It’s a story right out of, well, a Broadway musical: a small-town boy with big city dreams lands in the spotlight of the Great White Way. But that, in a nutshell, is the story of Jay Johnson, a Fort Worth, Texas, native who followed his passion for performing all the way to New York City, where he quickly landed a role in the original cast of the national tour of A Chorus Line. Seven months later, Jay found himself crowned the understudy for the lead role in Broadway’s wildly successful recent revival of Hair. Now, with promising original productions such as the title role in Barrington Stage Company’s Pool Boy in his pocket and a stint on Law and Order: SVU in the can, Jay talks bright lights, big ambition, and why there truly is no place like home.
You grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, a city that’s not necessarily known for its burgeoning performing arts scene. How did your love of theatre develop?
I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do until a couple of friends asked me to audition for a musical. The second I stepped onto that stage and the lights came on, I was like, “Okay, okay, this is it.” From that point on, I became consumed by performing – by becoming other characters. Once I moved to New York City, I started auditioning between classes at NYU, booked A Chorus Line. Every goal that I have set so far in my life has pretty much come true.
You make it sound so easy. Did you find that you had to work really hard to make all of this happen, or did it come naturally?
You know, if my friend’s mother didn’t insist that the producers see me during my first audition (for Cathy Rigby’s Peter Pan), I wouldn’t have gotten my first professional gig, and I wouldn’t have had this progression. During the run of that show, Cathy gave me this plaque that read “Persistence” at the top. I take that plaque with me everywhere I go. Talent’s not enough, but persistence will help you get anywhere.
In a city where everyone is persistent, what do you do to make yourself stand apart from those hundreds of other persistent, talented people?
I think it started out as luck for me, and I’ve now reached a certain level in my career where all the lucky and talented people have gotten to this level, and you have to go back to the basics. You have to study acting, go to dance classes, take voice lessons.
Is your love of the profession enough to validate how harsh it is?
The love of this profession that I’ve had since I was twelve will never go away. But the ideal world that everyone has in his or her head about being a star is not really true. The way I imagined it when I was little was glitz and glamour and getting in a limo every night that drives you home. In reality, this is the hardest thing in the world to do, because it’s both a mental and physical thing. You have to play so many mind games with yourself to get into certain characters that it starts to cross over into real life. You have to be able to separate the two, to be able to find reality again. And then be able to go into work and hit your mark.
What was your first night on Broadway like?
The first time I went on for Gavin was in previews, I’d never had a rehearsal of any kind. I had been out drinking with my friends the night before, got to the theater at 11 am, was told that Gavin was sick, and had about an hour to go over all of my blocking. Then it was like, “Go!” I was so shot out of the cannon and was running on pure adrenaline that I don’t remember anything about it. But I do remember what it felt like when I first heard I booked the show. I cried for five minutes straight. Weeped.
How did you prepare for that performance, especially as an understudy following the lead of a celebrated actor?
I’ve learned that, most importantly, you have to bring yourself to every single thing that you do. I’m not Gavin Creel. I’ll never be Gavin Creel. I took all the things I loved that he did, and I added myself to it. It’s about bringing yourself to each role and being confident about what you bring.
Now that you’ve broken into this world, how do push to that next step? How do you become the next Gavin Creel?
By having people that support you and love you and will help you get there. By having a manager that will push for you, vouch for you at any time, that will burn villages down to get you an audition. It’s all about building an entourage of people.
You’ve just touched on the ideas of community, family, and home. How does the idea of home fit in with your life as a traveling actor?
Theatre was a way of escape from home for me when I was a kid. The year my parents got divorced was the year I got my first role in theatre. Just recently, home has become so much more important for me. I’ve learned that, to be an actor, you have to come from a true place. I can’t escape anymore. It’s a huge realization. Home is now becoming something that I am embracing, and because of that, I’m seeing a lot more progression in my career.
Do you think that every actor goes through this dramatic shift that you’re going through right now?
I have no idea. All I know is that my shift has been pretty seismic, and that it’s something that’s supposed to be happening right now. I’m glad that it’s happening: it’s painful, and it’s beautiful, and it’s hard. It’s every emotion you could possibly imagine. But I know that it’s the next step.