TV Interview: Javon Johnson – The Oval, Or Maybe The Butler Did It?

April 4, 2021

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By BRUCE DENNILL

 

Photo: Charles Bergmann/BET/Tyler Vision, LLC

Javon Johnson plays the butler, Richard Hallsen, in Tyler Perry’s The Oval.

 

Can you distil what it is that you love about film and/or television acting particularly – over other types of performance such as theatre? Are there aspects of the craft of acting that are different in front of a camera than when performing for a live audience?

 My bloodline is theatre. Branching off into television and film can never uproot my love for the live performance space. Theatre is like diving into the ocean and never reaching the bottom but doing everything in your power to get there. Television and film are like surfing the biggest wave and wiping out before hitting the shore then doing it all over again, pushing for that moment to wiggle sand between your toes or kick the dirt because it’s just time to move on. Although I’ve never literally deep-sea dived or surfed, I imagine both are exhilarating and for different reasons. So, for now, let’s ride this wave of “actions’, “cuts’, “hurry up” and “wait”. No reaching the back of the theatre here. This space is intimate, small and big at the same time. Stillness has power. Silence can be deafening. A whisper can be heard around the world and the truth behind the eyes can break someone’s heart from the sofa in their living room. The camera is the audience and its lens is nosey as hell and its ability to help tell the story gives me a sense of subtle freedom that’s often too small for the live stage.

 

Film and television can involve an enormously lengthy creative process, with months or even years passing between coming on board via auditions and the premiere of the piece. What’s that like emotionally as a performer – investing heavily in something and then having to wait?

Quite honestly, I’ve found that the best distraction to this agonising wait is to continue to create and move on to the next project. It’s kind of like stepping into a new relationship after a break-up knowing you will spend some time with your ex again but the relationship has changed.

 

How important is a message for you in terms of the types of stories you prefer to get involved with? Are you part activist (and if so, for what causes), do you want something that primarily presses artistic buttons, or is it a matter of simply working first and foremost? (Perhaps it’s a mixture of all three…).

I believe a true artist should have a voice, something to say and give to the world and not just take from it. In that way, I am an activist, an activist for purpose and growth. Art is forever evolving, challenging and even radical, so how dare I not push its buttons? How dare I not have something to say, hearts to change, minds to shape, attitudes to provoke? If a project has power, substance and the potential to change the world, then I’d hope to be blessed to participate in it or at the least support all those who are. I also understand this is a business of entertainment and entertainment has value. Sometimes simply sparking laughter or taking someone on a joyfully wild ride will do. And in the midst of all that artistic rhetoric, paying the bills is important and oh so rewarding when your art pays them for you.

 

What do you need from a director? Conversely, what won’t you put up with from a director?

First and foremost, as an actor, I need the space to be an actor regardless of what I get or don’t get from a director. However, there are things I greatly appreciate. A non-wavering director with a vision and the ability to convey it with clarity; a director with an understanding and sensibility for an actor’s process; a director who empowers the actor with trust and choices; and a director with a respectable degree of a collaborative spirit who, if he/she does not have the answer, will work diligently to discover it together. What I will not put up with is an abusive and selfish director who dismisses and dangles actors like puppets from a string.

 

Does the way a film or show is distributed make a difference to you – the impact of the big screen and epic sound in a cinema versus a film or series being watched on a laptop or phone? Please answer as both a performer and a fan.

In the age of Covid, the impact of a worldwide pandemic and massive quarantines have pushed laptops and phones to the forefront as primary distributing devices of entertainment. The convenience of portable devices can certainly be appreciated. But in our ideal world, and as a fan, nothing quite compares to being consumed by a big screen, amazing effects and sound vibrating through the bones in your body and rattling the theatre. That nostalgia of getting into your car, purchasing tickets, and bankrolling treats from the overpriced concession stands is undeniable. As an actor, what other moment is there to see yourself so visible, vibrant and fantastically enormous other than on the big screen and to watch popcorn eaters and soda sippers gaze up at all of your hard work, all of your passion and your dreams? Some things are worth sacrificing and fighting for over and over again and for me… this is it.

 

Tell me about your current projects.

As a playwright, screenwriter, acting teacher and director, I am currently producing and directing both for stage and film. Leijend is a short film shot in Chicago, now in post-production, and there is a feature film tentatively shooting this fall, with more original content soon to follow. Academically, I am spearheading the opening of a performing arts training school called Bear Fruit Conservatory in my home state of South Carolina.

 

Who is Richard Hallsen and why is he satisfying to play And what can fans expect from the new season that is about to come out?

Richard Hallsen is one of the more dignified and stable characters in The Oval’s world of power, betrayal, love     and deceit. From the military to head butler at the White House, he has spent decades as a man of integrity and service. A proud and honorable husband and father, Richard’s world is turned upside down when his son Barry is sucked into the new first family’s madness and is accused of sexually assaulting the first daughter and kidnapping of his granddaughter Callie. Richard will do whatever it takes to protect his family, if it costs him his job or even his life. A family man myself, it is satisfying to step into the shoes of another man who loves and protects his family. A man who understands loyalty and support and building a strong foundation. Although not military or a butler, I certainly have been a man of service to many aspiring and established artists’ voices and passions for many years. As far as what fans can expect from the new season – no spoilers! But I will say Season 2 will pack an even bigger punch and even more dramatic twists and turns and Richard’s heart is being thrown onto the table.

 

The Bear Fruit Conservatory sounds incredible – what is your vision for the school in the short and long term?

Chadwick Boseman and I were dear friends before his passing. Hailing from the same hometown, there were little to no resources or outlets to support the career we both entered. However, there is talent everywhere, and indeed there are talented people working on assembly lines and textile industries and so forth putting in 20, 30, 40-plus years of labour while their artistic dreams lie dormant inside their spirit. My desire to see my hometown’s aspiring artists grow and prosper and after relocating back to South Carolina, I am finally in position to create a performing arts training centre for nurturing, development and guidance to initially serve the state with a limited curriculum and later serve the Southeast and ultimately the country with a multitude of artistic disciplines.

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