How does a 14-year-old hold his own against Ethan Hawke? ‘A sign from God’ can’t hurt
Joshua Caleb Johnson knows all about happy coincidences.
The teenage actor last year was studying abolitionist John Brown in school when he was summoned to audition for “The Good Lord Bird,” Showtime’s limited series centered on Brown and his all-consuming crusade to free slaves in pre-Civil War America.
“It’s such a funny thing,” said Johnson, smiling during a video conference call in his Los Angeles home. “John Brown is not a topic most people really learn in school, but I was blessed to have a really good history teacher who didn’t believe in history books — never used them. He always taught us what he knows and what he knows is true. So I had already had a lot of knowledge about John Brown. My mom and I took it as a sign from God.”
Flash forward about a year later, and Johnson is earning raves for his performance in the series, which premiered last week and stars Oscar nominee Ethan Hawke (“Training Day”) as Brown.
Johnson plays Henry Shackleford, a young enslaved boy who reluctantly takes up with Brown’s ragtag group of antislavery warriors after his father is shot in front of him. Thin and frail, Shackleford is mistaken for a girl by Brown, who affectionately calls him “Onion.” The youth accepts his mistaken identity, figuring that a dress is a disguise that keeps him a little safer. But danger is never really far away.
Now 15, Johnson is celebrating the project. Polite and poised, he looks more muscular than his Onion persona, and his sizable Afro is a clear contrast with his character’s short hair.
“Seeing the show finally out there is really a dream come true,” he said. “I’m so proud of my work, proud of the project and proud of everyone who put in the time and effort to make it happen. I couldn’t be happier.”
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Although Brown is the headliner of the limited series, the fictional Onion is actually the show’s center. As in James McBride’s National Book Award-winning novel, the character serves as the story’s narrator, and his coming-of-age shapes his point of view on the landmark historical events to which he bears witness. In the series’ second episode, airing Sunday, Brown is absent until the final minutes, as Onion finds himself caught up in the middle of plans for a slave insurrection in the Missouri slave-trading town of Pikesville.
He also falls in love with a mixed-race sex worker named Pie (Natasha Marc) and painfully learns that his good intentions can have devastating consequences.
Said Johnson, “It’s a real awakening for Onion — he realizes love and also gets caught up in the crossfire of adult activity, taking that on as a 13- or 14-year-old. It’s my favorite episode — it allowed me to get to the real essence of Onion, the different layers he’s going through.”
Much of what Onion is experiencing is communicated without dialogue — while narrating the story, his facial expressions do the heavy lifting of showing his feelings.
“That’s one of the best parts of acting for me, what I enjoy the most — being able to express emotion without being able or being allowed to talk,” Johnson said. “My mom and I stayed up ’til all hours, diving into the character and breaking down every single scene, finding my overall objective and the scene objective and what I really wanted out of the character.”
One of his challenges was “learning the dialect — that was a little hard for me. The other thing was forgetting all the technology of 2019. I had to put myself in 1859, 1860, where there was nothing but saloons, guns and tobacco.”
He also credited Hawke, who started his acting career at a young age: “He helped me so much, made me feel comfortable in asking questions, being myself and putting myself out there. He told me at the beginning, ‘There will be days that are good days and days that [are] bad days, and either way, you have to keep carrying on. That’s part of being on a set and of being an actor.’ I had freedom to let my creative juices flow, which I love.”
In addition to starring in “The Good Lord Bird,” Hawke created the project along with Mark Richard, and is one of the executive producers.
Despite the critical acclaim and star power he’s accrued in his career, Hawke was aware that finding the perfect co-star to play Onion would be critical to the drama’s success.
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“Unless we had the right young actor, the show isn’t really worth making,” Hawke said in a phone interview. “It’s his show. It only goes as far as he goes and as far as he is able to take us.”
Actors from all over the country were considered, but Johnson was a clear standout.
“We saw a lot of talented young actors, but Joshua had this incredible combination of being incredibly likable, incredibly funny, depth and a willingness to learn,” Hawke said. “He also had the right kind of confidence combined with humility. And this magnificent young man grew every day of filming, which really works with our story. The joy of the whole shoot was not only watching him evolve, but thrive.”
Shooting the project in rural Virginia had its rough moments. “For the first month and a half, it was over 100 degrees every single day,” said Johnson. “Then it calmed down when it was only 80 or 90 degrees. In the fall, it started getting super cold. And I remember one day, out of nowhere, it started snowing. Virginia is one of the only places in the country where you experience all four seasons in four months.”
But his discomfort was diluted by his immersion in his character: “Onion and John Brown have a fatherly bond. By the end of the project, Onion is more of a son to John Brown than John Brown’s actual sons. He counted on Onion to carry on his legacy. When I was there, I was Onion morning, noon and night.”
He was so focused on his portrayal that he had a little trouble letting go of Onion after returning home following the six-month shoot. And even now, he can unexpectedly slip into Onion-speak, which earns him a mild scolding from his mother.
“Even now, I catch myself saying words in a Southern accent or in dialect,” he said. “My mom keeps telling me, ‘You can’t do that.’ I say, ‘I’m sorry. It just happens.’”
‘The Good Lord Bird’
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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