When in doubt, listen to your mother. Camrus Johnson did and it landed him opposite Tony Danza in the new series There’s…Johnny! now streaming on Hulu.
Born in Georgia, Johnson thought his career path would be the military. His father was in the Navy and so was his brother, so naturally he fell in line until he decided getting yelled at in ROTC wasn’t his cup of tea. During his junior year of high school it was the wise, loving words from Mama Johnson that started him down the right path. “You like to be loud and obnoxious, try acting,” she said.
And here we are.
The Brooklyn resident plays Rasheed who has huge Hollywood dreams of becoming the next big comic, but is also harboring a terrible secret. Set in the 1970s, There’s…Johnny isn’t your typical period comedy. Viewers are taken behind the scenes to see what it took to make Johnny Carson’s beloved late night talk show the cultural icon it eventually became.
VIBE.com caught up with Camrus Johnson and chatted for a bit about his love of acting, when he decided to pursue his dream full time and what the Snapchat generation can learn from Mr. Carson.
When did you first get the acting bug?
I want to say I was 15. I decided I definitely wanted to be an actor at 16. My plan was to go into the military first because my dad was in the Navy and my brother just retired from the Navy, so I was thinking I should go to the Navy. I was in ROTC for two years and I hated it. I can’t get yelled at and not yell back. Junior year of high school I was with my mom choosing classes and was like ‘I’m not doing ROTC, I need another class, what should I do?’ and her exact words were ‘You like to be loud and obnoxious, try acting.’
Yeah, I know. I gave it a shot and I fell in love with it. When I was a senior, I didn’t think this was a viable career. I don’t think I can just become an actor and make a living off of it, but I auditioned for 17 colleges with the Georgia Theater Conference and I made 14 call backs.
Thank you, and that’s when I decided I can do this.
Hollywood is going through a lot right now, but it’s still a small town that’s hard to break in. What’s the harshest criticism you received?
Being a black actor in Hollywood comes with its own trials and tribulations. I remember one time I was with another agent of mine and there was a role for the love interest. At this time about a year ago, I was going in for a lot of funny, black man, best friend roles, which is fine because it’s kind of what I do best, but there was one role that came up in a project that I wanted to go in for. My agent said ‘I don’t think that really fits. I don’t think it makes sense for you to go in for that role.’
What were they trying to say?
That’s what I’m saying? Like, I’m cute! [Laughs]
I want to be able to play a range of characters. I usually get called in for a lot of safe roles. I tend to called in for a lot of roles that say this is for a black person because at some point in the project this person talks about being black, which is cool, but sometimes it’s cool to go in for open ethnicity characters also. So I guess one critique that I would get is lot of roles that I should go in for aren’t the big roles yet, they aren’t the leads, they aren’t the pretty faces that lead the film, it’s more of the funny person that supports the project.
Doesn’t the writing help make a character more attractive to viewers who may not think he’s attractive?
Tremendously, yes! I’ve been writing for about two years. One thing that’s important about a character is subtext. Having a character say one thing and really mean something else is so important. It adds attractiveness. It adds mystery and it adds to so many things. Back to Rasheed, he has this throughout the season until you see the secret he’s harboring towards the end of the season. He has something else within him in.
I’m glad you brought up your character Rasheed. I know you can’t give too much away, but we just got 280 characters on Twitter, so what is Rasheed’s 280 character bio?
Rasheed is the smooth, loud-talking, Black Power stand up comedian with these huge Hollywood dreams. He hides his actual huge heart, and he also has a huge secret he’s been harboring about his past.
Are you anything like your character? Aside from the fact that your mother said you’re loud and obnoxious, what else do you and this character have in common?
Well he’s a comedian and I have just a bit of small stand-up comedian experience. I’m a lot softer than Rasheed. Rasheed has a harder exterior. It’s harder to get through to him. He doesn’t try to reveal all the layers about him because he’s afraid of what may happen. I’m sort of ask me a question and you’ll get an honest answer. But Rasheed and I come from the same source of wanting to make people feel good. Looking for opportunity but not wanting to use people per se, and to build together, so we do have that about ourselves.
Tell me a little about There’s….Johnny!
There’s…Johnny! is this period comedy set in the 70s about this kid who has this job and he’s trying not to fail with the Carson estate and he’s failing and not failing. [LAUGHS] It’s cool. It’s really funny. It’s a feel-good show, but at the same time you get hit with actual real drama. I love the project a lot.
Johnny Carson is a force in himself, so what does your character add to Johnny Carson?
Well Rasheed wants to be another Richard Pryor. He wants to be a different comedian so he doesn’t like to be compared to other comedians. He wants to be his own voice on the show and add to the world of comedy. I think he sees Johnny Carson as a lesson just like everybody else. He does have certain powers in him, but he would never put himself on a pedestal along with Johnny Carson. What he would add is his own take on things, and he tends to come a little tougher when it pertains to his comedy, a little more rough and he doesn’t yet see the issue and how that might scare people off. At the current moment, Rasheed thinks that specific type of comedy is what Carson is missing and that’s the route that he’s going for.
What can the Snapchat generation learn from Johnny Carson and the show?
Johnny Carson was raw. He was real. He was quick on his feet. Snapchat and this social media age are very much about quickness and disappearing. If you send someone a Snap it goes away. It’s very now and it’s very quick. You watch a video in two minutes to get it over with. But Johnny’s show was long and it was spread out and people would watch it and sit down and if you missed the episode you missed the episode. The guests would come on and have a good time. I was watching one clip where Carson was interviewing Frank Sinatra and a comedian came out of nowhere and took over the interview and started throwing out all these jokes. It just worked. It made sense. It didn’t fit completely, but they made it fit because that was the show. It wasn’t as clean as everything is right now. I would love for the new generation to really sit in and take in art and take in moments. That’s what Johnny Carson was about.