[As originally published on swagher.net]
Getting to know Gayla Johnson, TV/Film Star, Writer, Director and Comedian Gayla Johnson is one of those actors that you may know by her face. You know her but can’t seem to place where from. She has starred in some of our favorite shows like Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, Bones and many more.
Getting to know Gayla Johnson, TV/Film Star, Writer, Director and Comedian
Gayla Johnson is one of those actors that you may know by her face. You know her but can’t seem to place where from. She has starred in some of our favorite shows like Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, Bones and many more. Gayla is a TV and film star, who has done some writing and directing, as well as a comedian.
Who is Gayla?
I asked Gayla who is she? How does she see herself? Gayla sees herself as being the same as everyone else. She is a Black American woman that takes it day to day, a homeowner and investor, and a wife and mother but not in the traditional way. She is a pet and plant mom, but her love for helping others has her considering adoption, since she is in the position to help and would like to provide a child with a happy home.
Born on the West Coast, Gayla also has ties to Baton Rouge and Kentucky. She’s a former professional ballet dancer and gymnast. As a student of life and business, Gayla says she likes to keep learning and is always doing so. She loves the importance her parents placed on higher learning and believes it caused the lifelong appreciation that Gayla has for new lessons in life. It is her opinion that there is something to be said about going to college and learning. She is happy she delayed having a family, because she had a chance to grow up and experience life.
Landing in Entertainment
Despite having a background in the performing arts, Gayla did not want to be an entertainer while growing up. She accepted an internship in the Chico State radio station while in college. She was discovering herself, she didn’t know if it was right or wrong. Growing up she wanted to be Connie Chung. She jokes, “It was hard to turn into an Asian lady after college.” Nevertheless, she wanted to be a serious newscaster. However, once she started the process to becoming a serious journalist, she did not see herself completing it.
While the comedienne had much respect for Connie Chung, her favorite actress is Lucille Ball. “She is beautiful and not afraid to look ugly—very funny and honest in her acting,” Gayla states, adding that Ball also had a serious film and TV career. Others that she admires are Carol Burnett and Whoopi Goldberg. There were two stories Gayla shared with me that would change her quest to become a newscaster/serious journalist.
One of the moments was when Lucille Ball was in the hospital dying. Gayla recalls she was working at KFBW radio. Lucille was dying, and it was her job to get the radio feed and give it to her editor. One of the feeds spoke of Lucille as if she had already passed away. When she told the editor that the newsfeed stated this, the editor got annoyed with her. He told her by time they run the story, she (Lucille) would have already died, and they would be the first to break the news.
In that moment she didn’t care if Lucille was going to die any moment. She wished she could have been with her at the hospital reflecting on her career, making her last moments happy, instead of treating her as just another story. She wished she could have been there to let her know how she had impacted her life and didn’t care about the ratings.
The second moment was when she was assigned to cover an accident and to interview those that were hurt. She had to walk up to people who were obviously hurt and ask them questions. She felt the questions were not needed, but that what the people needed was help. She felt that she could have pushed those people into a very difficult space, mentally. It became clear in that moment that news is heartless, hard core, and without personal expression. “You have to keep yourself out of it,” she states. “You have to share facts only. To share yourself you must have a different form.” Podcast, YouTube, social media, etc. were not around when she was coming up. They had Jet magazine, and the most she could do was apply.
She then looked into magazines and TV shows. While working the phones at a short-lived show on FOX, she would take her lunch breaks in the research area. Entertainment was the area she wanted to work in. Her desire to be an entertainer came from her experiences there. When a funny and interesting person would come in, she wanted to be them or on stage with them. That evolved into acting and stand up.
If Gayla ever went back into news casting, she says the furthest she would get is anchor, which she has no desire to be, because she does not believe she will be happy with that.
The forever student assesses it as, whatever she wants to do in life, someone else is doing it. We don’t have to imagine, we can look to see who is doing it. This can give us an idea of whether we really want to do it or not.
She lives by the saying, “I cannot make decisions about the rest of my life, when I have not lived that yet. I don’t know when to do it, how to do it, what will come of it, etc. How do you make decisions day to day guiding your path”.
It’s hard to move about your life day to day, so she talks to the person that knows her best, her best friend- herself. She also talks to the person that she will be three years from now, her more successful self. She tells her everything she should be doing. She lays out the steps and her current self does them.
“Because you can’t really do the right things in your life, the closest you can get to it is practicing”.
First Came Acting Then Came Comedy
Gayla ventured into acting first. Her first roles were as a prostitute and a paramedic. “The state of acting as a black woman traumatized me… Well maybe it was more as a woman,” she says.
As a part of the AKA sorority and a college graduate, she fashions herself as a smart person. She got an apartment after graduating and had the opportunity to attend the Black Coalition on behalf of Chico State. So when she went on an interview with an agent, she went in looking her best. She had her resume, headshots, etc., and she was prepared. He looked over everything she had brought and then asked would she pose nude. When the recent grad said no, he told her at that time that was what they were looking for.
Gayla didn’t know if it was because she was black or a woman. She says, you swallow that. One thing stood true, she wanted a career where she could still show her face at the family reunion, a career where her grandma would approve. She adds you have to rebuild. She needed an outlet. She wouldn’t try drugs because of all of the stories her mother told her, as she (her mother) worked as a nurse. Therefore she created her own outlet, comedy.
Hailing from a humorous family, Gayla’s mother loved to make her laugh. When her mother died, she wanted to fill her shoes for her family. She knew she wanted to make people laugh and find another way to look at things that are hard to look at. It was either make people laugh, make them cry, or just state the facts. Just the facts were not helping people, and making them cry meant she was taking herself too seriously. Making people laugh was fun and, in addition, it helped her acting. People are more susceptible to listening to a comedian rather than someone at a podium. “You can say real things in a funny way and people will listen and pay attention,” Gayla says. This is an area she should be familiar with as she has done public speaking on topics such as acting in Hollywood, comedy and female comedians.
One quote the stand up comedienne lives by, “If you have to work the rest of your life, it might as well be something that you enjoy”. When asked what she would like to do for the rest of her life, she replies, “Acting, because comedy is live theatre.” While she likes doing theatre, Gayla says it is more demanding and limited. The reach is not as great as in TV and film acting. The only people that will see your show are the people that are there, sitting in the audience. In TV and film, you can really let go and reveal yourself. You can tell stories and live a role that is beneficial, as in documentaries. You can learn more about that person from an acting stand point. A film and TV acting career offers more exposure, people see you more and they get to know you. Your career will grow faster on TV and in films, also. As for Americans that do comedy in the UK, Gayla says, “Those are the only people (citizens of the UK) that know them. People in America do not have a clue about who they are or that they are funny. They have chosen a form that is limited. It is something that is fun to do, but it is very limited.”
The seasoned entertainer would love to tell her own stories and direct the films that she writes. So far, she has written a sitcom, but it needs some tweaking. Admitting that she has found herself looking back on things that she has done and saying, what do I have to do now, she wonders was she not as focused as she should have been. But, she does believe that everyone has their own path.
Navigating Hollywood as an African American Woman:
Small minds talk people; medium minds talk events; and large minds talk ideas. She thinks we are all a part of all of these groups of people.
Gayla is what I call semi-biracial. Her grandmother was a White woman that married a Black Indian and had five kids. So I asked Gayla which she prefers, being called Black or African American. She said she had never thought of it and has never been asked that before. I asked only because some people don’t like to be associated with the color black. Nevertheless I found what Gayla said interesting.
In so many words, Gayla explained “black” does not have a classy stance and “African- American” does. It puts you as a part of America and identifies you as African. She does not navigate her career as “being” an African American Woman and feels someday she will figure out that she is that. Meanwhile she doesn’t navigate with a filter or frame of mind. She identifies with anything other than white. On profiles she selects Black, Native American, Eastern Islander, Hawaiian, Cuban, etc. She filters through what she can pass for and selects that, which is why she doesn’t subscribe to a particular identity such as black. It limits her if she does. Hence why she prefers African-American.
Her take on “being black” is, black is often associated with “urban” and not being necessary. Black people identify with an ongoing struggle, if she identifies with that, she too wakes up to that fight daily. She gets mad, old, and defensive very fast. So she decides to wake up an American. If she calls herself a particular nationality, she is motivated to become it, in terms of art, or at least as much as the community and environment will let you.
Gayla would love to tell a white woman’s story and to do films about famous women one day. There are two scopes in acting that she takes into consideration when going out for a role: can she change her dialect and can she speak with the accent.
The diverse entertainer admits she struggled with being black everywhere but in the United Kingdom. She has traveled there many times and everyone loves everyone. We don’t have to live with the hate in the United States. In London, UK, etc., love is love. Coming from the south she learned not to take herself so seriously.
When asked about the backlash of playing a character other than black, she likens it to Mexicans taking “our” jobs. She is an American woman, she can do the story. She would stand her ground, and what people think of her is none of her business. If she busies herself with that, she stunts her growth because she is more into pleasing them. “Stand up if you have something to say. Not everyone is going to like what you say. You have to stand your ground and have a voice,” Gayla encourages.
The more successful she becomes, she knows there is a greater responsibility to those that are looking up to her. There is a freedom in that. Gayla states, I don’t have any control over my career, I have control over my choices.
Black Wives Matter?
As of July 2nd, Gayla has been married to her former comedy teacher and artist. She first became his employee. The two became partners in business and then started dating. Her husband is 15 years her senior. When discussing her marriage she states, you align your life with a person’s life but you have to have your own space. You both have your own paths but you have to separate yourself to be ok emotionally. She gives an example using two plants. She says, they grow side by side in the sun but the roots are separated. If one plant has something to happen to it, the other plant can falter and can be sucked dry if their roots where connected. You have to stay strong and feed yourself, but you don’t leave. You can grow next to your life partner in the same soil but keep your roots separate. She adopted this attitude after some family members died and she fell to pieces.
Gayla is currently promoting a new album/comedy CD Black Wives Matter, which can be found on iTunes, etc.
She will be starring in a national pharmaceutical ad. The diverse actress is also co-starring in Get Shorty, appearing in Legends on FX and is featured in the spin off X-Men. She has many shows in syndication—Super Girl, Brothers and Sisters, Bones, Grey’s Anatomy—plus several films that are being shopped at different festivals. Gayla will be at Hollywood Improv on Melrose in Los Angeles, CA, August 5th, Sept 16th, Oct 21st and Dec 9th. She is also working on both a Showtime and a Netflix special.