April 11, 2018 Interview – Michelle Johnson
Some people are just born with a creative muse. It can be music, it can be theater, or sometimes, it can be both! Beginning her professional acting career at 17 years old, Michelle Johnson would go on to be one of the most recognized faces in film and television during the 1980s into the 1990s. For starts, taking a leading role alongside Michael Caine in 1984’s Comedy Blame It on Rio, Johnson would also star in such films as 1988’s Waxwork, a memorable episode of HBO’s hit series Tales From the Crypt, 1992’s Death Becomes Her, plus much more.
Still having a passion for the arts in a big way, Johnson continues to work on recording music as well as some interesting new films. Recently we caught up with the diverse performer to talk her career in film, her memorable encounter with Quentin Tarantino, music, plus much more.
CrypticRock.com – You began your professional acting career over three decades ago, and in that time you have started in a list of memorable films and television series. First, tell us, what inspired you to pursue a career in acting?
Michelle Johnson – Oh gosh, I think I have always been interested in the arts. When I was pretty young, in grade school, I would write little plays in music class which would let us perform them in class. That is where I got my first taste of it. I wouldn’t act in them usually, but I cast them, direct them, and wrote them. That was very fulfilling for me even at such a young age.
With the singing, I was in chorus and I was the only one that brave enough to sing solos, so I would be the one up there singing the solo. (Laughs) Also, when I was relatively young I saw a movie called That’s Entertainment (1974), and that really anchored it in for me to say that’s what I want to do when I grow up.
CrypticRock.com – It seems as if you caught the entertainment bug at a very young age.
Michelle Johnson – Yeah, I think it’s really artistry and that was my niche. Some people paint and draw, I love to act, write, and sing; that is what brings me the most joy.
CrypticRock.com – Right, everyone has a different creative outlet. In 1984, you had a leading role in the Comedy Blame It on Rio, a racy and fun film. What was that like being your first role and a major one at that?
Michelle Johnson – That was my first acting ever really. I was discovered by Stanley Donen, the director, he directed films such as Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and Two for the Road (1967). He found my picture in a magazine, because I ended up modeling in Woman’s World Daily. He ended up subsequently screen-testing me, and then I got the part. Of course, those are the cliffnotes: there is a lot more to the story than that. That is how I got Blame It on Rio, that is how I got discovered as an actress. I was 16 years-old when I was discovered and I just turned 17 when we started to film it.
CrypticRock.com – It is a fun film! If people have not checked it out, they should.
Michelle Johnson – I think some people have said it is a cult-classic, people always seem to remember me from it. I recently did an autograph signing and there were tons of fans from Blame It on Rio, as well as other films I have done. That one always seems to stand out. I think it was because, for the time, kind of racy. For 1984, I guess that was a bit racy, but for today’s standards it’s almost a Disney film. (Laughs)
CrypticRock.com – (Laughs) That is true. From there, you went on to star in a list of other films and shows. Among the various genres you have worked in, you have done a good portion of Horror and Comedy-related films. Do you prefer working in any one genre over another?
Michelle Johnson – No, I wouldn’t say prefer. I like them all for different reasons, because they are different creatively. I do really enjoy doing Comedy though, because I love to laugh. I love to laugh more than I like to be scared. (Laughs) I like it all really; it is fun to get to play the femme fatale, it is fun being kind of naughty, and it’s fun to be funny. Michael Caine used to say, “Comedy is the most serious work he does.” That is because it’s all about timing.
CrypticRock.com – There is certainly an art to comedy: it cannot be forced, it has to come naturally. Sometimes it can be a facial expression or how it is spoken.
Michelle Johnson – Absolutely! Amy Schumer is good at that. Melissa McCarthy is good at that too, just her facial expressions are flawless.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, Melissa McCarthy is a very funny actress. Yourself, as an actress, you have shown the ability to excel in various roles. You have played the sweet, innocent girl in Blame It on Rio and the seductive, manipulative as seen in the memorable 1991 Tales from the Crypt episode Split Second.
Michelle Johnson – Well, it’s always fun to be able to participate in creating a character you are working on. Of course, the writers created in the first place, but for you to be able to breath life into it it’s always exciting no matter what role I am playing. I also did an Outer Limits episode called First Anniversary where I play an alien, I look like a beautiful woman but I am really an alien. After a while the spell I put on these guys, because it wears off, I have to get remarried after about a year.
Funny story about that, I was at an awards show, I believe at Universal Studios in the mid 2000s. I was standing with Michael Bay and Quentin Tarantino walks in with a bunch of paparazzi around him. I said to Michael, “I want to work with Quentin Tarantino so badly. I just think what he pulls out of his actors is so amazing. Look what he did for John Travolta!” So Michael said to me, “Go say hello and introduce yourself.” I said, “I can’t possibly do that. He’s not going to know who I am.” Michael Bay said, “Oh, he will surprise you. He’ll probably start rattling off every film you have ever done, and maybe some you’ve even forgotten you’ve done. Never take for granted in Hollywood that you are going to have an opportunity to meet someone you really want to work with. Here’s your opportunity, take it.”
He kind of shoves me into Quentin Tarantino, so I said, “Hi Mr. Tarantino, really nice to meet you. I am a huge fan of yours, my name is Michelle Johnson.” He stopped, kind of pointed his finger at me and said, “Michelle Johnson, Blame It on Rio Michelle Johnson? You’re a fan of mine? I am a bigger fan of yours!” He started rattling off Blame It on Rio, Death Becomes Her, the Tales From the Crypt episode. He then said, “My favorite thing you have ever done is the Outer Limits episode.” I said, “Wow, you saw that?” He said, “Not only did I see it, I want to make a feature film out of it and star you in it, call my office.” So I called one of his main producers at the time and spoke with him. Anyway, he contacted Quentin and he said, “Quentin said to be patient, he’s going to get to you.” I said, “Wow, that is kind of amazing, but what does that mean?” He said, “Well, he said the same thing to John Travolta, and look how that turned out for John Travolta.” So now, I am still waiting for Quentin Tarantino! You know what I mean? Be my hero, Quentin! All these years later, I am still waiting. (Laughs)
CrypticRock.com – (Laughs) That is a crazy story. Maybe by some stroke of luck Quentin Tarantino will read this article!
Michelle Johnson – Wouldn’t that be fortuitous! It would be a dream come true working with him.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, he really does get a lot of his actors/actresses. The dialogue in his films flows like music. You have had a pretty balanced career in both television and full-length feature projects. How would you compare the two?
Michelle Johnson – Back in the ’80s, when I was first getting out there, TV was kind of taboo. You are either a TV actress or a film-star, you couldn’t do both. Now what is so great, there is so many more venues with Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming networks. There is so many more opportunities now to work in television. A lot of them are mini movies, look at what Ryan Murphy is doing. He is another one I would love to work. I love his stuff; he is another genius, he really has changed the landscape for women in Hollywood – all ages, sizes, colors. I love his casting, it’s always unexpected.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, Ryan Murphy has done a lot of great things in television in recent years. Television is not as segregated as it once was. In many ways, television supersedes feature-film quality-wise nowadays; a lot of great television series are being made opposed to feature films.
Michelle Johnson – I agree. It is amazing. I love both, but in some ways actors these days prefer to get a TV series. You have the relative job security, you can really develop a character, also the quality has changed, the integrity has changed.
CrypticRock.com – Right, what better way to get exposure than to have a TV series that is shown weekly with a big following? Beyond film, you have also expressed a love for music. In 2014, you released an album, entitled Popular, with a fun Pop sound but it is also a very personal record lyrically. What was it like putting it all together?
Michelle Johnson – It was fun. I really started out writing poetry. I met some people in 2008 or 2009 who were music producers. I started working with them and taking some of my poetry and turning it into music, etc. It’s just another creative process. I have some fans commenting on my YouTube channel asking, “How come you are not acting anymore? How come you have just switched to music?” I wrote a fan back saying, “No, no, no. I am just adding music to what I do.” I am not comparing myself to Frank Sinatra by any means and do not want it taken the wrong way, but look at him as an example. He would act, star in films, and after a while he would focus on his music career. There are a lot of artists that are doing both now. Art is art.
I love writing songs, I love being in the studio, it makes me feel alive. In some ways it makes me feel a little more in control as an artist. Although, it is not like I am signed to a label; I get to do what I want when I am in the studio, it’s my time, my money. (Laughs) I feel more in control, because I don’t have someone telling me you have to do it this way and you have to do it that way. Creatively it is very fulfilling.
CrypticRock.com – It must be exciting to have that artistic freedom. As you mentioned, it is a different outlet of expression. Speaking of your music, can we expect some new music from you in the near future?
Michelle Johnson – Yeah. You know, I have to find a way, because this is not my forte yet, to find a vehicle, a platform to market my music with. I was hoping to get it in TV shows, commercials and such. I am not quite sure how to market it. I don’t think touring is something that is going to be a viable option for me. The music industry has changed so much too, along with the film industry. It’s all very different than it used to be. I think it’s hard to sell yourself now, that’s what I am getting from a lot of my musician friends.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, it is ironic that is harder. You would imagine it would be easier with the vehicle of the internet. The fact is with the internet, there are so many different options and so many different people doing something; it is very oversaturated and it is easy to get lost in the shuffle.
Michelle Johnson – That is true too. I got a little frustrated again, because I am not that knowledgeable about how to get your stuff out there and what platforms are the wisest to be on. A lot of people say where can I get your music?
CrypticRock.com – There are a few options, and hopefully you can get it out there, because it is really a good listen! What do you have coming up next?
Michelle Johnson – I start in a new film called When Autumn Leaves Fall. It is produced by Mario Domina, executive produced by Penny Marshall, and directed by Scott Marshall. Beyond that, I will be appearing at Chiller Theater the weekend of April 27th through 29th in New Jersey!
CrypticRock.com – Very cool! When Autumn Leaves Fall looks like a interesting project, hopefully more information will come out soon. Additionally, fans in the New York/New Jersey area should absolutely make the trip out to Chiller Theater to see you. Last question. We also cover Horror and Sci-Fi films on CrypticRock. If you are a fan of either or both genres, what are some of your favorites and why?
Michelle Johnson – Oh yeah! I love The Matrix (1999), it is one of my favorite films. I like the ones which are different like The Matrix: no one saw that coming, it was so innovative at the time. Then of course I like some of the classics such as Close Encounters of The Third Kind (1977), Jaws (1975), I am a huge Steven Spielberg fan. I hope to get to work with him someday. Then The Sixth Sense (1999), again thinking outside the box, that was a huge twist at the end. Of course The Others (2001) with Nicole Kidman. Then Aliens (1986), who doesn’t like Aliens?
For more on Michelle Johnson: officialmichellejohnson.com | YouTube
Be sure to catch Michelle Johnson at Chiller Theater the weekend of April 27th through 29th in Parsippany, NJ. For more details, visit chillertheatre.com