Joel Johnstone is a versatile actor whose recent credits include the HBO Comedy Getting On and ABC’s summer hit Astronaut Wives Club. Talk Nerdy With Us had a chance to talk with Joel about his experiences on these vastly different shows. Read on to hear his thoughts on comedy vs. drama, playing a historical figure, and working alongside talented women like Laurie Metcalf and Joanna Garcia Swisher.
You are part of one of the most criminally undervalued and under-appreciated shows on TV: Getting On.
I had a feeling you were going to say that!
It’s so good and so funny and not enough people are talking about it! I love the role that you play, so much of it is non-verbal. Those scenes with the residents are great because you’re just reacting so much to Laurie Metcalf’s crazy. What was that experience like, working with Laurie?
It’s amazing. You can’t ask for more than to follow Laurie Metcalf around and watch her do her thing. It’s not just being part of a spectacular show like that but it’s getting to watch a master in her element work. It’s an education in itself, aside from being a great job. I’ll always be grateful for that show. And I think with time more that more people will find it. I’m amazed when I talk to someone and they haven’t watched it because I agree with you, I think it’s a gem of a show, and I think with time more that more people will continue to find it. I also think that in 20 years all of that comedy will still click. I think it will be just as funny if not more so in 20 years. I don’t always find that to be the case, you watch something in 20 years and it doesn’t always resonate. But I think Getting On is so honest that it will always be funny.
And now with streaming services and HBO being available at any time, people have access to finding it whenever.
I know they are coming back for a season 3, are you on board for that?
No my character graduated! When Laurie kind of gets in trouble, the residents are graduated. I wish the show could go on for seven more years, but unfortunately this is the last season, but I can’t wait to see the final season.
So obviously Astronaut Wives Club is a very different show —
[Laughs] Slightly, yes.
Do you have a preference as far as doing comedy vs. drama?
I don’t. I mean it’s hard to even compare a job like Getting On to a job like Astronaut Wives. They’re two completely different genres, but I always think you get some elements of comedy in drama and elements of drama in comedy. I don’t think anything is ever just one thing or else it’s boring. Astronaut Wives beautifully has blends of both. Stakes don’t get higher than watching somebody whose husband is strapped onto a nuclear bomb about to be blasted off into the unknown. But then they marry that with these moments of levity between the wives who are sitting there in their living rooms, it’s beautiful, it really is. For me, playing a historical figure was a first. I had never done that so that was completely different.
That was my next question! You’re playing a real person, Gus Grissom, do you feel any kind of pressure to represent him in a certain way?
That’s a great question. I didn’t feel pressure, I felt like I wanted to honor the man, honor the person of Gus Grissom and do him justice. But also I didn’t want it to be an impression. It was more interesting to me to read…because the show focuses on the relationships at home, what happened behind the cameras, of life and the public eye. That’s all we know of those men, what went on when the lights were on and the cameras were rolling. I don’t know that we, as much as any public figure, ever really know that person. It wasn’t enough to me to just mimic that. Because I don’t think that is anybody, when action is called and the cameras are rolling. I think that there’s a lot more to the person of Gus Grissom. And I found that in his autobiography that he wrote and the stories he told about Betty and his sons and there are essays in Life magazine and I tried to draw on that and marry what I imagined the man behind the camera to be along with what we already know. Unfortunately, Gus was not a fan of the camera so there are comparatively much fewer interviews of him. He kinda shied away from it, there are even stories of him leaving the house with disguises on to avoid the cameras.
You talk about relationships being a driving force of the show. Joanna Garcia Swisher plays your wife, what was your process of connecting with her? Did you do anything before shooting started to get comfortable with each other?
Yeah, we had some rehearsals with the director who did the first two episodes, Lone Scherfig. We had a chemistry read together. She was already cast and she was chemistry reading with the guys auditioning for Gus. Joanna’s just the best. You cannot ask for more than to play opposite Joanna Garcia. She’s just throughout – a spectacular human being, a tremendous talent. I found everything about playing opposite her to be effortless because she makes it that way. You can only do as much as you’re given and with Joanna you’re given limitless potential because she’s that giving as an artist and that supportive as a person.
Is there anything else you having coming up, anything you’re working on that you want people to know about?
Right now, a couple years ago I made a short film with my co-writer and co-producer and it did the festival rounds around the world, actually, and it did really great and it won some awards and we’ve been developing it into a series. We were inspired by films like Whiplash and other shorts that made their way into features, but the more and more we write it, it just lends itself to a series, so hopefully we’ll be in production with that soon.