23-year-old Lamar Johnson is a name you won’t soon forget. The Canadian actor and dancer is featured in three big upcoming films: “X-Men: Dark Phoenix,” the adaptation of the best-selling novel “The Hate U Give,” and his latest film “Kings,” which he spoke to The Knockturnal about. If you don’t know much about him yet, you certainly will.
Kings is the story of Millie (Halle Berry), a foster mother of eight, trying to keep her family safe while dealing with the after-effects of the Rodney King verdict which triggered the 1992 L.A. Riots. The movie also stars Daniel Craig, who plays Millie’s loud, sometimes temperamental neighbor, Obie. Kings, written and directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven, is an intense, but heartwarming tale of love, family, race, injustice, and the lengths a mother will go to protect her children. Lamar, plays Millie’s oldest foster child, Jesse, in this movie which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and is set to be in theatres April 27th.
The Knockturnal: I watched Kings the other night, and I thought you did fantastic in it, and I just want to start by saying that.
Lamar Johnson: Thank you so much. I appreciate that.
The Knockturnal: Of course. Okay, so my first question for you, Lamar, is: when did you first get into acting?
Lamar Johnson: I first got into acting in the ninth grade, so I was about 15 years old. I actually started off as a dancer at the age of nine–a self-taught dancer that transitioned to acting, because I went to an arts school in high school, and that introduced me to the world of acting.
The Knockturnal: What specifically is what attracted you to this role of Jesse?
Lamar Johnson: Well, specifically what attracted me to this role, in general, my manager had sent me the script and, once I read the script, I automatically fell in love and knew that I had to be a part of this project–someway, somehow. Originally, I was actually cast as William and then the role kind of turned into Jesse throughout the process. So, you know, I’m really happy to have been able to play Jesse, because I feel that I just embodied that character so well. I’m just really happy that my director had made that change.
The Knockturnal: So, your character, he’s the oldest of eight foster kids, and he has a lot on his shoulders in terms of helping his foster mother, Millie around the house and caring for the other kids. How do you think that affects him?
Lamar Johnson: I think it just kind of makes him mature faster than, kids his age because of all the responsibilities that he has to do–that he has to carry, not only being the eldest son but also kind of being a little bit of a father figure to these kids, because, there’s no father figure in the house, so I kind of have to step into that role and, take care of them and cook food for them and things like that. All while still being Millie’s son, you know, and being her foster child and still just being her eldest but also her little child as well, so there’s these very interesting dynamics that Jesse has to deal with on an everyday basis.
The Knockturnal: So how do you think William fits into that dynamic as well?
Lamar Johnson: Well, I think that, instantly, when William comes into these dynamics, Jesse throws little threats as you can see. You know, even in the trailer you see him be a little bit threatened by William, because, he’s this random kid that, he’s thrown onto the street. Not only is he not, you know like, five, six, or, very young, he’s older and also older than me. So I know, automatically, that that will shift the dynamic. But, also, I feel like where this kind of plays a part is, you know, maybe this can then maybe aid me or assist me in the duties that I have to do or relieve me of some of the duties that I have to do every day, so, you know, there’s the potential of that as well.
The Knockturnal: Halle Berry, of course, she plays Millie, your foster mother and she’s such an accomplished actress. How do you think working with her has impacted your approach to your scenes together?
Lamar Johnson: Halle, she’s incredible, you know. Just seeing her process and seeing the way that she works–it was such an eye-opener. I learned so much from her just by watching, let alone doing a scene with her or being able to work with her. I think it just really impacted me just to challenge me. Every time that I had a scene with her, I would challenge myself to take it above and beyond and really just kind of try my best to match her level of expertise. I’ve been acting for, what is it, eight years now? But she’s been acting for probably longer than I’ve been alive, so just to kind of match her and be able to be of service to her when we’re doing the scenes and, you know, vice versa, you know. She was such a great scene partner for me, and, you know, I just learned so much. It was incredible to work with her.
The Knockturnal: The backdrop of this film is the 1992 L.A. riots. You guys are depicting fictional characters but in a very real-life setting. How much research did you have to do for your role as Jesse?
Lamar Johnson: Well, I mean, seeing that I was born in ‘94, I actually wasn’t even born in ‘92, so I did have to do some extensive research on the time. Luckily enough, we had a long rehearsal process for the director to kind of get us into the space and the time, so we had about two weeks before getting into production to really just kind of do our research and work with each other, to work with the director, and work with all the cast to kind of get each other in the right headspace and in the right time. So, I’m very grateful to have had that rehearsal time in order for me to get into the space. But also, personally, before getting into it, I did have to do my research, you know, luckily we have the Internet and you can search it up and you can, kind of, get to watch footage, real, live footage, and really get to kind of see interviews and things and people kind of giving testimonies of the time and how they were affected, so it was really great that I was able to access that type of information before getting into it, so I could, kind of, really get into the headspace.
The Knockturnal: How much did your director, Deniz Gamze Ergüven, help you and the other actors channel your characters and the history behind the movie?
Lamar Johnson: She helped us a lot, you know. As I was saying, the rehearsal process, you know, it was a full day. We’d get there at, say maybe like 9:00 or 10:00 am, and we wouldn’t leave until about 5:00 or 6:00 or something. It was full-on days. I’m naturally really happy that she allowed us to also bring our own into the characters, but she also had a backstory for us and had a vision for the characters as well. It was really a collaborative effort in developing these characters and getting us in the right time and space.
The Knockturnal: What would you say was most challenging about bringing your character to life?
Lamar Johnson: I’d probably say the most challenging thing in bringing Jesse to life was just the thing that he has to go through in the film. His arc is very large, and I think it was just a very large undertaking. Just by reading the script, I knew that there was going to be a lot that was demanded of me. But, once again, I’m really happy that I had my director and my amazing cast members there alongside me to assist me and get me to the places that I needed to get. And I don’t want to ruin too much of the film, but, there was this specific moment that, I was just very nervous about, and I just wanted to do that moment a service. Once again, I had amazing people around me, cast and crew, that really just set the environment for me and allowed me to get there and allowed me to access those emotions that I needed to.
The Knockturnal: And what do you hope the audience will take away from this movie when they leave the theater?
Lamar Johnson: You know, of course, the time and the riots–everything that is being said in the film, and I just hope that people that are not familiar with what happened … leave the theater being educated and having a perspective on what happened. But, also, I think the underlying root of the film is love, and I hope that when people leave the theater and leave the film–of course, it’s very weighted, but I hope that they can see that it is love at the end of the day that is driving the force of the entire film. And, yeah, I want them to feel the levity as well as the weight. It’s a duality, and I think it’s very important for people to feel that.
The Knockturnal: I definitely think that comes through watching the film. You guys definitely have a lot of heartwarming family moments.
Lamar Johnson: Great. I’m very happy.
The Knockturnal: How do you think your background–you mentioned before that you have a background in dance. How do you think that influences your acting?
Lamar Johnson: With dance, you’re on stage and you’re performing, so there’s always that performance aspect. When you’re on stage, you are trying to tell a story to the audience through movement. I think that helps translate that to the onscreen, because, you still have to try and portray some sort of story or tell people a story and I think, as an actor, you are a storyteller, you’re in service to the story. As for dance, you’re in service to the story, but it’s through movement and through music. I think music and performance and storytelling–it all kind of comes hand-in-hand. You know, with the film there’s a score that helps you get into the emotion, the mood. With dancing it just really, kind of, just really translated that over to my acting and, you know, obviously with the rigorous amount of practice and training and technique that got me to a place that I am now, but I think it correlates and everything is, kind of, all-in-one.
The Knockturnal: This one’s kind of a fun question. If there’s one actor whose career you could have or emulate, whose would it be and why?
Lamar Johnson: See that’s a kind of tricky question. You know, because as much as I would like to try and emulate someone’s career, I feel like I want to be on my own path. So, I want to set my own path and be able to create my own opportunities and create my own destiny, if that makes sense. So, that’s kind of what I would want to do, but there’s definitely people that I look up to in the industry that I would absolutely love to work with or to be able to learn from. Number one, I would have to say Denzel Washington, because, just growing up, watching Denzel–he was one of the first black actors that I saw on television. That kind of just made it feel like, “Okay, well you know what? This is possible. I can become this or I can be on this medium, at this level.” So, I think, Denzel is someone that I would love to work with and learn from. Also, on a performance level, Chris Brown is definitely someone that, growing up, I used to watch and be like, “Wow, he’s performing. It’s just so amazing,” and he just captivates you through his performance and, you know, that’s also another person that I would just love to kind of just sit down and just pick his brain and be able to get on stage and just move with him. You know, so I think those are definitely two people that I would definitely love to meet.
The Knockturnal: So, you’re also filming the next X-Men?
Lamar Johnson: Yes, I filmed that … the summer that just past.
The Knockturnal: Yeah, in a role that’s still undisclosed. So without giving too much away, can you tell me a bit about it?
Lamar Johnson: Well, without giving too much away, what I can say is that this is the introduction of this character, and this is the first time that you will see this character and, you know hopefully, you will be able to see more of him [laughter].
The Knockturnal: Has Halle given you any tips as far as being a part of the X-Men universe?
Lamar Johnson: Well, actually, we had went out for dinner when I kind of told her that I was going to be part of X-Men and a part of the universe. She was just super happy for me, and she said I was very deserving of it and that just meant so much to me. She just said do what I do, you know, and that I got the job for a reason, so to be present, and always, once again, just always do your best. I think that’s the most important thing once you’re in the moment and you’re present. The most you can do is do your best, and your best will always be enough. Those are kind of the kind of words of encouragement that she gave me.
The Knockturnal: And you’re also going to be a part of The Hate U Give adaptation.
Lamar Johnson: Yes, I’m actually in Atlanta right now doing reshoots on the film.
The Knockturnal: Would you like to speak a bit about that?
Lamar Johnson: Sure The Hate U Give, it is based off a novel like you said. It’s about a character named Starr, and when her best friend, gets shot and killed by a police officer. Essentially, it is her finding her voice and her activism through the injustice, and she goes on this journey of finding her voice and the confidence to speak up on something that is unjust. It kind of creates an uproar in the community and, you know, she just gets supported by her community. It’s very beautiful, and I play her older brother, Seven, and, the dynamic on set was just incredible and obviously, I’m very, very happy to be a part of this project and also to be a part of this narrative and to be able to bring this to the screen.
X-Men: Dark Phoenix premieres in theatres in 2019. The Hate U Give does not yet have a release date. KINGS hits theaters on April 27.