or Leah, my daughter, or anybody's son or daughter. Every child has a certain design and a certain skill set that you can either train into them as a being a good thing for the world or as a bad thing As they get older and you let them go out there and make their own mistakes. They can either, what do they say, "if you give somebody a hammer, he builds a house. If you give somebody else a hammer, he hits you over your head?"

Scott Neely: Yeah, if you give a man a fish instead of teaching him how to fish -

John Schneider: Yeah, teach him to fish. But in this regard, everybody's child is Superman in my eyes. Everybody's child is Superwoman because the possibilities are infinite out there. When I play Jonathan, and if you'll look way back to initial press on this, I talked about Clark as being a 'special needs' child. He's got all these questions "Are they abilities or are they disabilities? Is being able to use heat vision an ability or a disability? Do you cook a meal with it or do you burn somebody's house down? Do you burn through the vault at the vault and steal the money? What do you do with it?"

Scott Neely: Exactly. One of the interesting things about the show is that Clark will talk to his parents about things that no normal teenager would normally bring up. I mean a lot of them they eat dinner real quick at the dinner table and they leave, there's no real deep discussion, where as Clark really has to talk to Jonathan and Martha.

John Schneider: He trusts us, and he knows that we'll listen to him, which I think is another great lesson in Smallville, which is that we need to listen to our children and the children need to know that it's okay to talk to you parents. Excellent job in developing this with the writers, Miles [Millar] and Al [Gough] wrote the pilot to the show. They really developed an incredibly real and important family structure that we haven't violated and I think that's very, very important. And I think it's one of the reasons why it's so believable, because as fantastic and unusual and sci-fi in Smallville can get, all of it somehow is believable and I think it's because at the end of the day, Clark either super speeds or drives down that dirt road by the cows, by the mailbox, and comes and has dinner at our table. Which is very similar to why I think Hazzard County was so real was because Denver Pyle [Uncle Jesse] was so real. The life that we have, the lives that we had back at the farm were the foundation upon which everything stood. And I think that you can say the same thing about Smallville.

Scott Neely: That's true. Well a lot of it comes down to casting too. I mean, they've cast it well with Smallville -

John Schneider: Yeah, casting is very important, the chemistry is very important in that initial casting of the show, but then it becomes what you have your characters say that's so important, cause you can only exude a certain amount of parental authority. If it's not in the writing then it won't quite ring true. But it is in our writing. I mean there are some very strange things going on in Smallville these days, and I recognize that.

Scott Neely: The most interesting scenes to me are the small ones that you have between Clark and that Martha has with Clark. It's like when reviewers reviewed the Spider-Man movie they say, "Well it wasn't so much the swinging through the city, the best stuff was on the ground, the interaction between him and Mary Jane. That was the real stuff."

John Schneider: That's right. Well, same writers. [laughter]

Scott Neely: Yeah. [laughter] And I think that was what really hones the material down. It just brings it right out. Those little moments show that there's just such chemistry there.

John Schneider: Thank you.

Scott Neely: And it just works, and it's so great when you look up at him, "No son, you found us." There's a lot of really cool moments, because as an audience you know what he's eventually going to turn out to be, and that's great part of the show because it's a slow reveal. It's not like a new show where you don't know anything about the character. He could turn out to be bad, but you already know he won't, and that's a given, but what you're really seeing is the journey.

John Schneider: Good for you. You're not only a writer, you're a good writer!

Scott Neely: Well, I'm a fan! [laughter] Actually I wanted to get this in - I just started watching the third season on disc, which I loved this show being put on DVD because there's no commercials, plus and you can watch one right after the other. You did a terrific fight scene at the beginning of the third season.

John Schneider: Oh, wasn't that fun? [laughter]

Scott Neely: How hard was that to do? Did you rehearse that for a long time?

John Schneider: It took a couple of days. Yeah, it was really hard. Lots of pieces to doing it, but it was great. It was like doing a western bar room brawl. Boy, I felt like I was John Wayne in Red River fighting Montgomery Cliff. It was a lot of fun. I love that sort of stuff. Jonathan doesn't get to do a lot of that physical action, or physical acting anymore, cause I'm the older guy.

Scott Neely: Well, I don't know. When Clark got taken over, or rather Lionel Luthor took over Clark's body, you were in the kitchen and he threw you across it and you went right into the shelves with glass flying, and you land with glass falling and laying around your face and I was like "Wow!"

John Schneider: We were kind of in a time crunch and they were trying to figure out how far I could fall into frame, and if I could just kneel and then fall down and I said, "No, no, come on. Put some glass on my back." And I put up this stool, that's in there, and I put one foot on the cabinet and one foot on the stool and I was just kind of sprawled out like in a pushup position up above the floor about five feet - four feet, let's not be too brave here. When they yelled action and I just fell, and it looked great.

Scott Neely: Yeah! I also thought you'd find this interesting, but I wanted to mention that I talked to John Glover and I told him that a lot of TV execs love their demographics and they all want them to hit the 18 to 34-year-old market. That's what's on their press releases, "This is what we did. We were number so and so in the youth ratings." But I wanted to tell you, when I got the first season of the DVD's. I was visiting my mother and I put them in and I started watching them. I had never watched the show and I just bought them on spec. I just bought the first season, cause it's Superman and I'm a comic book guy. And I put it in, she sat down with me and she started watching it. Now she's 64-years-old and she proceeded to watch all four episodes in a row on the first disc, and then she's like, "Put another one in!" and she kept going through them. I just left them with her. I said, "Here. Take 'em!" and she watched the whole first season in three days!

John Scheider John Schneider: Oh my gosh! [laughter]

Scott Neely: I mean she's hardcore now! [laughter] Then I got the second season and she's, "Great!" because she was upset at the end of the first season when they had the cliffhanger, "Well, put the next one in" and I was like "There are no more, you watched the whole first season!" She was like "Damn!" [laughter]

John Schneider: Yes, people got aggravated at that. [laughter]

Scott Neely: When the second season came out, she replayed the last episode on the first season, and then she did the whole second season in like three days! She's hooked on it. She's a demographic that you're hitting that the execs never counted on. I mean there are older people who really love good storytelling.

John Schneider: Oh, that's great, that's great!

Scott Neely: It's not just the young kids market that I know they're always trying to hit. They always leave out an older person's marketplace that they don't want to tap into. They just try to get the young kids. One of the smart things that the producers have done with some hip, fun, relatively unknown talent is to pair them with veteran talent. There's Kirsten [Kreuk] and Tom [Welling] who really haven't had much acting experience before the show, and they countered that by buffering the show with veteran talent that could really anchor the thing. Otherwise, it could really fly off the handle and lose itself and it's audience.

John Schneider: Does that sound familiar to you?

Scott Neely: Yeah.

John Schneider: Remember the Dukes, how they did that?

Scott Neely: Yeah, most of it was a bunch of fresh faces except for Denver Pyle who was a major veteran actor.

John Schneider: Yeah, and Jimmy had been around forever too.

Scott Neely: James Best, yeah.

John Schneider: They had the three of them then actor wise, Ben Jones and Sonny Shroyer had done a lot of things, and people just didn't realize it. So now, some 26 years later, it's really great to be put in that position rather than to be put in as the 'take a chance on the young or new guy and see what happens,' so it was an honor to be in the kind of mentor position for a change, but hey, I've been around a long time! [laughter]

Scott Neely: Well you said in an interview recently, that you talked to Tom Welling and told him that once the show got successful "Now you gotta work the twelve hour days!" Cause once it hit, now you can kind of sit back and enjoy it. It's an ensemble cast, so pretty much I guess your schedule is one where you don't have to be on the set literally every day.

John Schneider: No, my schedule is really easy. I have to fly to Vancouver to do it, which is bit of a drag, but it's easy. But the cool thing about Tom is he'll never look at anyone and say, "Geez, now I gotta work all these hours." He always looks at me and says, "You're right, my turn," because he knows how I was putting in those hours long before he was even alive. [laughter]

Scott Neely: It's all the ground you already covered.

John Schneider: Yeah, that's right.

Scott Neely: Have there been any really highlights of the show so far for you, or what are your aspirations for this when all is said and done with Smallville? For the fourth year, Clark graduates from high school, so if they do another four years and go up to eight seasons, he'd be out of college. So I don't know how far they plan to take it.

John Schneider: I don't know, I think with television you just take it as far as they'll let you.

Scott Neely: Yeah, that's true.

John Schneider: I think I want to see continued parenting. People have a tendency to think you don't parent past high school. Well, you do. The job is never really over. So I'm hoping that they continue to have the parental influence in there with Jonathan and Martha with Clark, not over Clark. Cause once people get out of high school I don't think you parent over them. I think you are more a part of the team, rather than the coach. So I'm hoping that they continue along those lines. And I would like to see some more interaction between Lionel and Jonathan. I think Jonathan is desperate to know how Lionel can be such a bad parent, and oddly enough, I think Lionel in his own mind, may be desperate to know how Jonathan can be such a bad parent.

Scott Neely: Yeah, they live in two different worlds completely.

John Schneider: Two different worlds, which is so, so obvious on the show that as far as Jonathan's concerned Lionel is doing an awful job and he's raising a potentially evil child.

Scott Neely: Well, in his mind, he is doing the right thing. He's not really wrong in his own mind.

John Schneider: Right, yeah. He's preparing him for a different world.

Scott Neely: I told John [Glover] I watched the one episode where they introduced the lost illegitimate brother, Lucas Luthor. I said why doesn't somebody pitch to the WB a show like the Colby's or Knott's Landing and just call it The Luthor's where you have Lionel, Lex and Lucas every week trying to screw each other over. That's what makes the Luthor's so compelling, the secrets run so deep in the family.

John Schneider: Let's go down with a Double L! [laughter]

Scott Neely: But I thought, "Wow, that'd be compelling TV" cause some of those episodes, they're just bantering back and forth and trying to get one over on each other, as opposed to the scenes when you see Clark being hugged by Jonathan and Martha cause they thought he was in peril and they're hugging him knowing that he's okay. You see Lionel kind of hugging Lex and Lex is just looking over at Clark and he's like, "Why can't I have that?" It's just really great and those moments make it even better.

John Schneider: Two different worlds there. That's good, I'm glad you're catching all that because that's important. Lex is not a bad guy, and it's like I said earlier, he's being raised for a different - Lionel expects and sees a different world, so he's preparing him. Lionel sees a world of bad people that need to be overpowered. Jonathan sees the world of needy people that need to be helped, and they're raising their children for the world that they see. That what they expect is for the kids to go out into the world when they become adults and make their own world, but they're just two entirely different perspectives. And as we know they get two entirely different results. But I have a feeling that if Jonathan and Martha had found Lex in the field and Lionel had found Clark, is that Lex wouldn't be a superhero, but he'd wind up doing great things in the world.

Scott Neely: Well, you saw what happened when Lionel was inside Clark's body. I mean just the havoc he could reap, he just knew what he wanted to do with it, and that's one of the things about Clark when he got the x-ray vision, he looked in and saw Lana in the school gym locker room changing. And when Pete asked him about it later on, he said, "I only used it once. I don't want to invade other people's privacy." If that was Lionel Luthor or Lex, well you got to use it to get info on your enemy and you got to find out what they're trying to do to you before they do it.

John Schneider: Beat them to the punch.

Scott Neely: Yeah, and it's like Clark has a completely different outlook, and he must have gotten that from Jonathan and Martha. It's just the way you're raised. I guess it's because I'm older, I'm 33 now, and if I was an 18-year-old, I'd probably be looking at the show a little bit different. Once you get to a certain age you start to think and the real message starts to sink in. There's always a lot of hindsight.

John Schneider: Exactly.

Scott Neely: Okay. Anyway, I want to thank you so much for doing this interview.

John Schneider: It's my pleasure, Scott. Keep doing good stuff.

Scott Neely: Thank you. I really enjoyed this time with you. I thought this was great.

John Schneider: Have a great Thanksgiving.

Scott Neely: All right, you too. Thank you very much.

John Schneider: Pleasure talking with you.

Scott Neely: All right, bye-bye.

John Schneider: Bye-bye.

NMA Magazines, Inc. John Schneider Nov. 23, 2004