Although Lamar Johnson was born and raised in Toronto, Canada, he was very aware of the historic uprising that took place in Los Angeles, California in 1992 in the wake of the verdicts in the cases of the shooting of teenager Latasha Harlins and later, the beating of Rodney King. “I was aware of the issue, definitely aware of it,” Johnson says, “We were lucky enough to have a director who made sure that we were very educated on what happened. We had an extensive rehearsal process and took the time to do our research. She gave us that time to get ourselves into the headspace.”
Johnson plays Halle Berry’s character’s foster son Jesse in the upcoming drama Kings, whose events take place during that turbulent period. “Jesse just tries to do right by himself and everybody else. He doesn’t really get into any trouble. He tries to just be a very straight arrow and just be an anchor for his family. He’s very level-headed and he’s very eager to make something of his goals and aspirations. He wants to take himself out of the situation and just not fall victim to circumstance. I think we’re very similar in that way, the way he thinks,” said Johnson.
Aside from a role in A24’s film adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son and 2019’s X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Johnson will also be in one of the most highly anticipated films of the upcoming year, The Hate U Give. Based on Angie Thomas’ YA novel, it’s the story of a prep school teen who witnesses the police shooting of her childhood friend. It also stars Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby and many others. “To work with Amandla was awesome. I play her older brother Seven. Great cast, great people. It was like a family dynamic and it was incredible. George (director George Tillman) did a great job of making us feel comfortable on set. It never felt like we were doing scenes, it just felt so natural and organic. I am really, really excited for people to feel that onscreen.”
Johnson began teaching himself to dance when he was just nine years old. “I kind of just taught myself watching movies and watching videos and stuff like that. Michael Jackson was a huge inspiration for me. He really inspired me to start.” Beginning with dancehall then hip-hop foundational styles, he was a “popper” and “waver” at first, who eventually moved on to train in ballet and the more traditional studio dance styles. He says he was able to apply some of the skills he learned as a dancer when he transitioned to acting. “There were a lot of things that I was able to pull from my dance background when I started acting. Number one, just knowing that I have to work hard in order to become proficient at anything. Number two, is that when you’re on stage and you’re performing, you’re dancing and you’re still trying to tell a story. So in that respect, it was easy for me to transition because I’m still trying to tell a story. That’s what an actor is, a storyteller.”
The experience of working on a big-budget Hollywood feature film was a new one. So was working with one of the world’s most prominent actresses.“We filmed for about two and a half, three months in Los Angeles. It was a huge learning experience for me because I’d never been on a set like this one and working with Halle Berry and Daniel Craig and my cast members, it was great to work with such creative minds and to be a part of the narrative.” Going in, Johnson was completely in the dark about working with the Oscar winner. “It was actually really funny. Rachel Hilson, who plays Nicole, and I went out to New York to screen test together. After we auditioned and were offered our roles, they oh so casually told us about Halle Berry playing Millie, who I knew was my character’s mother. Rachel and I just looked at each other, jaws dropping. We were like, ‘We’re working with Halle? Like, this is crazy!’” Apparently, Berry more than lived up to their expectations both as a professional and as a person. “She’s amazing,” Johnson enthuses, “she’s such a very genuine person. She is incredibly nice and it was honestly a pleasure to work with her!”
Preparing for and playing this charged role in the midst of the current political and social strife meant Johnson had to closely examine the lack of progress we’ve made as a society in certain areas. “Seeing what’s happening right now and seeing how little we’ve grown,” he says, “it’s very unfortunate, but it’s really good to see the community is actually coming together now and taking a stand and using their voice.”
Currently residing in the City of Angels, he reveals he loves Los Angeles because of the weather and because, he states matter of factly, “The work is here. That’s the reason why I came. I had to learn to feel comfortable with being uncomfortable, move into a city where I don’t really know too many people. The great thing is that it keeps me focused.”
The middle child and only boy among his siblings, he says, “Toronto’s home for me. My family and a lot of my friends are in Toronto, so that’s home and that’s very comfortable.” Part of Toronto’s sizable Caribbean community, Johnson is part of the first generation of his family born outside of Jamaica. Though being a racial powder keg isn’t part of Canada’s international identity, Johnson indicates it’s fair to believe the country has its own problems with the issue. “Racism is everywhere. It’s just more and more documented in America. It’s just more prominent and I guess here in America it’s talked about more. I dealt with police brutality in terms of seeing my friends getting profiled on the street and even myself getting profiled, getting stopped, accosted. I’ve seen that and I’ve experienced it. So I mean it wasn’t too difficult for me to put myself into the character of Jesse or someone living in South Central LA in 1992.”
Kings opens nationwide on April 27.