Press Pass LA had the chance to sit down with character actor Kenny Johnson to discuss his work on TV, most recently playing Caleb on Bates Motel, and his upcoming indie film Blue.
Fans of intelligent indie film passion projects should be thoroughly intrigued by the latest effort by Michele Martin and Charles Huddleston, titled Blue. Conceived by Michele and co-written by her and Charles, the film tells the compelling story of two young people who, despite stigma and terrible family dysfunction, form a pure bond of love that no outside force can break.
Blue is a mysterious young man, suffering a rare blood disease that colors his skin blue. He meets a young woman capable of seeing beyond his unusual appearance and outcast status while struggling with dark secrets of her own. Surrounding the film’s protagonists is an exceptional supporting cast featuring Kelly McGillis, Kenny Johnson, Sean Bridgers and retired U.S. Marine Corps captain Dale Dye.
Best known for earthy, authentic characters in acclaimed series like The Shield, Saving Grace, Sons of Anarchy and most recently Bates Motel, Kenny Johnson’s challenged himself yet again by tackling two deeply troubled men in films currently being finalized in post-production. In Blue, Johnson plays an abusive and alcoholic father unable to cope with his misery who grows so jealous of his daughter’s relationship that events take a dreadfully dangerous turn.
Press Pass L.A. was delighted to spend time with Johnson to discuss his work in Blue and gain greater insight into the man and his method.
PPLA: I’ve seen you lovingly praise Michele Martin’s script by calling it “a beautiful story” and proclaiming it to be “one of the best things I’ve read in a long time,” making me think you would’ve taken any role to help bring this project to fruition. Is that the case or were you particularly drawn to playing the character of Murphy?
KJ: I thought the story was great. It felt purely written, straight forward and simple yet was a very powerful piece. So, yeah, I would’ve loved to have done anything that I would’ve fit. I really feel that Michele and Charles kind of thought outside the box when they thought of me for this father up in the Appalachian Mountains, considering who he was. It was really powerful, and I thought it was awesome that they even considered me for the role. I felt honored that it came my way, for sure.
PPLA: Actors often choose to play a character because it’s either similar to them or so completely foreign to their nature that it becomes a challenge they want to explore. What aspects of Murphy made him someone you wanted to explore?
KJ: Murphy is an emotionally distraught father who is obviously disturbed and very possessive over his family, his ground and where he grew up. He feels like he needs to control that in a way and I just thought that would be really challenging. I think there are definitely certain stereotypes attributed to people of the hills in the Appalachian Mountains, and I did a lot of researching of families that have been there for generations specifically to avoid that kind of stereotypical depiction.
Being deep in the hills makes it very difficult to get the kinds of jobs that offer medical and dental insurance which brings a certain added stigma to them. Like with everything, you cannot stereotype anything, each person is a different individual and I just thought it would be interesting to put myself in that situation. My challenge was to bring some humanity to a character that seemed to be a mean, really disturbing and kind of controlling individual. He lost his wife five years earlier and since his wife’s been gone he’s been a drunk in a downward spiral. He’s father to a young woman and is also trying to raise a five year old and a ten year old. While his behavior is disturbing and dysfunctional, I wanted to explore that road to examine what makes a person that way or what brought them to that place. I wanted to try to humanize this guy who is struggling with his own demons.
PPLA: In what way does the home life Murphy provides fit into the film’s overall story?
KJ: Blue is this innocent guy from the hills and Michele’s character (Pearl) doesn’t discriminate based on race or color or anything and there’s just this connection between the two of them that’s the most powerful, innocent kind of first love. The counter to that is her abusive father and horrific home life. It makes the whole journey of Pearl and Blue’s story just that much more impactful.
PPLA: Did you do a chemistry read with Michele to get the role? What did the auditioning process entail?
KJ: I met Michele and Charles for the role in L.A. shortly before it was going to be filmed and I got along awesomely with her. I think she got me as a person. I knew I was going to be playing her father and there would be traumatic things going on between our characters, so it was important to actually connect with her and Charles when I first met them. We all just got along great. I didn’t really audition for it, they just met with me for like 35-40 minutes then said, “We’d love for you to play the part. It’s yours if you want it.” And I said, “Heck yeah!” I’d watched tapes on both of them, since they’re both actors, and things Charles had directed Michele in and they’re really, really good so I was excited to work with them.
I had a great connection with Michele, and Charles is one of those great directors who will let you find it as an actor. Sometimes it’s nice when less is more, you know, when a director is a visionary and casts you for a reason and kind of watches you mold the character while offering just a little bit of a note here and there. I thought he was a great director. He really allowed me to explore and go places. There were no boundaries with him. He was very kind and calm and smart and when he did say something it would always be a great note. The same goes for Michele. We improvised a lot of stuff that wasn’t expected and we both really trusted each other enough to just go there, so that was a really awesome experience too.
PPLA: The cast assembled around Blue’s protagonists is really impressive. Had you worked with any of your Blue cast mates before?
KJ: Yeah, I’d worked with Sean (Bridgers). I was on a series with Holly Hunter called Saving Grace and Sean had come on for an amazing episode and he was so good in it. So I knew him before and I think he’s buddies with my friend Walton Goggins who I was on The Shield with so, you know, all us Southern buddies kind of know each other. [laughs] Sean’s great in this movie too. He’s really, really wonderful.
PPLA: I imagine Dale Dye has tons of interesting and entertaining stories to tell, did you get to spend much time with him during production?
KJ: I met him as soon as I got there and he definitely likes to sit at the bar and drink and tell stories. Obviously he’s got a lot of stories to tell. I chimed in a little bit but I was really trying to stay focused on my character so I didn’t spend a lot of crazy night’s out drinking or anything. They’d meet at the bar every night though and Dale would just go on and on with stories because he’s got a million of ’em and they’re all great.
PPLA: Do you have a favorite, most memorable day of shooting from the movie or a favorite scene you’d want to highlight for audiences?
KJ: There’s a few. They were all really intense. There’s one scene where Murphy comes home after drinking all night and it’s the first thing in the morning and I have this run-in with Michele’s character. We improvised a lot of that. It was written to be very short and had just a couple of brief lines on paper but then we decided to kind of explore and improvise to take it in a different direction. That was really memorable for me. It was surprisingly powerful, potent and was definitely a really charged scene.
PPLA: In the film’s trailer your character is shown getting into a bit of a scuffle. Was there a stunt coordinator on Blue or did you guys just work that out yourselves?
KJ: There was a stunt coordinator for the film but we mostly just worked it out ourselves. I don’t want to give anything away but there was padding that was needed on someone’s back, arms and knees and stuff like that.
PPLA: Given your background in athletics, do you enjoy doing your own stunts when allowed?
KJ: Oh yeah, with anything I’ve ever done in my life I kind of pride myself on being a guy’s guy. I know I’m athletic and physical, and maybe it’s an ego thing or because I’ve trained so hard in my life, but I believe that if the audience is going to see a body moving around doing things I want it to be me. I don’t want it to be somebody else. Whether the camera catches my face or not I’d just rather it be authentic. I think I’ve always done all my own stuff. I’ve had stunt guys there but they never get to work because I won’t let ’em. Once I get in there and do any kind of a fight scene directors typically say that I look as good or better than the stunt guy so they just go ahead and let me do it.
PPLA: Considering your history as a champion arm wrestler, I’m curious if you’ve checked out AMC’s new reality series Game of Arms?
KJ: Yes, definitely. I dig it. I know a lot of the guys on that show. I’ve followed it and went to its premiere on Melrose Avenue. I love it and love the fact that it’s giving people a little taste of the arm wrestling world. Just last night I trained for two hours up in the valley. We have a team that comes down from Bakersfield and a lot of people come up from Orange County, and we end up deep in the valley arm wrestling every Thursday with a lot of world champions and ex-world champions. I’m into the whole thing, I love the show. I think it’s great.
PPLA: Is Blue the first project you’ve done that was partially crowdfunded? And do you think sites like Kickstarter will continue to be a positive force for independent film?
KJ: I did a small project when I was shooting The Shield that was part of a short film competition in which the winner would be given a million dollars to shoot a long version of what they did. One of Shawn Ryan’s friends was actually in the top five so he had me and Jay Karnes play in his short film. It didn’t win, but that was the only other thing that I’ve done that I know was funded by something else.
I think this is the first Kickstarter one that I know about, which is awesome. It’s amazing how the internet and new media in our current day and age, when you reach out to different places in order to get finishing funds for something, is able to come up with the money to help filmmakers finish post-production. I’m not exactly sure how Kickstarter works because that was coming from Karl Schaulin, Charles Huddleston, Michele Martin and that side of it, but, I think it’s important and if it keeps going on can really help filmmakers and artists out who don’t have the funds to do it all themselves, which most people don’t.
PPLA: Many of your characters are morally ambiguous, not necessarily villains but with motivations that are hard to root for. I’m curious if, as an artist, you deliberately seek out these gray kinds of characters or are you just not often offered more morally black or white types of roles?
KJ: I think I just put that energy out into the universe because I don’t like black or white. I like characters that are morally ambiguous. I like challenges. Writing is always the number one most important thing for me and I’d rather portray people that have complexities and moral dilemmas to deal with. Then you can seek out right or wrong through the character and let the audience decide what they want to, but at least it gives you that much. My character on Bates Motel is a guy in a situation that’s really messed up, but I try to find the humanity in what brings people to where they’re at or where they came from. To me, it’s always an exciting thing to see how it domino effects in their lives later on and what it then does to them. Through the writing, which on great shows is usually great writing, you’re able to explore that and people watching get the opportunity to go on that journey and feel whatever they want to feel as well.
PPLA: On Bates Motel the majority of your scenes were opposite Max Thieriot, whose character may or not be your character’s son, what was Max like as a scene partner?
KJ: He was awesome. He and I got along right off the bat. I met him outside the makeup trailer when I first arrived and he said he was really excited to work with me and that it was a pleasure having me there. I told him that I’m a huge fan of his work and that I loved Bates Motel’s first season and how excited I was to get to be able to play his uncle-father or whatever. [laughs] We got along great. His persona is very cool and kind of reminds me of James Dean in a way. There’s something intriguing about Max on-screen that always makes me want to know what’s going on with him. He’s like a fly on the wall observing everything, not being let into the family. I love the fact that I got to hang out with him and get to know him. He’s big into MMA and he’s got a lot of the top MMA guys that are friends of his that train together with him and they get into wrestling matches. We have a lot of similarities in our backgrounds and we started competing with arm wrestling while we were shooting which definitely bonded us even more. It was really fun.
PPLA: When we last saw your character, Caleb, he was apparently leaving White Pine Bay. Can you tell us if he’ll be back for more episodes this season?
KJ: I’m not allowed to say anything, so you’ll have to keep watching.
PPLA: You’re so remarkably believable in everything I’ve seen you do. I wondered if you’ve studied acting formally and if so, where or who with?
KJ: I started with a guy named Vincent Chase for about a year. I then moved on to this man that I heard was a really respected teacher named Michael Shurtleff who’d written a book about how to audition, so I spent a summer with him. After his three month course, he’d kind of planted some seeds in my head and gave me a couple of plays that he wrote to actually perform. I went from there to this teacher I’d heard amazing stuff about named Larry Moss. I spent about three years with Larry Moss, every day of the week, trying to be like a sponge and just learn as much as I could and study and put up as many scenes as I could.
He was the teacher that ultimately gave me the foundation for everything I do. He encouraged me to be really interested in people and humanity and to travel the world studying people; to be interested in everything and everyone and every playwright, just every everything. To never stop learning and growing and to just be curious. I definitely jumped on that bandwagon and travelled to as many places in the world as I could and put myself in situations trying to apply his lessons and figure out what I wanted say in life and how I could maybe give back in some way.
PPLA: Was there one actor whose work, perhaps when you were a kid or young adult, made you think I want to do that?
KJ: I remember seeing something about James Dean when I was either in college or high school that really stuck in my head. Even before I’d actually gotten into acting, for some reason, I was into Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando in old movies. Another thing that pops into my head is that I used to watch Happy Days when I was a young kid and always dreamed that one day I’d go to Hollywood and try to be an actor. I was just a kid and I didn’t think it’d happen or anything but something from it just stuck inside of me.
PPLA: Is there a contemporary actor that you ever think about or draw inspiration from by pondering what that person would do or how he or she might approach a scene?
KJ: It’s funny, one of the first commercials I ever did was with Brad Pitt. Shortly after that Brad got Thelma & Louise. I really liked him as a person and I’ve always remained intrigued with him. So, yeah, there were times when I was first starting out that I would ask myself, “What would Brad Pitt do?” I really got inspired by watching his work early on.
PPLA: One of your greatest strengths as an actor is the credible way in which you physicalize the roles you inhabit. How would you describe your approach to the more physical aspects of the characters you portray?
KJ: All or nothing. I often think about how far I can take something. When I was on The Shield Michael Chiklis would get me riled up and we would take things as far as we could without hurting somebody, but it was like all or nothing. It was like a kill or be killed jungle code — only the strong survived. Within the scheme of The Shield’s strike team it was like us being in the jungle where although we were corrupt cops, we were still taking down guys that were a hundred times worse than us. In that situation you’ve got to think and be and feel more heightened and more dangerous than they are and you’ve got to be unafraid of that.
Those kinds of things really stir me up and get me to a point where I physically commit to things beyond the thought of, “Oh let’s fake all of this,” never to hurt anybody but still going full out while still being physically in control. Jason Statham’s action sequences are always so badass because they take it to that point and it’s always so believable. I always want to authentically represent that same approach. I box every day and I’m into sports and physicality and things like that, so as long as I can make it believable on-screen then I’m happy and I feel like I’ve done my job.
PPLA: You’ve appeared in sitcoms, dramas, action and even a bit of sci-fi, do you have a favorite genre that you prefer over all others?
KJ: I like drama that incorporates action like Sons of Anarchy and The Shield. I haven’t had a lot of action in Bates Motel but I did get thrown out of the house by Norma, and Freddie Highmore (as Norman) tried to stab me with a knife. That was all really fun. There’s a lot of great tension in all of those scenes. Early in my career, all I was getting cast in were sitcoms and there was something about that that I really enjoyed but I would say action-drama is probably my favorite. As long as something has great writing, I’m down for it.
PPLA: Since you were in the first Blade film I’m curious if you’re a fan of superhero movies and might like to do more work like that?
KJ: I’m so into the Marvel movies, I’d love to do more of that.
PPLA: Due to the rise of non-traditional TV outlets such as Hulu, Netflix and video on demand, audiences have really embraced the binge-watching trend of late. Currently your work on Saving Grace, Dexter, Sons of Anarchy and Burn Notice, for instance, can be streamed 24/7 at Netflix. Have you binge-watched anything lately or is there a show you’ve recently become obsessed with via any of those outlets?
KJ: I binge-watched Dexter. And even though I’d already followed Bates Motel, when I found out I’d be doing it I wanted to watch every episode again so I watched the whole first season in one night. I end up catching a lot of things OnDemand like True Detective, Game of Thrones and The Goldbergs. [laughs] The Goldbergs is awesome.
PPLA: Throughout your career your characters have used a wide variety of firearms. I know prop guns are different from the real thing but assuming that you’ve trained with at least some of them before filming, I’m curious if you have a favorite firearm that you’ve filmed with?
KJ: For The Shield I’d go to the range with our technical advisor, Jesse Escochea, who was in the L.A.P.D. for something like seventeen years. I grew up on a farm in Vermont and as a kid I had a .35 Remington, a .30-30, a thirty-aught-six, a 12g double barrel, a 16 gauge, a .22 and a pellet gun so from a young age I’ve been pretty familiar with firearms. Now whenever I’m doing a project that sends us out to do proper training I challenge myself to be the best shot and have fun by trying to outshoot the technical advisor doing the training. There’s pretty much no weapon I don’t like and I’ve shot pretty much everything you can think of.
PPLA: I wonder if that isn’t a contributing factor to your convincing believability in action scenes. Because while other actors expend mental energy thinking about manipulating the firearms, for you it’s just second nature and not something you have to worry about.
KJ: I guess. It helps a little bit. It’s just like riding a horse. If I haven’t ridden for thirty years I’ll still go do a Western but I’ll say, “I had a horse when I was a kid but treat me like I’m new at this. Teach me anything you can teach me.” I used to race snowmobiles and it’s the same thing, when I get on a snowmobile now it’s almost as if I never got off. It’s funny how some things just become part of your cellular makeup at some point. I own four bikes so when I went to do Sons of Anarchy it helped because I’d jump on a Harley and it just felt like I grew up on one.
PPLA: Besides Blue, you have another intriguing movie with an impressive cast currently in post-production, Solace, starring Anthony Hopkins, Abbie Cornish and Colin Farrell. Can you tell us anything at this time about your character in Solace and what the experience of shooting that was like?
KJ: The experience was awesome. Anthony Hopkins was amazing. I only had a few scenes in that but they encompass an integral part of the movie and where the movie goes. I had one eight-page scene I did between myself, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Abbie Cornish, Anthony Hopkins and a few other actors and those guys couldn’t be more supportive and awesome. I don’t want to give anything away but the subject matter involving my character came with a very disturbing mindset that was emotionally powerful and demanding. It was an extremely challenging role for me but it was amazing and those guys were all really supportive. It deals with cops and psychics and murders and all that stuff so it’s pretty wild.
Neither of Kenny’s upcoming films has a release date yet but as the final touches are applied to Blue you can follow the film’s Facebook and Twitter pages, and be sure to follow Kenny Johnson on Twitter to stay informed of his impressive film and TV endeavors. Blue will soon make its way to the festival circuit but until it comes to a town near you, check out the trailer for Blue here.