I had the pleasure of interviewing Donna Simone Johnson, who talked a bit about her uncertain beginnings, where she pulls her strength from and her mosh-pit fail. She is currently in “The Bluest Eye” at Virginia Stage Company, can be heard on NETFLIX’s “SuperDrags,” and has 2 upcoming podcasts: “The Dreamland,” and “Pang!” both out this summer.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about your beginnings as an actor?
Sure! My Mum was an actress, and I grew up in theaters and rehearsal rooms, I acted a child and did a couple of TV shows and commercials, but didn’t get serious about wanting to act until I went to the California State Summer School for the Arts, which is a summer-long intensive. I was one of 500 students admitted from all over the country, and being immersed in an arts community and being introduced to the craft electrified me!
My Mum passed away from breast cancer in 2005, and the passion just intensified. I went to college for theater, did regional theater, moved to NYC and danced a bit, and then decided I wanted to train more and got my MFA from CalArts in Acting. I guess that’s more than just beginnings, but… you know!
Can you share the craziest thing that happened to you since you started?
I mean, I work around artists, so there is a lot of crazy— how do I choose one thing? This has little to do with acting, but I danced at ShortStop in West Hollywood for a bit, and one day, I fell off the stage while doing some choreography and splayed my arms forward, thinking the crowd would pick me up and surf me, but nope! It was one of those slow-motion moments, where I saw every grimace and wince on my way down, bless their hearts! (laughs) Everyone moved out of the way and I hit the ground hard! I was all pumped with adrenaline and so, I pretty much bounced back up like an over-caffeinated cheerleader. This was before Insta, thank God, otherwise, I’d be viral for all the wrong reasons… or would they be right? (laughs)
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I have a lot of non-PC stories that I’d hate to have in print on the internet! I will generally say that inauthenticity will give you trouble. And folx will totally call you out on it. Sometimes, behind closed doors, sometimes right in front of you, sometimes they’ll address it in a room full of 200 people… you never know!
You are killing it right now! Congratulations on “Super Drags!” What do you think has contributed to your immense success in the last couple of years?
I shave my legs more often? [laughs] No, but that’s demi-serious! I’d had a spiritual shift in the last couple of years and the end result of a lot of it was dealing with the trauma and the turmoil and realizing that these things are a part of you, but that don’t make you. They’re not your worth. But you also can’t pretend it’s not there, you know? Waking up and choosing to leave the mask on the floor. Seeing yourself. Loving yourself. Sharing yourself. Something so simple really frees you up.
Which tips would you recommend to other actors to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Self-care on 100. I mean, I’m laughing, but really. I have a pretty rich self-care routine that borderlines on ritual and spans from weekly yoga and massages, essential oil care, staying connected with my friends and showing up for them and dance parties. I also love to write and I’ve been doing that more for myself these days.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I have had so many prolific Mentors, Stand-in Mamas, just people who have seen me. Usually, at a time when I couldn’t see myself, you know? And you cover it with all of this other stuff? Usually lies? False? Yeah. So, I have a lot of people like that. Most notably, I’ll say the first Black Mentor I’ve ever had was at CalArts. I never had a black teacher in undergrad. I had a black Chemistry teacher in High School. I think that was it? So, it was a big deal to have Fran Bennett. And she’s hard. She holds you to a high standard and she is relentless. And she saw me. And after my first semester, she pulled me aside and told me that she didn’t understand me. She could see I was built for this work, I had the work ethic, the talent, but lacked, “the joy and fire.” She said, “Where is your joy? You aren’t really here. Your flame is out before you’ve begun.”
And that stunned me. Really. I think any of my close friends would say, I am all joy and fire, so that was the beginning of a lot of reflection, self-awareness, spiraling… but ultimately led to a place of freedom. That was the provocation to embrace all of the parts of myself, even— especially the ugliest parts. The secrets, you know? To deal with them, because some people could really see the effects. Probably a lot of people could, actually, but she was the gem in the middle of the mess. And she is still a close friend, advisor, and mentor. She really has been a gift.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
(Laughs) “Do good and throw it in the sea,” meaning work in excellence, without expectation of praise or recognition. Do good for yourself, your pride— to fuel your joy and fire. That and “Real G’s move in silence, like lasagna.” (laughs) That is my fave. It’s a Lil’ Wayne line, but along the same lines… Do what you’re doing without the bragging and the boasting and let your work speak for itself. Don’t overshare.
What are your “5 things I wish I knew then?”
- You are enough.
- Real Connection will make the journey worth it all. It’s okay to ask for help.
- Pay attention in Chemistry and do the work! (laughs) That’s where discipline starts.
- Strength of Character, Strength of Spirit, Strength of Love, Strength of Tequila. Viola Davis said that, and I added the last part.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
@dsimonejo across all platforms
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!