BWW Talks to HAMILTON & DIRTY DANCING Star J. Quinton Johnson + Watch Exclusive Clip from ABC Reboot!
J. Quinton Johnson will star as Marco, the lead singer and guitarist of the band at Kellerman's Resort, in ABC's DIRTY DANCING. The talented actor landed his first major film role in Richard Linklater's ensemble comedy "Everybody Wants Some" while still a student at the University of Texas. Just a short time later, he found himself acting alongside an all-star cast in the ABC musical event. Most recently, he made his Broadway debut in the Tony Award-winning smash hit HAMILTON, in the dual roles of Hercules Mulligan and James Madison. It's no wonder that Johnson tells BWW he's "barely been able to keep up" with all that has been happening in his bourgeoning career.
Below, Johnson chats with us about ABC's highly anticipated DIRTY DANCING reboot, and as a special bonus, BWW shares an exclusive clip of the actor performing 'When I'm Alone' from the television movie premiering Wednesday, May 24 (8:00-11:00 p.m. EDT) on ABC.
How familiar were you with the original 1987 film DIRTY DANCING?
I was actually pretty familiar with it. I had seen it a couple of times because where I was growing up, once I got into theater and started doing musicals and things like that, it was one of those quintessential things that a lot of my friends were like, 'if you have not seen this movie you have to watch it!' So yeah, a lot of my friends insisted that I see that movie!
Because it is so iconic and has such a strong following, did that put extra pressure on the cast to live up to fan's expectations?
Yes, I think we felt a little bit of that while we were filming. But I was uniquely situated in that my role was not in the original film at all, so that made it a different experience for me. But I do think what we really wanted to do was honor the original film. It's a reimagining, the storylines are a little different. We're not trying to replace the film, we're not trying to erase that film, we just want to honor the memory of it. You know it's been 30 years, so we just wanted to give a nod to the film that was so beloved. It's really artists respecting the work that other artists have done and trying to say, 'Hey, we really appreciate what you did.'
As you said, your character Marco was created specifically for this version of the film. Can you talk a little about the role and what Marco brings to this iconic story?
Well Marco is a backup musician in Tito's band. Tito is played by Billy Dee Williams, and I'm kind of his lead guy. And I have a bit of a flirtation with Lisa Hausman, which kind of allows us to take a look at what the racial issues would have been like at that time, in the 1960's. And Marco also develops a friendship with Johnny because they are both part of the staff for that summer. So they live in separate staff quarters rather than where the guests of the hotel stay, and that really helps to draw that line and show that Baby and Johnny are of two different cloths. So the story asks, what happens when you juxtapose the ideals of that time period with actual relationships that form between Lisa and Marco, and Johnny and Baby. I think it's a really cool way to look at where we've been in our history as tolerant Americans and as we continue to try to be more tolerant Americans. And Marco's role in the movie really helps to take a look at where we've been and where we hope to go.
Yes, the story really has so much relevance in today's times.
Sure. Well it's a love story right? It's about two people who shouldn't at all be involved, but they're brought together through dance and music, because of course we're singing a fair amount of tunes from the beloved film in this one. And I think people love the idea that music and art can bring two people together who perhaps otherwise would never find their connection with one another.
You have some wonderful musical moments in the film, including a cover of the Bob Dylan classic 'Don't Think Twice, It's Alright.'
Yes, and it was so interesting to hear how that song in this film is very different from Bob Dylan's performance because of the way the duet is created. Lisa wants to learn a song for the talent show, but she doesn't know how to play the ukulele. And since Marco is a musician he teaches her a little strumming pattern and then their two worlds kind of collide in this beautiful piece of art. And I think that is a wonderful reimagining of Bob Dylan's original tune, yet it still has all the weight and relevance that the tune had for it's time, just in a new way. You get to see these two people who are culturally divided come together and create this beautiful thing, which is what America is, it's this melting pot of people from different cultural backgrounds coming together to create the patchwork quilt that is our nation. So it takes a really close look at that and to have that song be the result is so, so cool. And I loved performing it with Sarah [Hyland], she's fantastic.
The film features the wonderful choreography of Tony Award winner Andy Blankenbuehler. What was it like to learn these unique dance styles and to film these production numbers?
Well I was familiar with Andy's work because I had done a production of IN THE HEIGHTS when I was back in college, so I had been studying a lot of the choreography from that show. And then obviously as HAMILTON continued to become more and more popular, I began to study a lot of the choreography from that as well. So it felt very comfortable for me because I felt that I knew Andy's style. And it was really great to watch how he worked with Colt [Prattes], Nicole [Scherzinger] and all the other actors and dancers that we had on the production, and see the way he used the prescribed space we had for this film. For example, those staff cabin quarters were exactly that, we were really dancing around a cabin versus a stage. But Andy's a fantastic storyteller with movement, so it was wonderful to watch how he pieced that together and weaved that throughout the film. And he also knows what looks good on people and he knows how to make people look like what they need to look like. So if you're playing a lead singer, he knows how to make you look like a lead singer, make you look totally in control and give you fun movements that you can execute with a little bit of flair. And I was so glad to create that friendship with him because I think that's what helped me to be a part of HAMILTON now. So it was an absolute dream come true to work with Andy.
And what about working with this all-star cast - what was that experience like?
I was honestly so nervous going into it because that was my first job after I moved out to Los Angeles. So I went down to North Carolina, where they were shooting the film, and didn't know what to expect, because I knew so many of these people from TV and film long before I even decided to become an actor. So I got down there and I was really scared and really nervous and thought, 'Am I going to fit in?' But we really all got along so well. We'd go out to eat, we found weird places to go in North Carolina, we'd hang out. And we still keep a group chat going to this day. So yeah, we got really close during that shoot and it made me feel very welcome into this business. Everyone really made me feel like part of the club.
You are currently starring in HAMILTON on Broadway. What was it like to make your Broadway debut in such an acclaimed and significant show?
You know it all happened so fast. I fell in love with the soundtrack to HAMILTON probably a few months before I went out to Los Angeles and booked DIRTY DANCING, so I was already a huge fan of the show. And then I got the job for this film and found out that Andy Blankenbuehler was going to choreograph and I was like, 'This is like ridiculous! How is this happening? This is amazing!' And then Andy and I developed a great friendship and I remember I was reading the 'Hamiltome' on set, that huge book with annotated libretto from the show, and during breaks I'd be like, 'Hey Andy, I'd like to ask you a quick question about this thing I just read in the 'Hamiltome'" [laughing] So I got really close with him in that way because I was so interested in the process of creating the show.
And then after we finished DIRTY DANCING, there was a new round of casting for the show because the HAMILTON tour was starting up, so I went back to Los Angeles to audition and months and months after filming DIRTY DANCING I got a callback where Tommy [Kail], Alex [Lacamoire] and Andy were all there and I did the sides and we had a chat, and then I had a chance to see the show the week before the Tonys, and that was the first Broadway show I had ever seen. And it was beautiful and marvelous and all the things that I thought it would be. And then a few short months later I was told that I was going to be joining the company and I was just like, 'What is this? You can't write this stuff!'
It seems like there have been a lot of 'firsts' for you in a very short amount of time.
Yes, so many firsts! In fact DIRTY DANCING was the first cast album I ever recorded. This is also my first time living in New York, I had only spent about a week in total in New York before this. So yes, so many firsts in the last few years - I've barely been able to keep up!
Below, check out BWW's exclusive clip of J. Quinton Johnson's performance of 'When I'm Alone' from ABC's DIRTY DANCING:
DIRTY DANCING video courtesy of Lions Gate Television Inc.
About ABC's DIRTY DANCING: Abigail Breslin, Debra Messing, Bruce Greenwood, Nicole Scherzinger, Sarah Hyland, Tony Roberts, Katey Sagal and Billy Dee Williams, along with rising stars Colt Prattes and J. Quinton Johnson, headline the stellar cast in a new adaptation of the global pop-cultural phenomenon, DIRTY DANCING, premiering WEDNESDAY, MAY 24 (8:00-11:00 p.m. EDT), on The ABC Television Network. The special three-hour filmed musical event features the story from the beloved 1987 romantic drama and instant movie classic told from a fresh perspective, diving deeper into the iconic characters, showcasing their progression and tackling social themes like race, women's rights and the socio-economic division in the country at that time.
About J. Quinton Johnson: Johnson landed his first major film role in Richard Linklater's ensemble comedy "Everybody Wants Some" while still a student at the University of Texas. He will next be seen in the upcoming AMC series "The Son," starring Pierce Brosnan, later this spring. Johnson reteamed with Linklater for Amazon Studios' feature film "Last Flag Flying," starring Laurence Fishburne, Steve Carrell, and Bryan Cranston. Most recently he made his Broadway debut in the Tony Award-winning smash hit "Hamilton" in the dual roles of Hercules Mulligan and James Madison.
Photo credit: ABC/Guy D'Alema
Photo Credit: Walter McBride / WM Photos