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Adam Johnson Interview

Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson has been in "The Outpost", "Yellowstone" "Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and many other TV shows. We interview him about his starring role in "Unhinged".

What inspired you to get into acting?

That's a good question. I grew up, I was third of seven children, and we had a very loud, busy household. And my oldest sister was quite rambunctious. She was a bit of a troubled child. She caused my parents lots of trouble. So, I had a little bit of middle child syndrome, I think. Anyway, I was very quiet growing up, much more of an observer, and shy. But around the senior year of my high school I started to - I was always very funny with my friends started making jokes. And I started coming out of my shell, and I decided, “Hey, wait a minute.” I got some validation from some of the popular kids in school that made me think that maybe I should do stand up comedy. I really liked it. It was a rush to make people laugh. And so I decided, “I think I want to do that.” So, I originally started doing stand up comedy, and my older brother was an actor. He had done a lot of plays. He had moved to Los Angeles, and he talked me into coming to LA, because if you're a comedian, then you want to get a TV show. He says that's what all the comedians want. They want their own sitcom. So, he lured me down to living with him in California. Then, I stumbled across his acting class. He dragged me to his acting class. And they had us do improv, followed by acting, some cold scene study, and I absolutely hated them both, absolutely hated them. I was out of my comfort zone. I was beat red, embarrassed. That was the worst thing of my life. So it was great, because I knew that that for sure was something that I did not want to do. And then a few months went by, and my brother asked me if I wanted to go back to class. I'm like, “No no no.” This is like a Cat in the Hat situation here. I found out what I want to do by finding out what I don't want to do, and what I don't want to do is act and do improv. Then, of course, he challenged me, and he said, “You're gonna be a stand up comedian; you need to get out of your comfort zone.” He went on this line of reasoning, and he was right. So, I'm like, “Okay, I gotta go. I've got to confront these fears.” So, I went again to this class, and all the sudden, everything clicked. The teacher gave a little speech about how important improv was. You're going to use it. Everybody, no matter what their field in life is, is going to need the the ability to do improv. So, I heard, I recognized the truth in what he was saying. And like I said, everything clicked. All the sudden, people were laughing, and it was a different experience. I'm like, “Wait a minute. This feels a whole lot better when people are laughing with you.” Then the same thing for the cold scene study. We got a scene, and we’d study it for like five, ten minutes, and then you’d perform it. And all the sudden, I could do that. I could find the jokes in there, and it became fun, and I was hooked. Right then I was hooked. I became the teacher's pet, and he always had me do the scenes that weren't working. He’d go, “Hey, Adam, show them how it's done.” So, comedy always came very easy to me. So, that's originally what got me hooked into comedy, into acting.

What's your character in Unhinged, like in terms of personality?

Oliver is the character I play on Unhinged. He is very, very different from myself. He's a guy that's suffering from a lot of neuroses and a lot of challenges. He can't sleep. He can't think of the bathroom. He's got anger issues. He's got some issues with his wife and fighting with her and all this stuff. So, he's just on the edge. He's very vulgar, very boisterous in your face, very different from from me. I have a nickname of human weed that a friend of mine gave me, because I'm so chill. When you hang out with me, I bring the levels down of your anxiety, whatever stress you're feeling. I just have this natural ability to make you relaxed and feel more calm. That's me; I'm human weed, which is the polar opposite of Oliver, who is just ready to just go wild at all times.

What did you like about filming the movie?

Well, playing Oliver, playing a role like that was really fun. It was exciting, because, like I said, it's very different from what I am. So, it's a good stretch for me. I actually I end up doing a lot of drama. I do a lot of fantasy film. I was in a series called The Outpost, which is a medieval fantasy, and I did these movies Mythica, these Mythica films. We did five; we're about to do another one, Mythica 6: Storm Bound. So, I kind of found my way into these dramas, and they're really quite fulfilling to get to deal with these emotions and really connect with people. It's fun to find that connection in there. So, that was another one, and that was a challenge, like I said, because he was so intense, and made me nervous, a little bit a little bit scared to see how it would come off. Because the character is wildly crazy, and part of the time you want to connect with whatever that character is going through to things of your own life, so you can find those emotions, because those emotions have to be real. So, I was very worried and excited about the challenge to try to tap into those and carry those over into the movie. Apart from it being a very low budget film, we had a very tight schedule, very small cast and crew, and it was very intimate. So, that was very fun and exciting. There was not a lot of fanfare, a lot of other things going along with this film. So, it was just fun. And it was fun to create something and create a story and see what the director was able to pull off with such a small budget and such a small, intimate script. That was fun. I mean, that was afterwards, right? To see what he could pull off.

How did you get into character?

Well, it's different. It's always different, depending on what emotions are happening for the character. Because you always want to come through, at least for me, through the perspective, what the character is feeling, whether he's angry, let's say, you know, or anxious or scared, whatever. We all have those in our lives, right? We have things that we're scared of, things that make us anxious; the future can be anything. And so we live with these hypotheticals that we can run in our mind about, you know, what would happen. So, for this, I have a hard time remembering exactly, because you work on doing those things on the day, and you let those go to work and focus on the next scenes and everything, but some of that is finding the things in my life that I fear, or that I'm scared of, and then letting those come out. So, it was really kind of a different thing each day.

Did you do any preparation for the role? And if so, what did you do?

The director, he had me watch - this character is all over the map emotionally, right? Which is hard; it's hard thing to pull off. So, he's like, “Oh, he's manic. He'll be up one minute, then he’ll be down a minute.” He's like, “These are very real things.” But when you're trying to bring real emotion into it, it's hard if you don't have those chemical imbalances to swing so fast. So, you have to kind of just push some stuff and hope that your body and your feelings follow it. So, that's one of the challenges. Also, the other thing he told me to do was, he had me watch this documentary. Well, it was for a different film, actually, but he has these moments - We were originally discussing this film called The Iceman. It's the study he wanted me to do of this man who was the most prolific hitman for the mafia. So, there's similar tones from that character. He had me read, study that, or watch that film, and it's fascinating, this cold hearted feeling, just this guy with no feeling. He just does these awful things, almost without any care. So, he kind of goes into this void of this numbness, and so that was one of the things I learned that also worked for Oliver at various times of what he was feeling, trying to get through the darkness and the horrors that he's feeling.

Any bloopers happen on set that you can describe?

I can't think of any silly bloopers. I mean, because everything we did was so intense. I'm sure there were some, because everybody involved are really good hearted, good people. Well, actually, there's one thing. I will say, there's a scene, because the director is an ER doctor, and my character gets sent to the lab to get his blood work done. So, he is supposed to get an injection in his arm. I am not a fan of needles. Not a fan of needles at all. And so I was asking the director, I'm like, “Oh, this is cool, man.” I love the wonder of making movies, movie magic, how a door looks like it might be to a closet, but really, it's a pathway down a majestic hall. You know, you just dress it differently. You walk in; you can come out somewhere else. The smoke and mirrors of making movies, right? I love it, all that stuff. It never gets old. So, I'm like, “Oh, what are they going to do? What do you have? Do you have one of those collapsible needles? You like put it in, and the needle like slides back in, but it presses on the skin, and it looks real?” And he goes, “Oh, no, no, I'm just going to have my nurse draw your blood for real.” I'm like, “Oh, okay. Great.” I'm like, “You know what? This is a good opportunity for me to work on my fear of needles.” I figure that if you do something enough times, you're going to get used to it, right? So, I'm like, “Let's do it. Let's do it.” I also happened to be fasting that day, which apparently is not a really great thing to do. I was trying to drop some weight, and the director wanted me to put more weight on for this character. So, it was a good problem to have. But he did eat a lot of my keto brownies that I made. So, we shot the scene. I'm sitting in this chair, and then the nurse is getting ready to take my blood, and I'm like, “Okay, cool,” trying to not think about the needle and all this stuff. I'm like, “Okay, I'll just be cool.” And I'm like, “What do you want? Like the needle goes in, and I'll just be kind of looking off, staring off, thinking about all these things I've gone through.” He’s like, “No, no, just stare at the needle.” I’m like, “Oh, perfect. Watch the needle break the skin and go right in.” I’m like, “Oh, okay. Yeah, you got it, sure, sure sure.” So, I'm watching them. I’m like, “Okay, stay cool.” Pops it right in, blood starts coming out, and then I'm like, “Okay, so far, so good.” I tried to squeeze, I lose like strength; just I get so weak for some reason. I don't know what it is. So, I'm getting a little weak, and all of a sudden, the blood stops coming in. The nurse kind of looks up, and she yells “cut,” which nobody is ever supposed to cut with a director. You let it roll. I'm like, “Don't yell cut.” They could have put some fake blood in there in post, some effects. So, they pulled it out, and he's like, “Oh, yeah, let's do it again.” I'm like, “Okay, okay, cool.” And he kind of does a double take at me, and he's like, “Oh, you feeling all right?” And I guess all the blood like drained out of my head. He's like, “Hey, let's sit you down over here. Let's let's get you relaxed. Let’s get you some cookies. Let's get you some orange juice.” So, I felt like a big old baby. That was fun. That was a fun adventure. There was also one time, I wouldn't call it a blooper, but there are some very intense scenes. For people who haven't seen the movie yet, very intense things happened during the interviews and the hypnosis, and apparently while I was on the couch undergoing one of these scenes, undergoing the hypnosis in one of the scenes, everyone on crew says they could see like a figure in the window like right behind me, like the face of a some sort of a figure was like appearing there, and I'm just glad I didn't see it, because it sounds real hilarious. So, there's a blooper for you. That's about what we got for bloopers.

Do you remember scenes throughout your career that were particularly challenging to film and what were they?

Throughout my career? Yeah, there was. Anytime you need to get really emotional, there's always the thought of like, “Okay, I need to get some tears going here,” or “this needs to be really shocking,” or, you know, that kind of stuff happens. So, anytime those come across, you're like, worried, “Okay, how am I going to stay connected? How am I going to feel?” The camera’s right in your face always on those, because they want to catch everything. They want to see all your emotions. You don't have to do anything. You just have to feel stuff, and the cameras are gonna read it all. I mean, there was a really good scene in The Outpost. There're a couple of scenes where my character is really vulnerable, because I play a real big dumb henchmen type. I got to do a lot of silly broad comedy and beat people up, kill people and manhandle people, carry them over, and stuff like that. So, in this one, someone close to me dies. I'll say spoiler alert, save the spoiler. So, this character dies, and I'm supposed to let that register and also say goodbye to them, and then quickly turn to avenge their death and let that kind of build up, this numbness to this rage. And it turned out pretty good. I'm pretty proud of that. You know, also, there was also a great scene in Yellowstone. I did an episode of Yellowstone, I got to work with Kevin Costner, and he's such a great guy. He told me I was a great scene partner. I'm glad he thought so, because he was great. He was giving it to me, when he makes me dig my own grave. I'm this big, brawny biker who's supposed to turn into just a pile of mesh, because this is John Dutton. He's the big star of the show. He's the big, heavy guy, who everybody's supposed to fear. So, I needed to really register that, and that was a moment to where we were able to pull it off. I think it worked really well. And it turned out to be a really great scene, one of my favorite moments ever. I mean, working with a legend like Kevin Costner, I've been a huge fan. Huge fan. My brothers and my dad and I used to watch Silverado over and over. So, that was a great moment to be able to work with a legend like him and still be able to connect and do the work. It's gonna be very intimidating.

Which actor that you've worked with have you learned from the most?

I've learned a lot from - I mean, I learned a lot of good stuff from some of my buddies on The Outpost. Everybody's great, from Riese and Aaron, and those guys, also the lady that plays my mom, Robyn Malcolm. She was great just to watch; she's fantastic. But I gotta say, probably the most encouraging thing I learned was working with Kevin Costner those two scenes with him. And as we're going over the scene and blocking it out, getting ready to see how we're going to shoot it and see who's going to be where and how we're going to choreograph it all, he's working through his stuff, and he kept trying new things and how he wanted to approach this. I'm watching him, and I go, “Wait a second. What are you doing? You're Kevin Costner; you got this all figured out.” And he's like, “No, man, I'm always trying to work on it. I'm always trying to figure out what is the scene about, what's my objective, what's the most powerful way to achieve it and to come across and communicate to the other characters. It's all about them. It's all about the give and take.” So, you know, watching him and learning, and he was very humbled about that. He's like, “No, most of the time when we’re done with a scene, and I'm headed back to the trailer, that's when I think like, ‘Oh, man, that's how I should have played that scene out.’” And I'm like, “Come on. Are you telling me this happens to you too? You’re a legend.” And he's like, “Oh, yeah, man.” So, that was a really great lesson for me to know that you can have been in this business all your life working for years and years and years of countless projects and still be striving to find something better and always be working on it. Then there probably is a better way to do something. But keeping it fresh, and all that stuff, that was really inspiring to me.

Which actors inspire you?

I mean, obviously Kevin Coster. I have a couple that are that are my favorites. Gene Wilder is one of my all time favorites. He is so funny and so, so brilliant, and he was just so sincere. His sincerity just sold everything, no matter how ridiculous the scene was. He was so honest in it and so subtle. I love it, man. I just idolized him. He's so amazing. He's so charming and so likable, just so great, obviously one of my favorite comedic actors. Then, also, Gary Oldman is one of my favorites. My brother introduced me to him, showed me, I think, what was one of the earlier ones I saw, I think Romeo Was Bleeding. I was blown away by his performance and just a man that is just a slave to his passions and he just can't resist the the things that draw him in and to his own demise. But he's so great. He's such a chameleon, and, you know, like The Professionals, he’s just amazing. Like, he's so big yet, it’s grounded. You know, it's honest. And if I could ever be like anybody, it would probably be Gary Oldman.

Do you have a favorite genre to film?

A favorite genre, probably, action comedy. I've been able to do a few of those. I love comedy; it's still what I feel like is home to me. That's where I feel the most at home and I feel like I have the most ability. I just love it. You know, it's so fun. Those are kind of few and far between for me lately, as I'm finding myself in these dramatic roles and more supporting roles. So, I'm currently writing stuff to try to fix that on my own. But that kind of comedy. Also, dramedy, because I like to find the humor in these moments that are honest and that are heart wrenching. And they're beautiful, to find those, to find the humor in the pain. You know, it's really beautiful to me.

If you could play any character from past TV shows or movies, who would you have played?

Anybody that I could have played? I mean, I'm loving the stuff that Chris Pratt is doing right now, particularly Guardians of the Galaxy. I love that, like that kind of humor. It was so fun. Some of those roles, but like, Harrison Ford anything he is in , obviously, like an Indiana Jones type character or anything like that. Gosh, anything in particular, I’m trying to think. I mean, what does Gene Wilder - I mean, like to play a role like he did in Young Frankenstein would be just so genius. I mean, I don't even know if I would even dare try to do something like he did, because he's just so so good at it. You know, that's one of those things. I don't know that anybody could do it better than he could. He just made that character, and he was just so delightful. I’d like to give it a shot in something similar.

Do you like watching yourself in scenes?

I like to watch myself so that I can learn. I like to see what's working and what's not working, when it's good, and when I feel like I've really connected, and I feel like, “Okay, good. I'm getting somewhere as an actor.” But most of the time, what I see are just my flaws. I see the things where I just don't believe myself, or I'm like, “That wasn't the best choice.” And of course, choice always comes down to what's happening in the scene, to play with these different intentions and things like that, and to just connect more. It's hard for me not to watch and just pick it apart and know what I would do if I could ever do it again. And I don't like to keep living in the past. I like to move forward and do some better work and grow. And hopefully, I'm always growing and always becoming better. Hopefully not a ton better, because that means I've been a ton worse. Just a little bit better every time.

How do you memorize lines?

You know, I started with Ivana Chubbuck, and her method is to first go through and figure out what the scene is about. First, find out what your objective in the scene is and what you're trying to get from the other character, because it’s always about what you want from the other character, whether it's sympathy, or you want love or acceptance or status quo, or you want to maintain, or you want the secrets or whatever. So, you're going about these different ways. So, the approach she teaches is that you find those things, and then, as you run it, the words have different - you know, you find your substitutions for all the words, and they kind of come as you're running the scene after you figure that stuff out. But my last audition, actually, I was curious, because I was reading about how Anthony Hopkins studies, how he memorized his lines. He said in some interview, “Oh, I don't know, I learned the words cold, read them about 100-200 times.” So, I tried that. I read through my script, my scene, 100 times. Actually, I read word for word every single thing about 35, 40 times that I'm like, “I'm just gonna read - maybe he meant just his own lines.” So, I started doing that. I started repeating them, and I did that 100 times. I mean, it was like eleven pages. It wasn't like a whole film I was trying to memorize, because, depending on those schedules, sometimes you don't have a lot of time, and you’ve got to just try to try to get the gist of what you're saying, and then get in there. Then, once you learn what the objective is in the scene, you kind of know what you're going for. And a well written script is easy to memorize. So, it’s just the dialogue flows, and it just makes sense. So, yeah, that's what I tried last time, and I'll keep trying different things. Usually I like to learn it down pretty cold, so I can be more free with it. That was the idea behind Anthony Hopkins, is once you get it down, you’re not worried about the lines, and then you can have the freedom of just being there with the other person and connecting and going off of what it is that they are doing.

Is there an aspect of acting that you find particularly challenging?

Yeah, trying to connect with people in this fake world is challenging. I did an episode of Brooklyn 99, and I'm on the witness stand. It was really challenging. Because I'm on the witness stand, they have the entire cast is there. A whole jury is there. They got a judge, a stenographer. Jenica Sean was the guest star. And I'm on there. So, I'm throwing my lines out there, and they have the camera on everybody else, and then they're like, “Okay, it's your turn.” They turn all those cameras right on to you. You’ve got all the executives, you’ve got all the writers, you’ve got the cast, every single person is there, because they still got to do the little scene with you. And that pressure gets on. And that's tough. You feel it. All of a sudden, I'm like, “Did they turn up the heat in here?” I need a little dab of moisture. So, that's one thing, the pressure of performing at those moments is tough, but also trying to connect like it’s a real conversation, a real person, when the only thing that is real is everything that's right here. Beyond that, there’s a wall that ends, there's people standing there, there're guys building stuff, there're people running around staring at you taking pictures of you, or extras eating stuff. So, all this other stuff, you try to box this stuff out. That's when it really helps to really focus on the other person, and you try to get back to that. But it's a challenge. It's a challenge. And when the stakes are higher, it's more of a challenge. That's the hardest part.

The number of your acting credits is impressive. How did you get so good at getting roles?

I mean, the career ebbs and flows, so a lot of ups and downs. Sometimes you book more. You get on a run. You make some stuff. But a lot of it is the relationships that I've built with people that I've worked with. When I was in Utah, I did a lot of independent stuff. So, I had a reputation for my comedy, and you hang out and you get to know certain people. And I've been fortunate enough to have some of my friends making projects, and they love what I bring, so they've continue to cast me in things. And then from that, you have a certain type, or you bring a certain presence, or they see you in something else. You know, the work begets more work. And sometimes you're just lucky you book stuff. Other times, it's slow. Like right now, it's very slow. There's an impending writer's strike, and probably followed by an actor's strike. It's gonna happen after that, probably. Looking back I’m like, “Well, I've done a lot of stuff,” but at the time, you’re like, “Man, some of that stuff's far and few between.” But you hang in there, you keep working at it, and you keep making connections, and you try to do good work, and you try to be also somebody that's easy to work with, or fun and enjoyable to work with. Because you're in relationships with the people that you make these projects with. You're going to spend a lot of time, and so you want to be somebody that's good to work with. Not always a pushover, but someone that wants to do good work. And at the end of the day, you make compromises and you work with people, and you try to be pleasant, and you try to get another invitation to come back another day.

What has been your favorite TV role to play?

My favorite TV role? Probably on Yellowstone, I'm guessing. Yeah, I think it was Yellowstone, playing a big bad biker, a big, tough dude. I had a cool leather vest on. I had a big cool Harley I was on and just roasted some hot dogs in the middle of the field in Yellowstone, and then to be able to have a scene with Rip, who's like the big bruiser on the show. And I actually worked with Ian Bowen, who was a friend of mine. When I first moved to LA, my older brother Bart, he was in that same acting class. So was the writer of Yellowstone, Taylor Sheridan, actually. He was in that same class. So, it’s just kind of funny how that works out. I got to do a scene with Ian that was really great. But really, you never know how how it's gonna turn out. Some stuff’s gonna get cut. Some of my stuff was cut in in Brooklyn 99. But that was also really fun, because it's such a funny - it's a comedy, and I don't do a lot of comedies, certainly for TV, so that was a highlight for sure, just to be involved on that show. You know, even though you're the one setting up the comedy. Mostly you’re setting them up; you’re setting Andy Samberg to make some funny jokes and whoever. But as far, probably Yellowstone and then doing that scene with Kevin Costner, and it pops up, in a couple top 10 lists of best moments in Yellowstone at number 10, which is the height, like one through ten. Just so you know.

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