Home TVInterviews Interview: P-Valley’s Elarica Johnson

Interview: P-Valley’s Elarica Johnson

by Charles Trapunski

P-Valley, which is soon to air on STARZ, is different than any other show that we’ve seen, not the least of which as it started out as a play, by showrunner and creator Katori Hall. And as such, in this way we actually tracked down actress Elarica Johnson, who plays the mysterious Autumn Night, who seems to suddenly materialize in the Mississippi Delta at the strip club the Pynk. We were interested to discover that the gregarious Johnson isn’t from the Southern U.S. or from the States at all, she’s from the U.K.

Appropriately, as we are both a part of the Commonwealth, Brief Take awoke early on Canada Day to make this interview happen. What was said about the series applies doubly to Elarica Johnson as she is uniquely different from any other performer with whom we have spoken, again, in the best way possible. Sit back, look but don’t touch and enjoy this revealing and candid interview with the performer behind the performer, Elarica Johnson of P-Valley.

Brief Take: Your series has a distinct aesthetic in terms of colour and a haziness. What was it like to live in that world?

Elarica Johnson: It was crazy. I’ve had a few people ask me about previous jobs that I’ve done and playing in these magical worlds, Harry Potter (and the Half Blood Prince) and A Discovery of Witches, and they’ve asked me: “What’s the difference between doing that kind of role and then coming on to play Autumn Night? and I said: “You know what? There is magic in what we make and that goes for all the colours in the strip club—the purples and the pinks, the haziness, there is this kind of little bit of magic that pops through at different points.” Even through these costumes and stuff, these girls walk in—and it is a moment, it’s kind of breathtaking almost, you know?. I think that in general, the space that they created for us within the Pynk, and like you said, the vibe and even the way that it was shot with the neo-noir textures, it’s like you feel it. I would say that there was this magical feeling.

BT: What I liked about your role is it’s intense. Did you have any concerns or reservations about any part of it, or did you dive right in because it is so immersive?

EJ: If anyone tells anyone to take their clothes off and stand in front of a camera, [laughs] I think that we will all shy away at some point. I saw the script and I knew what I was getting into, but most of all, I knew that Katori was going to tell these stories in the most truthful manner, but also, with the most amount of respect. I think at the beginning, I was a bit…when I heard it was a strip club and it was a stripper, I told my agent: “What??”. Like I don’t really know, anything I have seen of that world hasn’t been shown in a good light and that’s the truth of the matter. But then, looking further into it and seeing that it was Katori and having a read of the script, I think that instantly, I was like: “Okay. This is great”. And now yes, but I have to be honest with this [chuckles] and have to be naked in some parts. I’ve done nudity before, but I knew that this was in a different kind of way. But I think that once you see the character, once you understand her, once you see the world, there’s no point in us telling that story and not doing it properly. And we all know what bodies look like, we see them on TV all the time. Men and women—women more so than men—but this is an opportunity to be honest with Mercedes, Miss Mississippi, Gidget, Autumn Night and have it not focus on that, but that is a part of their world and a part of their life and that is important to me.

BT: But in this series the bodies are presented in different ways and they’re not presented with the kind of typical male gaze that’s associated with this material.

EJ: Riiiight, yeah, I appreciate that, we’re hoping that’s the kind of comments that come back as well because I think that fairly speaking, when you watch the series, it isn’t about the nudity, and that becomes like a normal…you know that you’re in a strip club if that part of it becomes normal. And then actually seeing the men as well, which we don’t usually see, there’s something refreshing about it to see that. Okay, well in this circumstance, if there is a sexual scene of any kind, both actually are naked in that. And though it might be a bit of [raises voice] “Oh wow! I might not have seen that before”, it’s just being truthful, that both have to be naked, right? [laughs]

BT: When you’re embodying Autumn Night, you almost become unrecognizable. How deep an immersion was it and do you feel like you’re playing a character on top of a character?

EJ: Right! Yeah, she’s our mysterious girl, and with that, having to hide this secret and running away from something, there’s this chameleon effect almost. Having to change the way she looks, having to take on these different identities in order to keep her secret. [laughs] It’s funny because she’s not hugely different from me as a person, we share a lot of the same qualities and the way that we deal with certain situations is similar. But when it comes to the accent, that was a huge learning curve for me. [laughs] I’m not very good on the accent front [laughs], I had to work quite hard to get the Houston sound down, but then also all the different wigs and the different vibes that she has. Whenever we’re around certain people, we learn different things from them, and if you spend a lot of time with someone, you kind of start speaking similarly to them. The physical sometimes can match what they do and I think that she kind of took that on board and she saw what Mercedes (Brandee Evans) would do and she would want to learn all of these things. She wanted to see what it was like to behave in that strip club so that she could fit in. It was interesting—I was constantly learning as well as she was.

BT: In the episodes that I’ve seen, there’s a lot of mystery unsolved about Autumn Night. Do you trust her?

EJ: [laughs] Well her story will unravel and how Katori (Hall) did it is that every time she wrote an episode, we were learning about the stories around the characters or the journeys and which way they were going to go, and that was quite exciting. Every time we got an episode, it was like: [raises voice] “Ooooh, what happens?” or who comes in or who leaves or whatever it was, and so that was really exciting. I do trust her. I know where she’s from. Like I said, we have similarities, I understand why she deals with things in certain ways. But I trust her and she’s just trying to protect herself and she’s trying to move forward and that’s it. And we all do that, but we do it in different ways and this is the way that she decided to do it.

BT: Your show has all female directors and presents a female gaze, but I found it very different from episode to episode. Do you feel the same way?   

EJ: Oh yes. [laughs] In the job that I do, you get comfortable with your director, you get very close with them, and you find how each other works. And you do almost like a dance, and the same goes with the DOP’s and camera operators, you’re all kind of in it together and you work together. Then you do get really close as well with these women, it’s incredible that we’ve got eight directors on the show and we did want this female gaze and I think that’s what we brought. These women have different voices as well and they have different experiences and each director brought something different. That’s what you want and I think that’s why we change the directors for episodes. And for me, sometimes I find it a little bit too difficult at first, you know, we’ve got a new director coming and there’s a bit of a shake up, almost. But I think that it’s very healthy for us as actors and also for the show to stay fresh every single time and I think that’s what people are seeing is that every episode does bring something different, even though each time it is from a female gaze.

BT: What was your favourite episode or scene to shoot?

EJ: Okay! Oh, gosh!! [laughs] It was difficult because it’s almost five months of filming, it’s a long time of prep beforehand and then throughout we would also be doing dance classes and learning new stuff as we went along. For me, it’s a huge amount of time and a huge amount of different experiences, so it’s difficult for me to say. I mean there are episodes that I do love because of certain things that the audience—more so the audience—are going to find out, because this is exciting that you guys don’t know what the mystery is and we’re starting from round one and it’s like a gift, almost, and then we’re nearly there and it’s almost like the final rip of that paper. I…honestly, it’s hard for me to pick, I would say that just in general, the experience of learning to pole dance was a huge enjoyment for me. And then also just kind of finding out how the relationships with the characters grow, especially between myself and Andre (Parker Sawyers). That was difficult. I didn’t answer your question very well [laughs]. but it is very good. [chuckles]

BT: Do you feel like you were destined to play this role and do you enjoy content that pushes the boundaries?

EJ: Hell yes. Hell yes! Otherwise, what do we do this for?! We can tell the same stories over and over again, but what does that do? You know, it doesn’t reach different kinds of people, it doesn’t touch people, it doesn’t help people to figure stuff out in their lives if we are telling the same things over and over again. I think that at the end of the day, everyone’s story has to be told, in whichever way it’s going to be told, and if we can push boundaries and we can step past what most people see as the norm, then I’m here for it. Every time. And I hope I continue doing that throughout my career.

BT: How was the pole dancing practice? It was probably the most intense learning experience.

EJ: Damn. Honestly, I do think that these pole dancing women are athletes. It’s incredible and I think people have, it’s not like they take it for granted, they just put it in a certain category. Everybody has their own opinion on things and that’s fine, but it goes into a category that’s kind of shunned, almost, from society. They’re like: “Okay, that’s your little clique over there, and you do things that are frowned upon and we’re not going to take any notice”, but actually, it is their job. And they’re really, really good at it. Because this is very hard! It’s getting over the fear of even climbing up something, I don’t like heights very much. I wasn’t very happy about going very high anyway. But even just being on something and having to keep yourself up and trusting your strength, that’s hard enough as it is, let alone spinning around with one hand or the back of your leg and on top of that, you’re constantly having to stay on the pole. There’s bruises, there’s friction burns, we had the most amount of injuries, we’d end up sharing pictures around the cast. [laughs] WhatsApp groups just to let everybody know: “Who’s got the biggest bruise this week?”. It’s very, very difficult but really, really rewarding and it’s incredible what these girls do. We were lucky enough to have them on set, being some of our core dancers. Also, helping with choreographing scenes and the learning side and the magical aspects of what they do, and they do it so gracefully. It’s incredible.

BT: There seems to be no clear villain on the series nor one true hero either. Where do you stand on this?

EJ: I think that every story has those kind of heroes and villains, whether they’re in the same person or more than one person, I think you learn as you go along who these people are. We are all heroes, I think, when it comes to the cast, when it comes to the women. In general, just because we’re just being open, like we’re showing the world: “Hey, these are our experiences” and I think that’s heroic in itself. And thank goodness Katori wrote that. Because she did all the research, she looked into these characters and she got real answers and real experiences from these women who work in the strip club, I think that the heroic side of that is definitely there throughout the show. I think villain-wise, I think that people are going to have to wait and see, we’ve got some smashing moments and some unravelling situations and I think, hopefully, it will get people a little bit hooked and push for us to get a Season 2.

BT: What about the creep of gentrification threatening to tear down the Pynk to build a casino and how this stands for a lot of places in the South in terms of the new and the old?

EJ: Oh yeah! I mean it’s happening everywhere, really, and I understand that change needs to happen in some places, but there’s ways of doing it. And I thought that in some ways you’re killing history, you’re killing people’s comfort, especially in such a small town, Chucalissa, this is their space to go and to get away from their everyday lives. The patrons come and they’re constantly going there most evenings and keeping the Pynk alive as much as they can, but where do they go after that? Andre talks about what’s going to happen to Chucalissa, well, that’s great, to people who want to come in, for people standing from the outside and looking in. But what about the people inside? What happens to them, and it’s definitely a nod to that in small towns, in countries, all over the world, we have it over here. I’m in London. And similarly, really cultural places that we have in which people feel comfortable, where their grandma used to shop at that market and then their mother shopped there and then they bring their children. And now all of a sudden, they want to close it down and make it into beautiful flats. It’s a shame because they’re taking away authenticity and also the history for people who live there.

BT: What about the fact that a few of the veteran strippers may be resentful of a lighter skinned woman becoming the featured dancer?

EJ: I mean it’s funny, because obviously I am mixed race and so I feel like in England and America, film and tv looks at it differently. I’ve experienced colorism in the Black community and then also within the the white community as well. And this is the thing, it depends on what the person classifies themselves as, we all have our opinions on who we are and where we come from, and culturally, with what we have been brought up and reading a script and seeing certain things with which I’ve had to deal. Like people say “Oh, she’s really light“, or there’s a line in here that says: “Oh, she’s lazy because she’s light”, and it’s real, Katori’s writing from a real place, she’s heard it, she’s seen it, she knows people who have been through it. With the entire show and all the characters and certain journeys and certain aspects of their lives with which we’re dealing, this is also going to be something to which people can relate, this is also going to be a conversation that hopefully people will have afterwards and people will actually look and go: “Oh, that’s not a polite way to refer to somebody”. Or “that’s not kind” and actually the fact that we’re dealing at the moment with skin colour, well what does your skin have to do with who you are as a person, as a human? What does it have to do with what you have to bring to society?

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BT: This series has foretold in a way the state of affairs in America right now. 

EJ: Whoa, man, in terms of right now, this has been going on for a very long time and it means that we have to listen and we have to take on what people are saying and we have to show the stories of people from all different walks of life. Having the show come out at this specific time is incredible because it deals with a lot of things—colorism, it deals with gender and equality, and a whole show revolving around Black people, Black women, it’s a conversation starter. Now I have said that during this time where we have social media and certain platforms and film and tv, we should be putting all different people on tv. We should be talking about all different things on social media, that the people can understand and that they can see for the people who don’t know or for who don’t get that there’s racism in the world and don’t understand it. Well, we’re here to help and to explain, and I think that the show does that in more than one way.

BT: I had a chance to talk to your fellow cast mate Thomas Q. Jones and he was beyond interesting in his story of being a former NFL player. This seems like a unique group of actors. Did everybody come to play?

EJ: A hundred per cent. I didn’t get any scenes with Thomas but I saw what he did and I got to meet him on set and we all had really in-depth conversations about the show in general, about our lives and how our lives affect our characters and what we have chosen to do when it comes to preparing. We have some very hard workers—in general, the crew, the directors, the showrunner, she’s a beast. I call her Superwoman because she has her children that she wrote and she showruns the hell out of P-Valley. Then also the other departments, hair and make-up, that’s a huge place for us to start our day and to have these women on the ball, making sure that we’re prepared, that we’re stepping into our characters in the most unstressful manner. That we can go on set and really bring what we need to bring, that’s incredibly important, and so everybody kind of has a part to play and like I said, they brought it one hundred per cent. Whether it’s through dancing, through the acting, through just being prepared on set for the rest of the cast to do their job, even to the background – it’s a huge, huge amount of extras that we had to fill the club and they were there on time and quiet and ready. I think teamwork in general has made the show as good as it is, and also the hard work in general of the actors as well, that’s made a huge, huge difference. I would say that, yes, we all brought it [laughs] and hopefully we’ve brought the house down with the show as well.

BT: You’ve discussed what the show means to you as a performer. What do you think of this show as a viewer?

EJ: It’s different. It’s so different! I often get asked the question of: “What do you think that the show is going to do? How it’s going to do once it airs”, and I only have positive things to say. But also on top of that, I don’t know how people are going to take it. I’m not entirely sure because there is nothing out there….and as an experience filming it, a lot of my stuff was done on my own at the very beginning, I wasn’t on set with the girls and I felt very separate from them, episode 1, 2, and a little bit in 3. And so I could look at those scenes a little bit as an actress and critique myself as such, but then as a whole, as it’s blending together, I’m looking at this mystery, and I’m like: “Oh! I know what’s going to happen”. But the watcher inside of me is like: “Damn! I’ve got to figure this out”, and also the language and the environment and also, I’m used to it because I was there and I was doing it. But watching it as someone who hasn’t experienced it before, it’s so different and new, I think that it will all be very intriguing to people, and yeah, I think it will do really well. I think that it’s been shot brilliantly. It looks very enticing. I think it’s a brilliant show—it’s just completely different from anything that anyone’s seen.

P-Valley premieres on STARZ on July 12th

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