John is a gentleman, a scholar, and an entertainer. Always polite and easy to get along with, John will engage you in witty conversation at your first meeting with him. A chat with John might lead to discussing some event in a current film shoot in which John plays an acting role, or he may debunk the George Washington’s wood dentures myth–John has a passion for American history and he especially loves to write about people and events that formed the American Revolution.
Whether he’s acting or writing, John goes by his full name, John L. Smith, Jr. because SAG-AFTRA rules require an actor’s name to be unique. “It’s not easy creating a unique variation of the name ‘John Smith’,” says John. He swears his SAG name came from a list compiled by the Federal Witness Protection Program.
A visit to John’s IMDb page reveals a growing filmography of acting roles in movies and television: Iron Man 3, Magic Mike, The Conspirator, Magic City, and more. But John considers acting a hobby; his real passion is writing about American history. Maybe it’s best if John tells us more about his activities.
M. Duda: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. I hope Iron Man won’t mind.
John: Iron Man might, but I’m sure Robert Downey, Jr. would be fine with the interview. Of all the movie stars I’ve worked with, Robert is probably the funniest and the easiest going. During the Iron Man 3 production, the crew shot Rose Hill (North Carolina) scenes from 7pm to 7am. The shoots went on for a few weeks. But Robert was always joking or chit-chatting with everyone. He always kept us laughing, even at four in the morning. Unfortunately, I’m now addicted to Diet Mountain Dew—I drank a lot of the stuff while on the shoot. An intervention may be needed.
M. Duda: So, you’re not uncomfortable working around famous actors like Robert Downey, Jr.?
John: It’s a strange thing when you get to stay on a film for so long, like for the entire film. You get used to saying “Hey” to Nick Nolte or seeing what Robert Redford is having for breakfast some Monday morning.
M. Duda: What’s it like to work on a movie or television set?
John: Films and TV shows are long hours. A Walk in the Woods work day was typically from 6am until midnight–and that was for over two months at a time. But it’s always fun and exciting. So many times while filming a scene in Iron Man 3, in A Walk in the Woods, or in X-Men: First Class, I silently reminded myself how fortunate I was at that moment. I mean, I could’ve been back at my previous job and in a budget meeting. Acting is really an electric feeling. Plus, the food on some films is in-cred-i-ble!
M. Duda: Any actor or actress that you’ve most enjoyed working with?
John: The actress choice is easy: Emma Thompson. Her acting is awesome. She brought her script lines for A Walk in the Woods to life… she made it look easy. She was by far the nicest and most personable actress I’ve ever been around. At the end of her scenes, she was saying goodbye to everyone–I mean everyone. She walked up to each person, cast and crew, and she thanked everyone by name. Emma had memorized everyone’s first names. I got to talk with her a little bit at our dressing/makeup/wardrobe trailers afterwards. I told her I really enjoyed her work in films like Sense and Sensibility and Saving Mr. Banks. She hugged me and gave me a big kiss on my left cheek. Wow.
A close second to nicest actress would have to be Jennifer Lawrence. She wasn’t a huge box office name, yet, while on the set of X-Men: First Class. We both had to walk from the make-up building to the set together. It was freezing outside, and I wore a four-star general’s jacket on, managing to keep warm; Jennifer only wore blue latex rubber. Yeah, well. I offered her my jacket and she thanked me, but told me that the latex was still drying and was warmer than I might think. The whole time, Jennifer was very funny, genuine, and sweet.
Actor-wise, I’d have to put Redford at the top of my list, both as director (The Conspirator) and as the character Bill Bryson in A Walk in the Woods. Redford was always prepared and focused. Aside from his acting talent, I really admire his values. Redford didn’t get caught up in the Hollywood idolatry thing and he is actively involved in environmental causes. Watching Redford and Emma Thompson do a scene together was a real treat.
Robert Downey Jr. as I’d mentioned, has a great sense of humor. He exudes raw energy. When I was standing next to him for one particular scene in Iron Man 3 (a scene we did about 10 times), his energy just seemed to transfer to me. Robert seemed like a human power plant. Nick Nolte is also funny and outrageous between takes. Morgan Freeman is very personable after the camera stops. He gets paid for playing himself—a very nice guy.
M. Duda: I’m surprised you haven’t been hired as Robert Redford’s double. John, you might be Redford’s twin brother.
John: Funny you should say that, Mike. I was fortunate to spend over two months last year as Bob’s (when you work with him, he says to call him “Bob”–he really means it) photo double and stand-in. I got to do both jobs in A Walk in the Woods, which premieres late summer or fall this year.
A “stand-in” is when you—well–stand in place for a scene while the lighting, sound, and cameras set up on you for the scene. The crew might have had me move as the action calls for or have me say lines so that the crew could track me. Sometimes, I’d have to point out a certain rock or monument that the star would walk towards for the scene. When everything’s locked in, the stand-in walks out and the actor walks in.
A “photo double” means you’re actually filmed for inclusion in the movie. In A Walk in the Woods, the director, Ken Kwapis (a very neat and funny guy) filmed me walking a steep incline wearing Bob’s identical clothes and backpack. I also had to walk the same way Bob would have walked the incline; or run down mountain paths trying to get away from an annoying hiker played by Kristin Schaal–a hilarious person in real life; or the camera flew over my head as I walked a mountain top peak or stood out on a famous Appalachian Trail cliff. Things like that. Never a boring day.
M. Duda: Being an American History buff, working on the set of The Conspirator must have been special for you.
John: That was my first introduction to film work. I’d just taken the early-retirement option when I got the movie opportunity. I had been very aware of the story of Mary Surratt and her boarding house where the Lincoln conspirators had met. There were two historians on the set for each shoot, and I spent as much time talking with them as interacting with James McAvoy or Robin Wright-Penn. I got to grow a beard and wear the tallest stove-pipe hat in the whole cast. (How cool is that?) The Conspirator was also the first movie I got to say some lines and earn my SAG card. I’ll always be indebted to Bob for giving me the opportunity.
M. Duda: Now, while you’ve told me that you do enjoy acting, your true passion is writing about American History…
John: That’s exactly right. After reading John Adams and 1776, both books written by the superb story teller David McCullough, and then meeting and hearing McCullough talk about the Founders, about what they risked and what they did, and talk about maybe a million regular unsung Americans, I was completely hooked. From that point on in 2005, I began to read and read and read everything I could get my hands on about the Revolutionary War and that period. I started reaching out to authors, historians, and experts on the subject. Soon, I found myself writing articles for the Journal of the American Revolution and being included alongside writers of whose books I’ve read. But because I could never find the book that I absolutely loved to read on the subject, I decided to write it. And that’s what I’m doing right now.
M. Duda: I’ve read some of your articles at the Journal of the American Revolution. Your entertaining writing style makes reading about history interesting. The topics are interesting, too. Is that why you wrote about George Washington’s dentures?
John: Thank you! My writing style is purposely light and breezy, but my articles are completely 100 percent accurate and true, including source citations. Sometimes the style is quirky or funny-snarky, but it’s by design. But my personal mission is to bring the amazing story of the American Revolution to people, young and old, through a captivating book. The book is for people who have always wanted to know the details (true details, not the folk stories or fables) of that Founding Era, but these readers don’t want to–or cannot–sit through a boring, long, sterile book written by academics for scholars. Dang. A long, boring book would even break me of the love for the subject. So, I’m writing a book.
Little bits of the book’s funny style sneak into my J.A.R. articles, but a lot of my humor is tempered by the required editorial style of the Journal. I respect the Journal’s decisions. Smithsonian Magazine, ironically, picked up on two of my articles that are both free flowing and written with my fun style – the articles are about George Washington’s dentures and sweet-tooth. National Review and Knowledge Quest have also picked up and run my articles, for which I’m grateful.
M. Duda: Are there American historical facts that readers may not be aware of or were never told?
John: Mary Thompson, the lead researcher at Mount Vernon, and I have struck up a literary relationship. She supplies me exclusive facts and research. The office of the Historian for the U.S. State Department (yes, that’s a real job!) and his staff just helped me out with the facts regarding the payoff of the French Loans during the Revolutionary War. That whole story, entitled “How Was the Revolutionary War Paid For?” ran Monday, February 23. I put on my slightly more serious hat for that one. But believe me, it’s rare when I do that.
M. Duda: John, I won’t take up much more of your time. Before we end this interview, are you working on any new acting or writing projects that you can share with readers?
John: I just turned down a small role in Sharknado 3 being filmed in Orlando because I’m putting myself on an acting restriction for a chunk of this year. (I haven’t done this since my two daughters grew up and moved out, but the Restriction Hammer has come down again.) This year, I have to focus on getting my book completed and submitted to the appropriate publisher. It’s time. I’ll grow another beard and tap away on my typewriter until the book is done, hopefully mid-to-late summer. But–if Bob’s people should call me again about some work, well… you know!
M. Duda: Thank you for your time, John. I’ll be sure to read more of your articles.
John: Nicholas Cage played Ben Gates in National Treasure. Cage’s lines say it best: “A toast? Yeah. To high treason. That’s what these men were committing when they signed the Declaration. Had we lost the war, they would have been hanged, beheaded, drawn and quartered, and… Oh! Oh, my personal favorite… and had their entrails cut out and burned! So… Here’s to the men who did what was considered wrong, in order to do what they knew was right…”
As mentioned, some of John’s filmography can be viewed at IMDb. I’ve certainly enjoyed watching several of the movies on John’s list. But if you really want to be entertained by John–and learn something new about American History–I suggest reading his articles in the Journal of the American Revolution and his forthcoming book– once John’s off restriction, of course. How can an article about George Washington’s wood dentures not be interesting?