All eyes are on the second season of 'Iron Fist.' Born off the pages of Marvel comics, the Danny Rand-centric superhero saga is about to bring the heat to the streets of New York City, picking up exactly where the action left us at the end of season 1. Meaning some familiar faces, formidable foes, and sinister adversaries. Joining this jampacked narrative and the intriguing mix of the Netflix cast this time around, though, is a refreshing new face - multi-hyphenated actress Christine Toy Johnson.
Born and raised in the suburbs of New York City, Johnson is no stranger to the showbiz. Setting foot in the industry by modeling for national campaigns, she has gradually traced her way to the stage - she made her New York debut as the leading lady of the Off-Broadway musical 'Oh, Johnny' - until eventually landing herself a spot in coveted television dramas and superhero series. Interestingly enough, Johnson's passion extends beyond acting (both on screen and on stage) - she is also known for her work as a playwright, director, and advocate for inclusion.
With September lining up a series of exciting new projects for the star, Meaww had the opportunity to learn more about Johnson, her Broadway career and especially her much-anticipated stint in the sophomore season of Marvel's 'Iron Fist.'
As Sherry Yang, you will be officially joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Are you excited? What was your first reaction when you landed the role?
I’m super excited to join the Marvel Universe! My husband actually knew more about it than I did when I first auditioned. He had read tons of the comic books throughout his childhood and was already a fan of the various series, so it was really cool to know how much it meant to him. The more I learned about the whole world, the more excited I became to be part of the story and was just ecstatic when I got the part!
Tell us about the audition. Did you refer to the Marvel comics to prepare for the character or did you head into it with a fresh perspective?
Marvel is very secretive about their shows, so I actually didn’t even know which show I was auditioning for, just that it was a Marvel show. It wasn’t until after I booked the job and got the script for my first episode that I found out it was 'Iron Fist'!
At the very end of November last year, I was invited to audition. I was sent the sides (and a non-disclosure agreement that said I would not reveal the content of the material I had been given) two days ahead of time. All of the characters’ names (including mine) in the audition scene were fake, so as not to reveal their identities. I worked on the scene as I usually do: trying to identify the objectives and obstacles of the character in the given circumstances of the scene, trying to assess what drives her, and trying to figure out the tone of the show - all from the clues written on the page.
I also took a look at a variety of Marvel shows on Netflix to get acquainted with the world. They had only given me one scene, not the full script, so all of this added up to be very interesting detective work! The next day I was asked to come back in, so that Julie Schubert, the casting director, could give me some additional context for the character. I found out I got the job four days later. It was the best early Christmas present ever!
What can you share about your 'Iron Fist' character, the challenges involved with playing the wife to the head of the triad?
Unfortunately, I can’t reveal anything more about the character until after September 7 (more non-disclosure agreements)! I can tell you that I absolutely loved working with the cast and crew of this show. It was a really fun set to be on, and even with all of the challenges of shooting very long hours (12 or more hours a day) often in the middle of the night, often outside during the winter months, the whole team worked tirelessly and was super committed to making the best show possible!
At the heart of 'Iron Fist' is the New York City - what was it like playing a part centered in the city that you know inside out (assuming this because of your upbringing in the suburbs of New York City)?
I love New York City (!) and was really excited to get a chance to shoot in some neighborhoods that I hadn’t been familiar with! I think having a deep understanding of the fast-paced energy that makes the city tick was definitely helpful.
It looks like September is going to be a busy month for you, tell us about your role in the Lifetime drama series 'You'. From the sound of it, it seems pretty intense and emotional - is it so?
I play “Allison Mott”, who is Guinevere Beck’s poetry teacher (Guinevere happens to be the lead female character, played by Elizabeth Lail). [My character is] tough but compassionate and sees something special in her. From what I’ve read of the series, I think this show will be a very powerful one to watch!
Fans are no strangers to your Broadway stints either, what was your response when you learned 'Come From Away' is going on a tour?
I really love 'Come From Away' and its message about the healing powers of kindness and compassion! I’m so excited to get a chance to perform the show across North America! We start rehearsals on August 27, so as of now, I haven’t even met Kevin [Carolan] or James [Earl Jones] (whose full name is James Earl Jones II, not to be confused with his very famous relative!) – but I’ve heard wonderful things about both of them as well as all of the cast members and creative team!
The roles you have portrayed, whether it is in the musical or your numerous TV credits, are nowhere close to traditional stereotypical ones - how important it is for you to break the mold in Hollywood, especially as a person of color?
It’s really important to me to push past stereotypes and play characters that are complex and three-dimensional, just as all human beings are in life! Not only is it more interesting to me as an actor but it’s also highly impactful to me as an Asian American woman who grew up not seeing myself represented in the media. When you start to realize how much you’ve internalized that kind of exclusion (and/or one-dimensional renderings of Asian American people), you also realize how much it can shape your perspective on your place in the world. One of the reasons I’m so excited to play this character in 'Iron Fist' is that I’ve never been asked to play anyone like her on television before. And this has helped shift my perspective about the place someone who looks like me can occupy in the world of TV.
I think one of the most powerful things about theatre, film and television is that we have a unique opportunity to shift perceptions of who we are and what we can do, both for ourselves and for each other. But in order to do this, we must reflect the world as it really is, inclusive of all of us. I truly believe that expanding the American landscape of storytelling to include more equal representation of all the different types of people who live and thrive here has the ability to provide a wider worldview for all of us, which can lead to fuller compassion for others – and for ourselves, too. I have seen positive change, especially in the past five years or so, but there certainly is a lot more room to grow!
From starting out with modeling to gracing the stage, screenwriting and now prime-time television, which role do you enjoy the most? How do you find a balance?
I really cherish being both a generative artist and an interpretive artist. Getting to perform other people’s stories and also tell my own creates the perfect balance for me! And I would be hard pressed to tell you which medium I love best because they each have their own special kinds of impact.
I also balance doing a lot of advocacy work in diversity and inclusion (on behalf of both actors and writers) with my acting and writing careers, and am a really good multi-tasker – but sometimes I do just need to go lie down and reboot my inner battery! I used to schedule myself to the maximum, if there was a space in my calendar, I would fill it – but I’ve gotten much better at carving out time to be by myself, and/or alone with my husband, Bruce, and our doggie, a very funny West Highland White Terrier named Joey. My favorite time of the day is the early morning, before the phone starts ringing and before the emails start flying in. My desk at home overlooks the Hudson River and I cherish those early morning hours when I know that Bruce is sleeping sweetly in the other room, Joey is snoozing by my side, and I can write or just reflect on what’s ahead of me that day, dwelling in possibility.
What's next in your filming schedule? Are you working/writing anything new?
I’m committed to tour with 'Come From Away' until the Fall of 2019 and will be working on writing/rewriting various scripts during my days off. I’m developing a play I wrote for my best friend and amazing actor, Reggie Lee (and also the luminous Bree Turner, both stars of NBC’s 'Grimm'), called 'Guilty Until Proven Innocent' with Reggie, Bree, and the incredible director Terrence O’Hara. It’s about a Cambodian American lawyer who goes head to head with the Cambodian legal system. We also think it would make a really cool movie. In addition, I’m working on a screenplay with my husband Bruce about Wat Misaka, the first non-Caucasian pro-basketball player from the 1947 Knicks.
Several years ago we made an award-winning documentary about Wat ('Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story'), and are now looking to make a narrative feature about his story.
If not performing/acting/trotting around the globe, where and what do we find Christine Toy Johnson doing?
I love to hang out with Bruce and Joey at home in New York City! I also love to share great (Paleo) meals with friends, go see good theatre - and anytime I can get to the ocean to talk to the water, I’m happy.