10 Questions with Actress Ashley Johnson

Ashley johnson imdbphoto
Ashley johnson

1 . What inspired you to pursue a career in acting, and when did you first realize that you wanted to be an actress?

So this is actually a funny question because my Mom still asks me this question! And it’s only because I never declared “Hey I want to be an actor “ directly, it’s just something that was always innate in me. I always had a flair for theatrics …haha… from dressing up as a fashion show girl when I was three or four and holding my family hostage to watch me on a pretend runway, to paying my older brother a quarter to lift me up like Clara from The Nutcracker. When I was four, I told my parents I wanted to dance and take ballet (I was a very direct child) and at a certain point in my life, I felt limited with dance, especially classical ballet and wanted to branch out into acting and music. I have also had a great love for movies, and film and was exposed to all the classics.

I actually joke with one of my acting friends back in L.A. that I am a walking IMDB. I will tell you this, the reason I felt connected to acting when I first started was because I am not a very wear-your-heart-on-your-sleeve kind of person. I am real and open, but with acting there’s no need to explain why you feel a certain way—you just emote. I enjoy being able to take the adversity or things that have happened to me that I never want to happen again and use it to bring a character to life.

Sometimes in the process, you discover things about yourself that you thought you knew or felt and then realize you may feel so much more. The reasons I have stayed with acting are definitely different from when I started. Once I started training and being immersed in the art and work ethic that goes into those epic, seamless performances that we all love, watch, and relate to, I just knew this was for me. Great performances whether a comedy or a drama inspires people, and can affect people. Think of that comedy you need to watch when you have had the worst day and need a hard laugh or that all-inspiring film like Norma Ray, or Country that gives you the strength to keep going or that little bit of motivation when you are feeling almost broken. Great performances and films make you at times. When done right, they question your own morals and values. That’s when I know they’ve got me! I want to be a part of an art that can do that. Jane Fonda said it best “using film as a platform to effect change” and being an actor allows you to do that on so many levels.

2. Can you tell us about a particularly challenging role you’ve played and how you prepared for it?

I was cast as a lead role playing a therapist in the film The Assistant 3 which comes out in October. This role was challenging because it involved understanding and having relationships and different points of view for seven other characters. All the while, those characters were in the same scenes with me at the same time through most of the film. A true ensemble cast. So I had to figure out a way and be on point for the trigger points of each of those characters, who are constantly interjecting and have different needs (I don’t want to spoil the premise). Also, playing a therapist, I had to figure out a way to bring life into a role that can become very one note.

Thank goodness for Ivanna Chubbuck‘s book! I also studied at her school in L.A., so I literally had the book out with my own notes and was trying different objectives and substitutions. Ivanna’s technique is very much like Uta Hagen’s and of course Stanislavsky’s except more goal orientated (which is really how we operate as human beings), so you are really going after the strongest way to accomplish your goal which should always serve the characters overall objective for the script. Once I figured out what the therapist would want most out of life and not just fall into the trap of what the therapist’s job actually was – I could really prepare. And rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.

3. How do you balance your personal life with the demands of your career, especially given the long hours and travel associated with acting?

I always do my best to have me time whether it’s doing a meditation or reading juicy gossip in Star magazine. Just taking a breather from the hustle of auditions, short turn-around self-tapes, call-backs, and shoots whenever I start feeling stressed or too much in my head. Most of the films or shows I have worked on have been shot in the same state I have lived in, or maybe a few hours away. So I can be away from home for a few days, which isn’t too bad. The furthest I have ever gone to film was to Belgium. I feel like—it’s 2023 and the only way you don’t stay in touch with family or friends is if you choose not to stay in touch. I mean there’s cell phones, texting, emails, zoom, and for those who love social media, there’s that. I am not big on social media. Totally old school, so I will text or call my friends. Probably not as much as I should but they know I am there and reliable if they need something. We all get busy and there’s so much going on, but even sending a check in text to a friend is easy enough. What we do does not define who we are. I would rather someone say I am a loyal friend and a good daughter, over being the best actor.

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Ashley Johnson

4. What do you think sets your acting style and approach apart from other actors in the industry?

Well let’s be honest, I am not Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep or Viola Davis, or an expert at all. I am still finding my approach and feel grateful to have studied at different schools that helped me sharpen whatever I felt needed to be worked on at that point in time. Plus, it also allows me to go to my actor’s tool kit right when I am working on a role or shooting, and say this may not work in this moment, so let me try this. Training gives a person flexibility and it helps to be able to adapt in the moment. I feel my best work comes from using Ivanna Chubbuck’s method and when I have time to prep. Those one or two-day turnaround times for self-tapes is when I have to use my stank face –but push through. To me, the magic happens in preparation and really being able to milk every nuance and find it.

5. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as an actress so far in your career?

I don’t think there’s enough time to answer this one…hahaha… Because I am constantly learning new lessons through observation and experience. I would say first—you could walk in the room with your own twin, and your twin gets the job…really…there are so many factors. So just do the audition or the callback and let it go. Don’t base your worth on if you book the job or not. Secondly, comes from an Acting Teacher Leigh Kilton Smith who said: “Art collaborates, ego isolates” and it’s so true. This is a collaborative art, so many times it’s just the actor or actress receiving the accolades but understands that performance may have looked a whole other way if the editor chose a different take or cut too soon, or the music composer picked a song that’s completely wrong for the vibe of the scene.

And most importantly background artists. I mean, hey—good luck fooling the audience into believing it’s a busy New York Street or a large stadium game with no one in the background or filling those seats. None of us can do it alone so it’s important to listen, check ego at the door, and be open to the director when they need to see something more or different. I love adjustments and feedback and totally open to it whether it’s from casting or a director. It only helps. Be willing to rehearse with your co-star if that’s what they need for their approach and even just being kind, speaking to everyone on set. And lastly but soooo importantly from Margie Haber‘s book—her Ten Dynamics of Casting—and this one is last on the list, which surprises me but “you will work again in this business”. It’s so true. We all, at a certain point, feel like— man, I am not booking or this project was supposed to happen and didn’t. It goes on and on—but you will work again in this business.

I think of this year’s Oscars with Key Huy Quan going almost twenty years without steadily working as an actor and boom he goes into Everything Everywhere All At Once audition, books, and walks away with the Oscar. His Oscar is presented to him by Harrison Ford, who on top of being his costar in Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom, is a major A-List actor and has steadily worked during that time, and Harrison Ford doesn’t even have an Oscar! It’s crazy! Honestly, I could go on and on about actors who had one line or even no lines on a show or movie and ten years later became bigger than the lead actor. I remember in 2018, and then 2019, I had a couple of friends that went to the Sundance film festival, just to go to have that experience. They weren’t in any films or anything. I thought then, wow that’s really cool and special. And this past year, I was in a film that premiered at Sundance. I didn’t go, but just to know I was a part of the project even though the role was small, it’s unbelievable and humbling. I mean, who would’ve thought, in retrospect? If you know this is what you want to do, then stay with it. No matter how far you fall, you are never out of the fight. And like Margie Haber said, “You will work again in this business”.

Ashley Johnson
Ashley Johnson

6. How do you select the roles that you take on, and what do you look for in a script or character?

At this point in my career, I wish I could say I “select” roles. But the truth is the only roles I don’t audition for, are ones I feel I can’t service. I may have quirks, but I know I am not quirky. I love characters that have a bit of sassiness to them and realistic humor. I am always drawn to grounded and strong characters whether they are they are the good guy or villain. That’s why when I read the script for Predawn I just connected with it and really wanted to play the role of Kimberly. I understood her mindset and vibe. I also will stay away from nudity for myself because I personally don’t feel comfortable being nude on camera. I admire those actresses that can bare all and just go for it, but that ain’t me and I know it.

7. Can you share with us any exciting or upcoming projects that you’re working on?

I will be shooting two features, one in November and then December. So, we’ve got a few months. Both shoot in South Carolina. Can’t reveal too much for now. One is a romantic comedy. The other is a horror film where I will play a villain, but the story has an interesting twist. I like devious, dubious characters because I am not that way, so it’s just too much fun to play.

Taynel Johnson and Ashley Johnson Ive Been Ghosted 2022
Taynel Johnson and Ashley Johnson “I’ve Been Ghosted” 2022

8. Who has been an inspiration in your life and why?

My mother has always been an inspiration in my life because when I was nine, my parents separated and she had not worked or been in the workforce for almost ten years outside of once in a while working one day a week at the mall. So, on top of there being this big change in her life, she had to support my brother and me. She was determined to keep our lives as normal as possible. She made great sacrifices to make sure I still could continue to take dance classes and performances, and my brother could be involved in his activities. She didn’t want us to lose that sense of normalcy and there was a lot of self-sacrifice she made on her end, which wasn’t easy. But it’s always shown me a sense of resiliency, responsibility, and what you do to help the people you love and care about.

She’s also had a great belief and faith in me pursuing this career—from missing work and taking me to auditions when I was younger, driving crazy distances (there are plenty of stories) to being my reader at times for self-tapes, and that kind of support is priceless and keeps me going. Now, on the opposite end—Jennifer Lopez. She is a one-woman fempire that redefined what the norm is considered today for people in the business. No matter what this industry has thrown at her, she has survived and comes back even better. She’s a better actress and singer today than she was when she first started—and that shows humility and the willingness to improve. Seeing her business-savvy mind, along with the longevity she has had are definite goals. Her growth as an artist is what I always strive for.

9. What advice would you give to aspiring actors who are just starting out in the industry?

Definitely have a strong sense of self because there is a lot of rejection and critiquing, and you don’t want to take everything personally or let it take away from who you are as a person and your worth. Also, define what your own level of success is to you. Because if you don’t, you will have everyone telling you what it should be or questioning—even comparing—your achievements to people who they see on TV or to people who take a more traditional path in life. I say, know what you want out of this industry and real life, so you have no regrets when you’re like eighty years old playing the could’ve, would’ve, should’ve game. Obviously, if you define your level of success as being at a Tom Cruise or Denzel Washington level—yeah, you got a long way to go. But if your level of success is never having to work a 9 to 5 job in between acting gigs or doing regional theater for the rest of your days, then do you. Be happy with that and let no one change your mind to their opinion or agenda. Which goes right back to having a good sense of self.

10. What do you hope audiences take away from your performances, and what impact do you hope to have on them through your work?

This is such a beautiful question. Like every other actor, I want the audience to connect with the character whether they love or hate them, and to feel when the film ends that this character’s life still continues. Because you took the emotional ride with the character’s experiences. I would love to be part of projects that are relevant to the issues or struggles of the times or show a character going through great adversity and overcoming it because that’s very much who I am. The impact I would like to have with my work would be to continue to open doors for women of color because we come in all shades, sizes, and hair types. We shouldn’t be limited or pigeonholed in a box or stereotyped if we look a certain way. I do see myself down the road producing projects that would bring light to so many untold stories of black woman and their contributions that have been overlooked, or ignored. Maybe I will even act in one of them. I really believe seeing the Black community in more empowering roles that have to do with real life, and not just the superhero world, would be impactful. I would love to be part of that kind of work, and see how that would shape a new narrative—not just in the industry but also in everyday life.

Bonus: What was your first paid gig as an actor?

I want to say it was a Visa Industrial. I booked it directly through one of my first managers. It was shot at the University of Maryland and I was playing a college student in the different parts of campus. I think I was paid seventy-five bucks and I remember when I got the check I was so excited! I almost framed it! I think I stared at it for a few days instead, before cashing it.



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