Entertainment, Film and Music
Interview Wil Johnson
Talks Producing, Nollywood & Africa/Carribbean Unity with Promota! The star of BBC's 9yr series Waking The Dead, Wil Johnson talks to Promota's Beauty & Arts Editor Clare Eluka about his latest film "Disorientated Generation" which he co-produced with Nigerian CEO Christian Ashaiku, about discipline of children in today's western society and African Prosperity. Clare Eluka: I know you and Chris are working on a ‘relationship’ film. What is it? Wil Johnson: It’s about this young Nigerian guy who is looking for love in modern Britain and over the course of 3 years he goes through 3 very different relationships. He is married to an English girl and that marriage ends. Then he has this relationship with a girl from West Indian parentage which ends also. He ends up marrying a Nigerian girl and then that ends as well. So there’s this guy trying to find this Utopia, his Mrs Right because all he wants to do is have a peaceful life, get married, have kids and that’s it but we know that sometimes that journey takes a detour … yeah … it takes that many detours trying to get to that Utopia. So when I read the script I was very interested in taking part and then he asked me if I was interested to be on board as co-producer. We got some funding from Enfield Council and the rest was self-funded from me and Chris. So
what do you think it was that failed to attract funders and distributors? WJ:I think it was because the story was a black take on relationships. You’ve got “Four weddings and a funeral”, you’ve got “Notting Hill” and those other movies, about relationships and people just go “yeah fine”. But when you stick black leads in,it becomes a black film, not a movie about relationships. And we were definite in terms of the way we tried to market the film. It’s not about a black man’s relationship, it is about any man’s relationships. I took an actor friend of mine to one of the screenings and when the film finished he just sat there and said “that’s my story, that’s my life”. And, he is from Huddersfield, he’s a white guy; do you know what I mean? The point that I am making is that it is about relationships. And every story is different: the story of a young Nigerian guy born and raised in Nigeria who has lived in London for the last 10 years, looking for a relationship in London is going to be different from the story of a guy who has lived all his life in England. Sometimes it may take time to build to that, but nevertheless it is always good to at least have gone through the experience and say ,right, what we need in this country is content. There has been a lot of talking over the years and not a lot of people have actually delivered and put something on the table.
How did you prepare for that role? Because it is a mammoth role and you are also the producer. How did you switch off? WJ: Being the producer is slightly easier because it is the business head and you have to make decisions and be very firm and precise about those decisions with no wavering, even if it is the wrong decision, be wrong and strong. So that was alright. The acting side was actually fine because it is something that I do all the time so I can easily fall into that. The business side was the hardest. But when we finished the film, our next challenge was actually to do all the post production. And again, we went around, tried to raise money and nothing happened and there is nothing worse than shooting a film, having it in the can and not do anything with it. The good thing about my various roles in this film, is that you’re learning about the industry, you’re learning how it works, not just being an actor and turning up, but we’re the ones who have to make sure that the lights are switched on, make sure that the actors have arrived safely, that they get home safely, all those kind of details. When you’re an actor you don’t think about any of those things. But when you are the producer and it is your project you have to think about every aspect of the project, every single area, so that became a huge challenge. And then on top of that, I have to focus on the acting as well, sort of driving and leading every scene, do you know what I mean?
And, if you could play any role…? WJ: I don’t set parameters for myself. I just try to keep myself open to what the next challenge is going to be. The next film is going to be a big challenge because it’s a scientist so to learn the lingo, I am going to spend some time with the geneticist, which should be interesting.
Do you have methods for your acting? WJ: I’ve got no particular method. I listen to a lot of music. Music kind of frees my mind. I pray a lot, I pray to God. I am a spiritual man. I know that no matter what I embark on, if I trust in God, I will get there and I will deliver the goods. Because we have it within us we just got to find it. I’ve studied all the different acting techniques and all that but … all it boils down to is you.
How did you come into acting? WJ: Fluke; acting found me. Born in Muswell Hill; raised in Tottenham. I was at school, there was a school play. Somebody dropped out. I stepped in only because there was a girl in the play that I fancied, Jenny O’Brien and I wanted to kiss her. I got to kiss her in the play but she wouldn’t date me later.
What’s the story about you having a speech impediment; how did you get over it? WJ: Growing up I had a really bad stutter. I was even scared to say my name at register, every morning when the teacher would be calling out the names. ‘Yes Miss, yes Miss, yes Miss’ and it would come to me and I could feel my heart racing,trying to get the words out was just an absolute nightmare. I found this poem, ‘nothing can take the place of persistence’ saying you could be the most educated person, the most talented, but if you don’t have persistence and determination, all of these mean nothing. I remember my last encounter in a Theatre Drama group in Crouch End; they cast me as the lead. It was like a time travelling type thing… so I’m like, wow this is great, this is fantastic, I got the part, we’re rehearsing, everything is going all right and I’m thinking wow and I haven’t stuttered yet wow that’s really good. Then we get to opening night and all my family is there and I started off the play and I start on stage it’s like me and the time machine, and I remember just before the curtain was opening and I got so scared because it just hit me what was going on and my heart was racing, my mouth went dry, I started sweating. I’ve never been so scared and nervous in my life. And once the curtain was drawn back and I had the first line and then I went to say it and then the words wouldn’t come out so I said to myself ‘ right, ok… I remember telling myself ‘relax, breathe, you can do this, you can do this’. I did it… and since then I have never been nervous on stage again.
You were 16 at that time and now you are a role model as a black man, as an actor. For 16 year olds now, it is a lot different – how are your viewpoints on young black men who are starting where you were? With this culture, – violence and gun crimes – what can we do for those youngsters who may have something to overcome when they are expressing themselves negatively? WJ: It’s a big one because I have children myself. My oldest daughter is 25 and another daughter who is 24. And my oldest daughter now lives in NY. What I have always said to my kids which is what my parents always said to me, “The world is your oyster, think globally and beyond this country, think the world, the world is your playground not just this”. I grew back in an era when it was the black conscious movement and black people learning about their history and Africa and we were going to all the seminars and all the meetings, and the rallies and reading the books and what is the connection between the West Indies and Africa. Actually that’s where we are from and I grew up in that era where you had a real strong sense of self. I instilled that into my kids and so the whole kind of ethos behind that thinking was about a positivity and progressing, striving and no matter what it is you chose to do in life, be the best at it. And I remember my mum saying to me, ‘if you want to be an actor be the best actor, I don’t want to hear about being second or third. Be the best.’ Do you think that this is missing now? WJ: The lack of discipline has not helped young people growing up nowadays because I used to get beaten all the time and it gave me borders. Young kids now have no respect for elders. For us, growing up at school and all that, if there was an elder walking up the street and you were making a lot of noise, you would just shut up instantly because it would just be wrong doing that in front of an older man. Nowadays, the kids don’t care; they lack the same family values and discipline from home. Do you think the celebrities and the media have a role in that? Kids becoming micro parents, micro adults; children having children?
Parents cannot discipline their children for fear of being arrested or sent to jail. What is that? WJ: I’ve got a son of 12 and a son who is going to be 7 next week and then I’ve got 2 twin girls. I’ve got 6 kids. And my younger ones have grown up in this PC kind of era but you know what, that stays outside, not in my house, mate. If my kids do something wrong they will get disciplined. I am 45 and my dad is 71. And they see how I deal with my dad, with respect and there is that boundary. Even though he is my dad and we can chat we can have laugh and all that but there is still a line. I said to my elder son if I ever catch you with your trousers down around your arse I will pull them down and beat you in front of your friends and shame you. And that is something that I won’t compromise on.
Going back to acting, you’re a bit of a favourite with the BBC – 6 different series and you’re back working on ‘Waking the dead’. Which do you prefer, theatre or being in front of the camera? WJ: I prefer film. Since I decided I wanted to act, I wanted to be a film actor. Theatre has always been the foundation. So when I started off, I did not go to drama school. I went to Mount View for two evenings a week, and another drama group in my area, The Haringey Theatre, twice a week. I also went to a dance group because I did dance as well and at one stage wanted to be a dancer. I did all the ballet and all the contemporary stuff and then went into break dancing for about 7 years. I also did the National Youth T heatre for three years as well as doing my drama ‘A’ levels and Drama ‘O’ levels as well. I only did my A levels because of my mum. I did English language, English literature, and Drama. So I did 3 A levels. I did it because she said ‘if the acting thing is not going to work out’ at least you’ve got your education to fall back like Adrian Lester, who was in a very radical production of ‘As you like it’. It was an all male production and that was the role that put him on the map.
What do you think of the Africans movies, especially from Nollywood? WJ: They are not very well made. The intention is good and the intention is right but the execution is very poor.
What do you think of Africa now – are things getting better? Is Africa a fast emerging market? WJ: I think it is where people are going to move towards in terms of work and everything, I think over the next five years, we’re going to see a lot more stuff happening and coming out of Africa, not just people going there but actually things happening like in Ghana for instance. Things are blowing up in Ghana, big time. Africa is going to be the next hot spot. By Clare Eluka