Interview: Joshua Caleb Johnson on working with Ethan Hawke in ‘The Good Lord Bird’ and what he dreams of next
The Good Lord Bird, the John-Brown-inspired miniseries created by Ethan Hawke and Mark Richard, garnered attention due to Hawke’s portrayal of the violent abolitionist. Skirting a line between an absurdist comedy and a serious drama depicting slavery, the Showtime miniseries also introduced audiences to a new face, that of Joshua Caleb Johnson. Johnson stood alongside Hawke, playing Henry “Onion” Shackleford, a young slave boy who’s freed by Brown, though the latter believes him to actually be a young lady. Johnson gives a performance that initially leans on the comedic elements of the storyline, turning into a layered role that examines the way that slaves were forced to adapt and survive even when supposedly freed.
Johnson, over three decades Hawke’s junior, gives The Good Lord Bird groundedness, a sense of reality within this often-hilarious drama. He’s bright-eyed and able to hold his own amongst a stellar, much older cast. I spoke with Johnson about his relationship to Hawke, hearing the news of booking the role, and his dream of being the next big thing.
Michael Frank: How has it been doing interviews and press over the last year? Were you ready for all of the press you received?
Joshua Caleb Johnson: It’s been fairly easy, because I’ve had my mom make sure I’m always prepared. And, yes, it’s really easy to do it when I have people like Ethan [Hawke]. It’s been super fun, too, as well, because of COVID, we didn’t get to do a lot of things that we should have been able to do. But Zoom has still allowed us to still connect, and be able to share our project in some way. So it’s, it’s been a blessing. Y
MF: How was it with the show coming out during lockdown, with everyone inside?
JCJ: It was perfect timing. It was kind of a cool thing, but also, with the whole Black Lives Matter movement going on, that was a perfect time for the show to come out. Because this show talks about the same conversation that has been being talked about for hundreds of years, which was the quality and the freedom of all Black Americans and just as Darnell [Martin] always likes to say, we’re fighting for citizenship and freedom. And that’s really all we want. And so the show, I feel like started a conversation again, kind of brought the conversation back up. And I mean, I’m just super proud of it and all that it’s accomplished. And I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of it.
MF: How did it feel on set? What was the vibe?
JCJ: The vibe on set was honestly super genuine. And no pressure, honestly, everything was just kind of smooth. And we all worked so smoothly together, which was partially, because we got to Virginia, I’m gonna say like, probably close to a month before filming. And so we’re all just going out to eat and having good laughs. We spent Fourth of July together, it was just fun. So the vibe was just so energetic and so enthusiastic, everybody was coming on set every single day with just this passion to work, this passion to love what they do. Not even just the actors, but you know, the directors, the producers, the extras, the crafts people, everybody. It was a joy to be on set with everybody.
MF: Did the set ever mirror the seriousness of the stories you were attempting to tell?
JCJ: In terms of talking about a dark and difficult subject as slavery, I’ll have to give all the credit to the writing of James McBride. Because the way he wrote The Good Lord Bird was through the eyes of my character, Onion, a 12-year-old slave boy. And so it allows for the use of humor that can be used to talk about a subject that’s dark and difficult, like slavery. And so just everything about the set, everything about every single scene, every single episode was just so comical, but also so serious. with so like, it was just, you know, a mixture of all these different things that made the gorilla bird the good liver.
MF: Did you read the book before filming?
JCJ: I read it prior to filming, I believe during callbacks for the project. During that process of auditioning.
MF: When’d you first hear about the project?
JCJ: I booked the job on May 25. I remember that day. It was probably one of the longest audition processes I’ve ever had. But it was well worth it.
MF: What do you remember about that day? May 25?
JCJ: I woke up, went to school, had a good day at school. My mom picked me up from school that day. And she was like., “Son, Mara, and Jen,” who is my manager, my agent, “They want to talk to you on the phone. They just want to talk to you kind of about your testing that they have to do tomorrow.” I knew something was kind of up with my mom. When I got on the phone with my manager, my mom had my iPad out and was trying to record. So I was kind of confused. But I was like maybe it’s just something that they’ve worked out. I don’t know. But then literally my manager Mara, she’s like, “Are you ready to be a superstar?” I was like, “Yeah, of course!” And she was like, “Oh, you got the job!” And I just remember I was in shock. I didn’t say anything for a second. I was like, “I got the job?” And then my mom’s laughing and I started laughing and crying. I was just so excited to start but also that all my hard work through the auditioning process paid off. And, you know, it’s just a blessing.
MF: How does that feel to be the youngest lead on set? Are you trying to learn from everyone?
JCJ: I’m trying to grab wisdom, this wisdom kind of levitated towards me, because there’re so many veteran actors that I worked with while I was on set. And then every single day, it was just when I was working with these people, they would just give me these tips. And you know, from their various years of acting, and all of their experience. And so I like to say that I learned more in six months than a lot learn in like 10 years of being in acting or being around certain people, because the people that I was with, they’re all amazing and very talented, brilliant actors.
MF: Does any specific piece of advice stick out?
JCJ: One very specific word of advice I got from Ethan, which would be acting isn’t always about talking. It’s about listening and reacting, which I still count on to this day. And that’s what I had to do a lot as Onion. Onion wasn’t always the center of attention when it came to having monologues and a lot of dialogue. But a lot of times the camera was on Onion, you know, just kind of reacting to every single part of what’s happening when John Brown is giving speeches. He’s noticing what people are doing, while John Brown is giving speeches, and all these things. That’s a really big one. And also another big one, which would be from director Darnell Martin, which would be to use my breath as emotion because a lot of times when you have certain emotions, you can use your breath to kind of hone and control your emotion in a way.
MF: How did it feel to be “introduced” to the world during the title sequence? Can you explain that feeling?
JCJ: I never actually saw it, until the show came out. Really. And the first time I saw it, I felt a sense of pride in my work. But also just the pure excitement that came with seeing my name next to Ethan. See my name next to all these big, known people. I’s all I’ve wanted ever since I was a kid, to be noticed on the big screen and to be the next big thing. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and it was just a dream come true. And I just hope that I can keep acting and keep working hard as long as I can.
MF: Why is this your dream? When’d you know this is what you wanted to do?
JCJ: It’s something that my mom never really let me do until I was older, until I was around nine or 10 years old. And she didn’t want me later in life being like, “Oh, you made me do this. She made me do that.” She wanted to really make sure that I was prepared. And the crazy thing is she even put me into it. What had happened was I was on the football field when I was nine years old. And after a game, a casting director came up to me. And they’re like, “Look, we want you in this commercial. Like, where’s your mom?” And I told my mom, “This is a sign from God, like, come on, you gotta let me do it.” She’s like, “Fine, you have one year, one year. If you complain about it, you’re missing anything, complaining about learning lines, complaining about anything in general, I’m taking you out.” And I just kind of fell in love. I just found a passion very fast for acting. It just makes me very happy and kind of fulfills my sense of purpose in life in a way. I don’t know. It’s a feeling of enjoyment that just fills my body when I’m on set. And when I’m working and I’m when I’m acting and doing what I love.
MF: Can you tell me a little about the relationship you formed with Ethan?
JCJ: Well, in terms of my relationship with Ethan, it’s very similar to the relationship that Onion and John Brown actually have, which is crazy. So much time and prep with Ethan. You know, you’re not even just in prep. But in the callbacks, I mean, I was in there for hours, and we were just talking and kind of cold reading a lot of the script. We were just having a blast, which is like what I think really drew me because in the callbacks, I was having a complete and utter blast. And I even said to my mom, “Even if I don’t end up getting this mom, like, I’m just so glad I was able to audition and go through these callbacks. I learned so much from Ethan during that time.” And Ethan’s really became like a mentor, in a sense. And he taught me so much about acting, but about life in general. He’s like a big brother or kind of an uncle to me. And he’s just always there, when we were on set, if I ever needed a shoulder to lean on, if I need to talk to him about something, if something was ever bothering me, or wanted to run lines at two in the morning on a Sunday or a Monday morning. He’s a very reliable person, and a brilliant actor on top of that.
MF: So where do you go from here? What happens next for you?
JCJ: I will actually be graduating in four days. I’m homeschooled. Oh, it’s actually three days! Because, you know, during COVID everything kind of stopped so I just really doubled down on my work, and kind of got everything out the way. So I will be graduating before I turn 16. And then the next day I turn 16.
JCJ: I know knowledge is very important. And I mean, school is very important. But it’s, I mean, I just had to get it out the way. I’m not a big school person. I think I went through 10th, 11th and 12th grade in like 7-8 months, almost doubling down every single day, I was doing more like two or three times the assignments I’m supposed to be doing. I was just like, killing every single day, just waking up, doing my work. Get it out the way. Boom. And then the next day, I do the same thing. Same thing. And the same thing until now.
MF: What about in your acting career? What’s next?
JCJ: I will never stop acting. But I mean, I feel like I do want to probably attend a conservatory for acting sooner or later, just to kind of hone my skills. I think that’s probably one of the steps I’ll be taking but I want to keep working, keep grinding, keep working hard. You know, maybe I might start writing scripts. I might kind of dibble and dabble in different parts of the production industry. But I’m just gonna keep going, keep doing me and keep on working.
The Good Lord Bird is currently available to stream on Showtime. Joshua Caleb Johnson is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series, Anthology Series or Movie.
Photo courtesy of Showtime