'P-Valley' star Elarica Johnson says she didn’t think playing a stripper was for her till she read the script
Providing most of the mystery on 'P-Valley' is Autumn "Hailey" Night played by British actress, Elarica Johnson. When we first see her, it is in a flooded town, possibly Houston. She has lost everything except her phone in which she has pictures of her daughter. A few scenes later, after a bus ride out of the town, she is in the Pynk club. Calling herself "Autumn Night", Hailey remains aloof from the other strippers, and stays in an unfurnished house with just a mattress, mostly staying drunk all day. With frequent PTSD episodes and memories of an abusive relationship, she is on the run but we don't know from what.
MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) caught up Elarica Johnson about being on 'P-Valley' and what to expect from her character. Here are excerpts from the exclusive interview:
Q. How did you approach the role of Autumn Night? Was it a part you were interested in?
Not in the very beginning. When I was told about the script and was asked to have a read, I was apprehensive and that's just mainly because, what we've seen so far on film and TV, strip clubs have got this particular treatment. That world has always been seen through the male gaze - its been about what men see in a strip club and how they treat the strip club and what the strip club means to them. And so the strippers were never the main focus within that. In general, the world has this stigma about strip clubs and strippers. It's frowned upon by a lot of people, but ultimately, they don't know who these people are or why they're in strip clubs -- they have probably never even been in a strip club to see what these strippers do.
I think at the beginning, I was just like, 'Oh, you know, I'm not entirely sure I want to play a role that isn't looked upon very well'. But the script was by Katori (Hall) and she had done loads and loads of research and, it (the script) focused on them as women with jobs and in their jobs, they dance and they strip. That's what 'P Valley' does -- it shows the women doing their jobs and in that environment. It shows that what they do is a proper skill. Like it's a real form of art and I think it's important for the world to see that side of it. It's not that we're glorifying the darker side of women being exploited in this industry but we are saying that there are women in this industry who enjoy what they do or it's their job. It pays their bills. And just because they do, doesn't mean that they shouldn't exist in society as people, you know, who are loving mothers or people who have families... they are still human beings and they still have a story.
Q. Can you tell us about your character Autumn Night? Did you watch the original theater production before you auditioned or after getting the part?
I didn't see it. It was on quite a few years ago. But I read a lot about it. And I read what the audience thought, what the critics thought. Also, we had Nicco Annan, who was a part of the original production. So he gave me a fantastic insight into how the show worked and how the other characters were portrayed by the original actors. It really helped me to step into the world because it's a different world in the Deep South, which is nowhere near where I'm from. I'm a London girl, so the script, in general, was miles away from anything that I know. But the one thing that touches me is that she is super strong. She is mysterious and has this whole life story behind her. That is what we'll get into as well for her journey within the show and I can really relate. She's in a difficult situation and she just has to put a brave face on, and I think we've all done that at some point.
Q. Can you tell us a little bit about the physical aspect of the role and how you trained for the role?
That was fun. It's really fun. I keep saying to people -- "you need to try this, go and try it". It's great for fitness. It's something that's going to push you and push your body. I hated myself for not being able to do it at first. That was the competitive side of me. I couldn't understand why I couldn't get on the pole and just be fantastic straight away. So it took a lot of hard work and building my upper body strength and core strength. Very difficult.
These women are incredible. They're super strong. And another thing is, you've got to swing on these poles and do it in a manner that everybody will still want to sit and watch. You can't look like you're in pain, even though you're getting pole burn. I did training here (in London), then trained in Atlanta. I enjoyed every moment of it, but it was very hard. We went to a (strip) club and these girls are swinging from the ceiling and doing flips and all kinds of tricks and it's mesmerizing. It is like 'Cirque du Soleil' without clothes. So it was incredible for us to go there and then take away pointers so that we could recreate stuff in 'The Pynk' (on the show).
Q. Can you tell us about Autumn's relationship with Mercedes and Uncle Clifford?
I think anybody walking into a place that feels like someone else's home can be a little daunting but at the same time, she's hoping to stay somewhere in order to get herself back together from the situation that she's come from. So she feels comforted when she gets a job but the girls don't like that. They are like, this is our territory and you're coming in and invading our space. And of course, no one really knows her. So she's not welcomed in a warm way at all, by any of the girls.
When Uncle Clifford tells Mercedes -- "you've got to teach her how to be good in the game" -- for Mercedes, that's just someone getting in her way. She's like -- "I'm not here to do this. I'm not babysitting. Why am I going to show this girl when I'm about to leave?" In episode[s] 2 and 3, there are some slight shifts, but Mercedes is a tough girl and she isn't a fan of Autumn. And then there is Uncle Clifford. She has a third eye. She can see things that other people can't straight away. She notices something about Autumn, whether it's the fact that she could be pretty good at this job or she sees way past even that and sees what Autumn is hiding, what she not giving away. For that reason, Autumn and uncle Clifford, start to form a kind of bond. It's quite interesting that will lead us to the reveal in the final episodes
'P-Valley' airs every Sunday on Starz at 8 PM ET.