Camrus Johnson is an up-and-coming actor and writer whose name you won’t want to forget. As someone who has had a hand in all kinds of on-camera media, his resume already speaks for itself. Johnson is starring in his biggest project yet as Rasheed Miller in Hulu’s There’s… Johnny. I got the chance to talk with him about his path to becoming an actor, his new role, his recent binge of Black Mirror and so much more. Read on to get to know him better.
How did you get involved in acting? Was there any specific experience you would credit as the moment when you knew acting was what you wanted to do for a profession?
Yeah, I’d say so. When I was 16, I was in my second year of acting in high school and I went to this thing back in Georgia called the Georgia Theatre Conference. And it was this sort of…this conference or event where high schoolers get to learn more about acting, get to perform, meet other actors from other high schools. But the biggest part about it, at least what stuck out to me the most, was getting to audition for colleges. So there was a part of GTC where we got to audition for 17 colleges. I had been acting for a year, year and a half by then. I got 14 out of 17 callbacks which was one of the highest, if not the highest, number in class. After sort of thinking that acting might not be a viable career and that I don’t know if I can actually make it and live as an artist, I got the 14 callbacks and was like “maybe I can do this.”
So did you end up studying acting in college? Or did you go straight out of high school into your career as an actor?
It’s funny, I went straight out of high school. I was going to go to the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. Out of all the 14 schools I had a callback for, that was one of them and they interested me the most. They were very approachable, they were very friendly, one of the teachers was an actor in the show George Lopez, which I used to watch as a kid, so it sort of made sense. Then my great aunt, my grandfather’s sister, called my father just asking about us kids and he told her that I was going to go to school for acting. She was like, “Oh, well if he wants to be an actor, he should just move to New York. Why is he going to go to Georgia?” And I was like, “Okay.” So I did that. And I was going to live here in New York for a year first, and then go to school after that, but in that first year I just decided to keep doing what I’m doing because I was learning as I was auditioning, and I tend to be a better learner on the job than in a classroom setting anyway. So I decided to skip the whole school thing, unless something were to happen and I wasn’t booking anything and I needed to learn. But I liked how I was learning in the streets and on set.
And you’ve been in New York ever since?
And I’ve been in New York ever since. Five years.
You just mentioned how you like learning on set rather than a classroom setting. So kind of going off of that, you’ve worked with a lot of professionals. What would you say is some of the best advice about the industry you’ve ever received and why?
Oooh. I love that question [laughs]. Some of the best advice I’ve ever received…I’d say it was earlier in my career and someone told me that I have to be my own number one fan. Because in this industry, people will be there for you but at the same time no one is going to help you if you don’t help yourself. If you go in for 50 auditions and don’t get a callback for a single one of them, it will hurt and make you feel like you’re not good and that you shouldn’t be doing this. But an older actor, years and years ago, I can’t even remember who it was, told me that you have to be your number one fan. Because if you don’t have confidence in yourself, there’s no reason that everyone else should have confidence in you. So whenever I would go to those twenty auditions and I wouldn’t book one, I would keep telling myself, “It’s not on you. It could be any other thing. It could be another actor, it could be the director, it could be anything.” So I just had to keep reminding myself that, no matter what, as long as I keep cheering myself on it will make other people want to as well.
You’ve been at this for five years, but what are some of your biggest goals in acting right now? Do you have a personal acting “bucket list?”
Oh yeah. I still want to perform on a Broadway stage. I mean, I’ve performed on a Broadway stage before. I was in a Gypsy of the Year, which is a Broadway Equity Fights AIDS kind-of talent show thing. So I did that and that was amazing. But I want to perform in a Broadway show on a Broadway stage. I would love to lead a movie. I was supporting, last time, in a movie called Stalkerish Prey, which was amazing. I had such a great time, but I would love to lead or be supporting in a bigger project. I’m doing a lot of writing nowadays and one of my goals is to get one of my writing projects off the ground and made.
Moving on, talk to me about There’s… Johnny. What can you tell audiences about the series?
There’s…. Johnny is this beautifully written, period piece about a kid who gets a job at The Tonight Show back in the 70s during the Johnny Carson era. So the entire show takes place sort of backstage and behind the scenes of the Johnny Carson Tonight Show. Johnny Carson was the first big deal, the first legend of the late night hosts. He’s sort of where the Jimmy Fallons and the Jimmy Kimmels sort of come from. It’s been really cool to sort of experience that and live in that.
One really cool thing about this show is that we use archival footage from his show in our show. So you’ll be watching a clip from his show and something goes wrong, or seems to go wrong in that clip, and you’ll cut to backstage which is us freaking out, going “what do we do? How do we fix this?” It’s pretty cool. Tony Danza is in it; he’s making his comeback. Paul Reiser is involved in it and he’s making his comeback as our writer, executive producer.
It’s about this kid, Andy Klavin, who gets a job at The Tonight Show and he’s sort of gifted this. It’s kind of an accident. He thinks he gets a job there and he never really had a job there. But because they feel bad for him, they give him a job. He’s played by my buddy, Ian Nelson, and he’s trying to just fit in and thankfully he gets taken under the wing of Joy, played by Jane Levy. She guides him and tries to make him not be the failure of the whole company. Eventually, he meets my character Rasheed Miller, who is a really powerful, loud, Black Power stand-up comedian who has these huge Hollywood dreams and one of those dreams is to be on The Tonight Show. And luckily for him, he runs into Andy and he befriends him. He becomes his friend, but also sort of his guide in a way because Andy is so innocent and naive.
It sounds incredible and I’m not just saying that. I saw the trailer and I’m excited for it to drop. But I’m curious: how did you get involved with the project? What was the audition process like?
Oh man, that’s a story. So I did a self-tape audition for this show, which means that you have to do the audition yourself at home or wherever. I had my buddy, Patrick McCarthy, do basically every single audition and callback with me for this project. He was my good luck charm [laughs]. I ended up doing one audition tape and four callback tapes. I sent those in December 2016 and come January the role was between me and one other actor. It was a Wednesday and casting called me and told me they wanted me to fly to Los Angeles and be there by Friday. They wanted me to meet Paul Reiser, meet David Steven Simon and do everything as if I had gotten the part, because apparently the other actor had already done the table readings, and was already sort of in the mix, but there was another project that he was looking to work on instead of this show. So it was Thursday morning and I hopped on a plane last minute, got there that night and I just sort of sat all weekend waiting to hear. On Monday I got the call saying I had the part and they said, “you start shooting tomorrow.” So I had to find a place and figure out my situation. I hadn’t been to LA since I was 15, so I was sort of figuring everything out as I went along and it was a crazy ride.
Wow. That is one heck of a story. But going back to your character, Rasheed, would you say that he is more similar or different to the person that Camrus is? Why?
I think we’re similar in the fact that we have a big heart, each of us, but Rasheed is a lot more guarded with his. He has a big heart, but he doesn’t want everyone to know that. And he has a lot more secrets that he tends to keep to himself, or feels the need to keep to himself rather. I’m more of an open book and I don’t feel as if I have much to hide. When I do have something to hide, I still usually end up telling someone about it. I do, also, come from somewhat of a comedy background, but Rasheed’s comedy tends to be a little more dark and political and angry and my comedy is a bit more soft [laughs].
We’re similar in that regard and Rasheed sort of feels like my brother. I feel like there’s so much of him in me and me in him. I feel like he would be a version of me if raised in a completely different environment. And I don’t want to give too much away, and just see when you watch, but when you see his anger come out, that’s the different between us.
I’m sure it’s always interesting to be involved in something that’s based off of real life. How did you go about researching your role, especially cause your character is fictional within a world that’s based on real life? How much did you know about Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show before you signed on to this project?
I didn’t know too much about Johnny Carson, to be honest. I was told that he was a legend, I was told that he was the host of The Tonight Show back in the day. So I sort of just put him in the head of the hosts that I know and love, Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon. I watched a couple of clips of his on YouTube. But since I got the role the day before, I didn’t get to research him the way that I wanted to. I did as the show went on and after, I watched a lot more clips.
There was a second part to your question….oh, how I prepared for the role. For Rasheed, I actually put on a couple of stand-up routines, in my room, for no audience, to get into the mind of a Rasheed. All of my stand-up comedian friends said to practice jokes on people all of the time; that’s just how their minds work. Think of something funny and then throw it into casual conversation. So I did a lot of that too. I talked to my friends in LA, or over Skype if they were in New York, and I would just try jokes on them because that’s what Rasheed would do. A lot of the time they would be like, “What are you doing?” because I would just be throwing joke after joke. But I think that stand-up routines in my room helped me the most because Rasheed, he performs. What he does is on stage and that’s where he feels he belongs is on stage, behind a mic, in front of an audience.
You mentioned Tony Danza earlier and obviously he’s an icon. What was it like to work with him?
He’s my guy. I love that dude. I really hope for a season two, because I look forward to more scenes with him. I only got to work on set with him a couple of times. Thankfully we became friends and hung out after the show. He’s everything you think he is. He’s this beautiful man where no matter how you’re feeling, he makes you happy. Even if you’re as happy as you think you can be, Tony makes you happier. It’s funny, because you look at him one second and he’s making someone laugh. You turn around for two seconds and then look back and he’s tap dancing and making five people laugh. Then he picks up a trumpet and will start playing it; he’s doing something all the time. He’s like a glowing light.
It’s cool to have him on set because we all know who he is, and we all respect him, and it’s cool to love someone you respect. Tony once gave me two tickets to this show he was doing. It was like a live, singing performance show with this group of kids for a foundation. After the show I walked up to the stage and he was like, “What did you think? Did you like it?” And I was like, “What did I think? You’re Tony Danza, dude. It doesn’t matter what I think?” [laughs]
We’ve really seen streaming services take off in the last two years or so. What’s it like to be a part of this new wave of content, especially for Hulu who has just really dived into original content?
I owe a lot of my career to streaming services because my first two television shows were Netflix, and now my biggest role yet is in a Hulu show. So I owe them a lot and I have a lot of respect for them because they have so many more opportunities for actors like me, who are coming up. Also, as far as my writing projects, there are so many avenues to get content created, and things made, and to get people to watch things. And I kind of like the dropping the whole season in one day thing because people’s attention spans are very much shortened, because we have so much media and so much to look at. For some shows, I’ll watch the first couple of episodes of it and there are just so many things to do that I won’t make my way back to it. It’s good to have it all in one place because I can watch it all in one go. I feel like if I watch seven episodes, thirty-minutes each, I can do that in one day. It won’t take much time from me and I’ll enjoy that rather than waiting once a week to watch something like we used to. And we still do for some shows, but I have to make time to do that. I have to make a commitment to watch that show.
I just have a few fun questions to wrap up with. Now that you’re going to be starring in a new Hulu show, what’s been the best show that you binged recently? It can be on Hulu or a different streaming site.
I sort-of, kind of, binged Black Mirror. That show is kind of hard to binge because it’s a lot. It’s pretty dark. I would watch between 3-5 episodes a day, because that’s pretty much all you can take since they are an hour long each. But that show is great. I don’t know if you’ve seen it or not.
No, I have not. I’ve never even heard of it. Which site is it on?
Oh man, so Black Mirror was I think a BBC show for it’s first two seasons and then Netflix picked it up. So now there is three seasons on there and a fourth season coming out soon. I recommend seeing 3×01 first because it gives you the tone of the show, but it’s not nearly as dark, or it won’t get your gut turning like some of the other episodes. It’s like the current day Twilight Zone, but in color and under the umbrella of technology. So it’s pretty sweet, but you shouldn’t start with the first episode because it’s pretty dark [laughs].
We’re called Talk Nerdy With Us so what’s something that you nerd out about?
I love video games. I’m pretty sure one reason I became an actor is because of the video games I played as a kid. I used to imagine myself as the main character. Being able to role play like that was so cool, so it was only natural that I became an actor because I was basically acting with my hands and a remote.
I’m not so much a nerd about comic books, like I want to be, but I read about 50 of them, because I wanted to write my own, which I did, and I’m working on getting that made now. Ever since I read those 50, it’s just like comic books are so cool. I read one about teenagers that went to an assassin high school, like that’s so cool. So I like that kind of stuff. I like very colorful, nerdy things, like a more technology, virtual reality, video games, comic book kind of nerdy.
If you weren’t THAT into comic books before you read a bunch of them, what inspired you to write your own?
I have this idea for a live action video game feature film. A friend of mine read the script, or the treatment for the project. He said that because of the world of DC and Marvel right now, he said you should probably make it into a comic book first, because that will make it much easier since it’s basically an elongated storyboard. And I was like, “Oh yeah, that’s genius. I can do that.” So I gave it a shot, and I read all these comics, and I got a co-writer. I got an artist to make some mock-up art for me last year or so, and I’ve got to write the comic script for it. Since I’m so new, I don’t know what a comic script looks like because I’ve only seen two. I’m working on re-writing, but essentially I’m writing it for the purpose of turning it into an on-camera project.
Photos: NBC Universal