Joshua Caleb Johnson was a relative unknown with just a handful of credits to his name before being cast in the prize role of Onion in Showtime’s The Good Lord Bird, which tells the story of the abolitionist John Brown. In The Good Lord Bird, we see John Brown through Onion’s eyes. Not only is he the window to understanding one of the most mercurial characters in American history, you could argue strongly, that the limited series is actually Onion’s story.
In our conversation, Joshua discusses how he landed the role, what it was like to carry so much of the project on his shoulders, and the impact of the production on him, his family, and hopefully, society at large.
AD: Onion is a huge role and you’re just starting out in your career. How did you get the part?
Joshua Caleb Johnson: The role was first introduced to me when my agent sent me over the script. There were numerous call-backs and meetings and talking with Ethan. I remember the exact day when I got the part – which was May 25, 2019. It was an amazing day. My manager and my agent called me. My mom was in the car, she had just picked me up from school, and she was recording me on my iPad, so I kind of thought that looked suspicious but I wasn’t really too sure so I was like ‘Eh, I don’t really know.’ My manager calls me and she was like ‘Josh, are you ready to be a superstar?’ And I was like yeah of course and she was like ‘Well, you got the part for The Good Lord Bird’ and I was like ‘Say it again?’ [Laughs] She said, ‘You got the part for The Good Lord Bird.’ My mom was laughing and super happy, and I was laughing and halfway crying the whole time. It was like an early birthday present because my birthday was just three days after that. So it made that year a whole lot more special for me.
AD: You and Ethan have more screentime together in total than anyone else in the show. It’s Onion and John Brown’s movie in a lot of ways. Was it at all intimidating to walk into such a big part?
JCJ: I wouldn’t say intimidating. It was more so I knew I had my work cut out for me. I was super eager to start it. It was more knowing what I had to do beforehand and just making sure I zone in and focus on what I needed to do so I could portray Onion to the best of my ability.
AD: The character of Onion is the window into John Brown. We see John Brown through your eyes, which requires of you a lot of observation as an actor. Was that at all difficult?
JCJ: No, that is actually one of the joys of being an actor – learning that skill. Part of acting is sitting back, observing, listening and reacting to what people are saying around you, not just talking about it. I think that was one of the main things that made Onion Onion, his observance of every single character – not even just John Brown, but all of John Brown’s sons. There were a lot of abolitionists back then so at a lot of the slave trades, he just sat back and observed and really reacted to what was evolving around him.
AD: I know that The Good Lord Bird is historical fiction with a lot of actual history in it. I don’t know about you, but when I was in school (and it was many years before you were) I didn’t get a lot of John Brown. Was this kind of a crash course for you from a historical perspective too?
JCJ: Actually it wasn’t because fortunately enough for me, I had an amazing history teacher for my seventh and eight grade year. I think we spent almost a whole semester on John Brown, like three or four months, talking about the Harper’s Ferry raid and John Brown back in 1859, and what he was doing and what he stood for. That actually helped me in a lot of ways with my background for my character.
AD: Your part is particularly tricky because you’re playing Onion – a young man pretending to be a girl – but he doesn’t want to pretend to be a girl – but he’s in this place where he kind of can’t stop because the ruse has extended itself so far that he can’t reverse it anymore, at least not amongst that group. There’s a lot of comedy that’s mined from that. What was it like because Onion has to be in two places in his head almost all the time?
JCJ: Onion was always Onion. There was never a time where he acted feminine in any way. He didn’t change his voice. Because he was what they called back then “high yellow” (light skinned). When he put on a dress he resembled a girl to all the white people, but if you notice every Black person in the film knew Onion was a boy from the start. Which was kind of one of the comical things about the show but also one of the heartbreaking things, because it really went to show that white people did not see anything besides color in slaves back then. They didn’t know if I was a girl or a boy. They saw me in a dress and they were like, ‘Oh it’s a slave in a dress. It has to be a girl.’ It just shows they didn’t look beyond appearance and actually look at what’s inside of Onion. So, no it wasn’t difficult to play Onion in that vicinity as far as pretending to be a girl it was more so making sure I stay in that character 24/7 so I didn’t lose it.
AD: There’s that great scene at Harper’s Ferry when you and the freed men are sitting around and all of you know that tomorrow is going to be a very bad day and they all start having a good laugh about the fact that “man we knew a long time ago that you were a boy.” You don’t get to see that sort of thing in a show like this very often. That sort of acceptance between characters like that under such difficult circumstances.
JCJ: It was hilarious. It was a super enjoyable scene and super funny. I played alongside Orlando Jones, Victor Williams, Quentin Plair, and McKinley (Belcher III) so it was honestly just super fun. A lot of that was improv. We were just having fun in the moment. It was so honest and pure and it was one of the most enjoyable scenes of that episode for sure.
AD: We have to talk about Onion’s relationship with John Brown and also your acting relationship with Ethan Hawke because I thought Ethan Hawke seemed to be very generous. He’s playing this bigger than life character, but he’s giving a lot of room for other actors to shine – you most of all. When you were working with Ethan, how close did you become? How did you work out the rhythms of that relationship?
JCJ: As far as Onion goes, Onion in the beginning had to watch out for John Brown because in Onion’s eyes John Brown was crazy. John Brown was a lunatic – going around and killing people – and Onion didn’t fully understand what the reason was. That is why Onion was going back and forth on John Brown like ‘I don’t know if I should stay. I don’t know if he’s going to kill me next or what is going down.’ Once Onion started growing up and coming of age, he started thinking outside of himself and not just for selfish reasons about him wanting to survive and wanting to do all of these things. He actually developed a genuine love for John Brown. It was something that no matter what the captain wants I am always going to ride for the captain. They were ride or die for each other. It made it easier to bond because me and Ethan spent so much time together, not even just in the project but before the project and also after the project. He’s kind of like a big brother, almost like an uncle to me. It really made the whole Onion/John Brown bond so much easier to play out.
AD: To me, the most moving scene in the series is towards the end when you go visit Brown in the jailhouse and Brown talks to you about who you are. What he is getting at is that your color does not matter to him, your sexuality doesn’t matter to him. What matters to him is basically your heart. He says something to the effect of God made you this way and made you correctly. Brown is the guy that may not be in on the fact that Onion is a boy, but that scene of acceptance was so beautiful and, without shoehorning a modern perspective into the show, felt very current.
JCJ: That is completely and utterly honest, at least for me. I know that is the way my mom has always raised me. No matter what anybody’s skin color and anybody’s sexuality, it doesn’t matter. You judge them for who they are on the inside and what their character is, and their dignity, and their integrity. You judge them based on that. You don’t judge them off of outside factors. For sure that is almost a display of how the modern world should be. Everybody should be accepted no matter if you’re Black, white, brown, red or purple. It doesn’t matter what your sexuality is, what your gender is, you deserve the same amount of respect and the same amount of acceptance as any regular person would get.
AD: I love that little moment there towards the end when you kiss John Brown’s daughter (played by Maya Hawke) and there is like a little nod to what is possible when people look past these sorts of man-made barriers,
JCJ: I’ve never even thought about it like that but that makes complete sense.
AD: I just wasn’t prepared for how relatable it would be to modern times. Living in the era of Black Lives Matter and the fight for voting rights, it feels like the battle never finishes, it just changes.
JCJ: For sure. If you think about it we’re still talking about what John Brown was fighting for over 160 years ago, which was emancipation, equality, and a fight for citizenship for all Black Americans. It is crazy to me that this conversation is still relevant. You would have thought that years later everybody should know that everyone deserves respect, and that you shouldn’t judge someone based on their skin color. Still many years later, that is a constant factor. I feel that once we come together as one, we can fight this monster that we call racism. Until then we’re going to have to keep fighting, keep raising awareness, and keep talking about it until something is done about it. I feel in the very near future if the Black Lives Matter movement keeps on going the way it is going, change is very imminent.
AD: For many years we got movies about slavery or the civil rights movement that were supposedly about the Black experience but had white lead characters. The whole white savior kind of thing. The thing that’s interesting about this particular show is that John Brown was an actual white savior whose story deserves to be told, but I notice one of the things that Ethan did was have al lot people of color on the writing and directing staff, and gave the Black characters on the show a real voice. I imagine that helped avoid the white savior trap.
JCJ: I think it did honestly, because it goes to show that it wasn’t just the white man who tried to lead the Blacks to liberty and freedom. It was many young Black men and young Black women that were a contributing factor to liberty for all Black Americans. Back then and even now their spirit still lives on with us and is still guiding us on how we can continue the fight to achieve true freedom. I believe it allowed a lot of barriers to be broken down and allowed for a lot of freedom of expression and I think it just made the set way more enthusiastic and very relaxed.
AD: Now that we are coming out of the pandemic and you have had this great exposure with The Good Lord Bird, what is next? Or can you talk about it?
JCJ: I did some projects this year already. One project was for ABC’s Women of the Movement (the Emmett Till story) and also I did a project for Blumhouse called Bingo. Those will be out later in the year. Plus, there is some stuff I can’t really speak about as of yet. I promise you will know when everything comes together. Also, if I’m not working I will probably be trying to attend some conservatories for acting, maybe in London or New York, to hone my skills and to keep working on my acting. This is grind season. This is just the time to work hard and keep doing what I love.
Sasha, Ryan, and Clarence have been stuck with me since April 27, 2018. Co-creator (with Ryan Adams) of the Reframe feature, staff writer, interviewer du jour, and a proud member of GALECA and the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I also scribe on boxing at NY Fights. My essay "My Black Grandpa" was shortlisted as "Best of Folklore" by The Bitter Southerner in 2018. My first work of fiction, "Eat 'Em Up, Tigers!" was published in Detroit Stories Quarterly in the 2020 summer edition.