"Sister Act 2" made Jay Armstrong Johnson want to be an actor. Well, sort of.
"Musical things made me excited about life in general," says Johnson, adding that the film was one of his favorites growing up. "I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know that I could actually make it a career. And I liked singing and I liked dancing and I liked having little cousins that I could make do performances for my family."
Now Johnson is the one performing eight times a week as Greg Wilhote in the new Broadway musical "Hands on a Hardbody"—Johnson's first non-understudy role on the Great White Way. The musical opened on Thursday at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. We sat down with the talented actor for this week's cover story, and he shared some of his best learning experiences and advice for young actors.
Use Creative License When Playing a Real Person
"Hardbody" is based on a documentary of the same name about a competition for a pick-up truck in which contestants must keep their hand on the vehicle at all times; the one who lasts the longest wins the car. Johnson's character is not in the documentary, exactly, but he used the real stories to create his part. "There's one guy that I use on the documentary," he says. "I don't know what his name is but he's such an incredible character and so I use a lot of his mannerisms and the way he acts and he just kind of laughs all the time, which makes me happy. I kind of laugh whenever I feel like laughing on stage… I didn't actually meet my guy. Meeting some of the other contestants, it brought it to life. Just to see the person face-to-face is kind of crazy. Allison Case plays my love interest, and I actually met that woman who was in the documentary. She has a son now. So I'm like, 'Oh that could have been my son.' [Director] Jack O'Brien once said playing a role that is an actual person is like a once in a lifetime opportunity. You can't do 'Mary Poppins' and say, 'Ladies and gentleman, and now the Mary Poppins.' It's cool to play someone that's a real person."
Work Harder Than Everyone Else
While Johnson only gets a few moments to show off his dancing skills in "Hardbody," the actor is a technically trained dancer who dropped out of New York University his junior year to star in the national tour of "A Chorus Line." "I found a really, really strong love for dance at my community theater and found a local studio," he says. "So I would dance about three hours at school and then I would go to my studio and dance for about two hours. So I was doing about five hours a day Monday through Friday. That became like my love." If anyone's asking, Johnson is itching to do another dance show soon.
Find Talented People and Learn From Them
While Johnson trained tirelessly in dance, his early vocal and acting training was not as rigorous. He credits the talented actors from his local community theater in his hometown in Texas, Casa Manana, for teaching him the ropes. "That's where I learned most about what we do, just by watching older, seasoned actors in my hometown," he says. "I did about one show per year for them ever since I was 13. The first one was Cathy Rigby's 'Peter Pan.' She turned 50 when she did it with me and I was 13. That was 12 years ago! She's 60 now and she's still flipping and turning and belting! She's fierce."
"Confidence is really the only word that I think of," Johnson says when asked what advice he has for actors. "You sit and you drill things over and over again but being confident in what you're doing is really what I've learned over the last few years. How I walk into a room is going to affect how my audition goes. It's like power posing. Have you heard that TED talk about power posing? This lady talks about physically making yourself bigger before an interview or an audition. It releases hormones in your body and you have a different energy. That's what I've been focusing on—doing a lot of yoga and focusing on my confidence. It's totally helped in my auditions and everyday life and in rehearsal rooms, not being scared to fall on my ass. Just making a strong choice confidently. If it doesn't work, make a different choice confidently the next time."