Interview: Gayla Johnson from Bones, Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, talks challenging the status quo in Hollywood
[as originally published on HiddenRemote]
Gayla Johnson has had an incredible stand-up comedy and acting career appearing in shows such as Bones, Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and more. But her road to get there was anything but easy.
But what many don’t know is that she has had to “re-define” her place in Hollywood in a way that only an African American woman could ever understand. There were many times when she could have given up, but instead of letting her early difficulties end her, she rose above them and used them to mold her into the strong woman she is today.
She is an incredible talent, and we were thrilled when we learned that she was willing to speak with us about her career and her journey. Several things become abundantly clear when you look at what she’s accomplished on screen. First, she is as versatile as can be, almost mind-bogglingly so, as seen in recurring roles on ABC’s Don’t trust the B*** In Apartment 23.
She also has a way of stealing the room at just the right moments, and more importantly, not stealing the room when it doesn’t need to be stolen, as in her guest star scene on The Real Rob Schneider. She has a sense for when to go full throttle and when not to, which is a talent many actors simply don’t have.
And along those same lines, she has a knack for delivering “make or break” lines (you know, the lines you make fun of if they’re not delivered correctly) in a perfect fashion. Examples of this can be seen in the opening sequence of Legion, “Ch2,” and in her guest star appearance on Scandal, “Air Force 2.”
Johnson is also emotionally expressive in a way that is just impossible to fake, as seen in Going Home, an Indie Film dealing with family tragedy. But the thing that stands out the most about her to us is that she has a serious knack for playing hard-core characters.
She has an authority and a strength about her that you just wouldn’t expect to come out of a stand-up comedian. Examples of this can be seen in her respective roles as a High priced Lawyer in Bones and a boardroom member on Supergirl.
When we asked her about how she was able to pull off such a persona so well, she divulged that the reason she is able to portray realistic strength on screen is that it took a lot of strength for her to go after those roles in the first place in an industry that wasn’t designed for minority women.
After a short stint in Hollywood, in background roles, small theater roles, and student films, she decided that she would no longer accept roles that made her feel objectified — roles that she felt violated her dignity and moral code.
And as a result, she had to fight an extremely difficult uphill battle to get to where she is today. So that strength you see when you watch her in strong character roles such as what she did in Scandal or Grey’s Anatomy — that’s real. It’s a result of a journey that took her from the depths of heartbreak on the losing end of a sexist and discriminatory industry to where she stands, empowered, today.
This is her story — one of a trailblazer and one that she hopes will inspire young women to believe in themselves, to press on, and to fight for what they’re passionate about.
After college, she was hired by KFWB, a major news radio station, as it was “in line” with her Communication/Journalism degree. She was on her way to building a reporting/newscasting career until she was propositioned by her boss.
After refusing his advances, the next day on the job, she was dismissed.
This horrific situation prompted her decision to broaden her scope, and as such, she decided to pursue a career in acting and stand-up comedy. Little did she know, this path would not be easier.
Discouraged but not defeated after the incident at the radio station, she decided that the logical next step would be to find an agent to represent her in her new career path. So she gathered herself, put together a portfolio, and set up a meeting with an agent whom she hoped would help her to get started in entertainment.
Gayla Johnson: “I made an appointment with an agent, and I went in and I brought everything I thought they wanted. I brought headshots, I had done some work in college — I brought a resume, I brought an application that highlighted all of my skills and [abilities], and I even brought letters of recommendation from other actors that had seen me in things. …
… So I did all of those things and then I walked in and I sat them all down and he goes ‘okay, okay, this is great. So, will you pose nude?’ That was the first question, not really reading anything I brought. … I said no, sir, I won’t. He goes, ‘okay then, we’re done here.'”
Disgusting. Once again, she was completely crushed as she walked back to the parking lot that day, thinking to herself that maybe her hopes and dreams had been a farce, to begin with. Doubts like “I’m never gonna be an actress”crossed her mind as she mentally reeled in the shock of what had just happened.
It was indeed a difficult situation for her, but her desire to act was so great that she would eventually take on the role of a hooker in a little-known TV Series called Moloney.
Jobs like these, she explained, were sadly some of the best, and sometimes the only options for Black women actresses at the time. But it was a completely un-enjoyable experience for her and she found herself hating it.
Johnson: “Of course, I was [initially] thrilled to get the part. At the audition, I came in dressed in the skimpiest hooker outfit I could find — all animal print. My character didn’t even get a name; I was ‘Prostitute’ for the whole shoot.
The shoot was outside, freezing night air, I was so miserable that night during the takes. Everyone else was in sweaters and coats — I’m in a spaghetti top, tight dress, … I was in high heels, … and I felt exposed. … I was completely freezing the whole time. And nobody said, ‘you wanna wear a coat?’ Or, ‘why don’t you go inside?’ …
… It was like seven to ten takes back to back. … I got a cold the next day. I was sick for like a week after that. My feet were swollen; I was so miserable that I decided … I’m never gonna do that again. …that night I gave more than I got, and decided I would start to make better choices on what I will GIVE to Hollywood, not what they will TAKE from me.”
This was a turning point in her career. She decided to fight the stereotype of how black women were being portrayed in movies and television, which was typically in the role of a stripper, prostitute, or a slave. But fighting that battle would not be easy.
Johnson: “I realized the only choice I had was to beef up another part of me. And I started to go out toward the stronger roles.
And when they would want me to be strong in a scene, I would think about how I felt about that hooker role. And I got pissed and annoyed reliving that experience and thought, well, I’m not doing that again, so I gotta do this. And I just put on my big girl face and it just never left me.”
From this point on, Gayla Johnson didn’t look back. At any point, she could have gone full-force after what would have likely been a lucrative career in stereotypical roles, but she stuck to her guns and stayed true to course.
Johnson: “I made a decision that I don’t ever want to do a role or do a stand-up comedy act that makes me afraid of what my grandmother would say. I take it back to [my family’s] value system. … I don’t like family ashamed of me. I don’t want to do roles that I’m ashamed to do. … I always think — would my grandmother be proud of me if I did that? Would my mother?”
Those are the words of a role model and a heroic woman who stood firm in the face of a giant of an industry. Has it always been easy for her? No. Sticking to her morals has meant losing out on a lot of money and a lot of the “glitz” and “glamour” she could have received; but according to her, it would have come at too high a cost.
Johnson: “Turning down roles meant turning down money and work I needed, and not getting industry contacts. But if I took a job requiring frontal nudity, simulated sex, posing nude, etc., the best case scenario would be booking another job just like it, or even more exposure. Once I’m nude, people want to see nude again and again; they don’t care about any inner strength or education.”
Looking to the future, there is reason for optimism for women and women of color in the entertainment business. But would it be that way if she and other brave women hadn’t stood up and challenged the status quo? It’s doubtful.
Her willingness to stand up for herself and others is one of the main reasons things have changed in Hollywood in recent years. Would we be seeing Kerry Washington leading in Scandal were it not for Gayla Johnson’s bravery? Would society have been ready for Jennifer Lawrence, instead of Liam Hemsworth, to be the star of The Hunger Games were it not for people like her? We would suggest not.
Have we arrived at the point of gender and racial equality yet? Things have improved, but we still have a ways to go.
Nevertheless, there is now hope thanks to people like Gayla Johnson who are taking a stand in Hollywood and making it known that women and women of color are to be respected and valued. We, at Hidden Remote and FanSided, applaud their bravery.
Keep looking out forGayla Johnson’s future projects; the future is bright for her.