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Interview: Wil Johnson talks acting career, a quiet life and his role in the much anticipated Jitney at the Old Vic

Interview: Wil Johnson talks acting career, a quiet life and his role in the much anticipated Jitney at the Old Vic

“Acting is a privilege that lets you dive into something else. Somewhere you’ll more than likely never go. In relation to Jitney, my character Becker is fresh to me. He is a man who carries a lot of baggage that he’s never dealt with”. Wil Johnson

British Actor Johnson has graced our TV screens for well over three decades, his first TV role was as Paul in Casualty in 1987, since he has been seen in many of the UK’s iconic and favourite dramas from BabyFather, Death in Paradise, Cracker, The Bill to Clocking Off, to name a few. (Main image in rehearsal for Jitney (Wil Johnson (Becker) © Manuel Harlan OLD VIC)

As Abernathy in Outlander

A long run was his role in Waking the Dead which was from 2000 and 2011, in which he played DI Spencer Jordan – later promoted to DS – opposite Sheila Johnson. This has been followed by a very long line of credits on screen and stage that include Waterloo Road, Sean Dolan in Holby City and Dax in Lewis, Dominic Andrews in Emmerdale, Joe Abernathy in Outlander (above) from 2017 to 2020.

Wil in Waterloo Road.

On stage he has played Othello, more recent theatre credits Running with Lions, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Sweat, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. He is about to play Becker in August Wilson’s Jitney. ALT caught up with the actor as he began rehearsals for Jitney which runs at the Old Vic 9th June to 9th July. Book here.

What do you like most about acting? 

I like to explore people and experiences I’ve never had before. That’s one of the beauties of acting – you get to inhabit a world or situation that is so far removed from your own, that it adds to the richness of you as a person. 

Acting is a privilege that lets you dive into something else. Somewhere you’ll more than likely never go. In relation to Jitney, my character Becker is fresh to me. He is a man who carries a lot of baggage that he’s never dealt with. He just keeps moving forward, so it’s interesting for me to inhabit someone who never really looks back. 

Who was your biggest influence growing up? Who did 9-year-old Wil Johnson look up to? 

My biggest influence – still, to this day – is my dad. My dad has always been my hero. He’s a big man, around 6’3 and has been a builder all his life. I remember being around that age and seeing this giant of a man and wanting to be just like him. I even wanted to work in construction. 

…But, when I got to 15 or 16, I stumbled across acting. It wasn’t even something I was looking for. Someone dropped out of a school play and my drama teacher approached me. I’m not sure why, I didn’t even do drama…

The play was a typical boy/girl play, written by a student – at first, I didn’t want to do it and then I found out there was a girl I fancied playing the opposite lead… I didn’t get the girl, but I caught the acting bug! 

When did you discover August Wilson and what do you like about his work? 

I first discovered Wilson in 1989. I was doing a play at the National called Fuente Ovejuna, and the show coming in as we left was a Wilson play – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. When I saw it, it blew me sideways. An awesome play with a magic ending. That was my introduction to Wilson.

The second time I saw a Wilson play must have been when a young Adrian Lester was in Fences (1990). That was the first time I met Adrian and once again, I was blown away by a phenomenal performance and play. 

Wilson has a way of capturing ordinary African Americans and turning their ordinary stories into epic, universal stories. They speak to everyone and there are elements in the story and in the characters that we can all identify with. 

Wil Johnson (Becker) © Manuel Harlan

How do you approach your character Becker, what are some of the challenges? 

I play Jim Becker who is the boss of the Jitney station (which is an unlicensed cab station). It’s a business which fills a gap in the city; you have your conventional services and then you have this underbelly one which cuts through the middle of that, offering a cheaper rate but earning enough money for people to make a living.

In terms of approaching Becker, what’s most interesting is learning about the American dialect. The way these plays are written, the grammar is so unlike how we speak in England. Depending on where you’re from in the UK or your social class, you will speak in a particular rhythm. It’s the same in America – depending on where you live or where you’re from you will speak a certain way.

In Jitney, which is set in Pittsburgh, over the course of a few generations, a lot of African Americans migrated from the south up to the north. Because of that, a lot of Southern idioms are still very prevalent in the way African Americans speak today. The hardest thing is getting your mouth around how they speak because they use a lot of repetition. If you don’t get into the flow of the language, you can’t unlock the play. 

As a seasoned actor do you get nerves before going on stage? Did you ever get nerves? 

If you do your preparation, then you don’t get nervous – you get excited. For me, there is an adrenaline rush to actually get on stage. It’s always been that way because I love everything about acting from the process to simply working hard. 

It’s almost like being an athlete. You have to do the training, winter, or summer – so when it comes time to perform, you’re ready… because the audience doesn’t want to hear about nerves! 

It feels like we have been back a while now since the pandemic but what did it feel like to be back? 

I’ve been quite fortunate as this is my second theatre job since the pandemic. I was at the Lyric Hammersmith earlier this year, doing a play called Running with Lions, which was my first post-pandemic – and now Jitney.  

There are big themes in this play: gentrification and oppression of black communities. How much do these stories resonate now? 

They completely resonate. 

I’m from Tottenham and have seen it become much more gentrified. The road I lived on – which my dad still lives on – might as well be in Hampstead with those house prices… and I think that’s a theme we can all relate to. Jitney is set in 1977 – but here we are in 2022 and the same thing is happening to black communities and neighbourhoods. 

What do you like about your character, and what is his motivation? 

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I love my character, Becker because here is a man who at some stage has to face his demons – which means he will eventually start to grow as a person. When we meet him, he is at a stagnant point in his life, almost running backwards. He’s working, living, doing his thing… but with no forward progression. 

ALT has teamed up with the OLD VIC to giveaway three pairs of tickets click here to enter.

As an actor, when you take a role it’s because you want something that’s really going to stretch you as an actor. This character does that. I love the challenge of playing someone who is conflicted within himself because it means there is a journey to go on. 

Where do you call home? 

I live in Kent, in a lovely town called Faversham. I’ve been there for nearly 9 years now. I’ve been a city boy my entire life and have lived all over east, west, and north… but when I met my wife I decided to move out of the city because I wanted a slower pace of life. 

For my creative careers section what two qualities in your view make a good stage actor? 

Curiosity and courageousness. You must be willing to let go of your ego and trust the process. Explore, experiment, dive in! Even if you fail, it doesn’t matter; if you feel ridiculous, let go of that notion. When you’re in a rehearsal space or a workshop, you’re in a safe environment where you can push to the limit. 

Only once you’ve pushed to the limit can you work out what works and what doesn’t.

11. What next? 

No idea! Back to Kent and await the storm… I’m going to be in the prequel to Game of Thrones called House of the Dragon. That’s coming in late August so… let’s see how that goes. 

Jitney, an Old Vic, Headlong and Leeds Playhouse co-production is at the Old Vic from 9 June before touring.

Jitney is at The Old Vic from 9 June to 9 July,