Here to Stay
Actor Bryce Johnson pauses between auditions to chat with A&U’s Dann Dulin about responsible sex, brotherly love, and honesty in the bedroom
Bryce Johnson has not been personally affected by the AIDS epidemic. Despite the high infection rates in his age group worldwide, many of his peers are largely untouched, as well. Nevertheless, Bryce is deeply concerned about the looming threat.
As this is TV pilot season in Los Angeles, Johnson arrives at my place fresh off an audition, gussied up as a lawyer. He cuts a dashing figure in his blue pinstriped suit. Bryce is handsome, tall, and big boned. Even at the age of twenty-nine, the man appears secure in his own skin, and his smarts overshadow his youthfulness.
Johnson recently returned from Oregon where he was shooting Man Maid. His current film is Sleeping Dogs Lie (originally titled Stay), and will open in October. It was screened at Sundance earlier this year, and by no means is he a newcomer to the festival. Two years ago he made his first Sundance trek representing two films, Home of Phobia and Harry and Max. In the latter film, he plays the controversial role of a teen idol in love with his sixteen-year-old brother. Bryce has also had guest spots on Dawson’s Creek, Gilmore Girls, House, and Nip/Tuck, though he’s probably best known for appearing on MTV’s Undressed and on the TV teen drama series Popular, playing Josh Ford, the football star.
Onstage, he costarred in the West Coast premiere of the Tony award-wining play, Take Me Out, where he appeared in the buff. Bryce brings an innate panache to his performances, and, like all good actors, he makes it look easy. Many of the characters he has created have been riveting, intense, and moving. The guy has a long career ahead of him.
“I was so nervous about this interview,” Bryce confesses, as he sits on the sofa sipping lemon-infused sparkling water. His admission is refreshingly honest, but that’s the kind of guy he is. It also makes him a better actor. “When my brother, Brendon, and his boyfriend, Craig, came to dinner last night, I brought up the subject of HIV and AIDS. I asked if there was anything they wanted to share that I could relate in this interview. They really didn’t seem to be affected by the epidemic.” Bryce halts, cocks his head, and thinks for a moment. “Ya know, I felt a distance from them, like they didn’t want to talk about it. Like it was taboo. It was rather strange, Dann, now that I think about it….”
Bryce first became aware of AIDS when he saw the film Philadelphia, which, incidentally, is one of his favorites. “It really opened my eyes,” he says. “And at that time, my brother had just recently come out. He was sixteen and I was fourteen, and all I could focus on was wanting him to be safe. It gave me worry that, ‘God, I hope this never happens to him.’” He rests his hands in his lap and continues. “Brendon went from being closeted to becoming an outspoken, vibrant individual. I’m really proud of him. We used to fight like cats and dogs when we were younger, but, after he came out, I don’t think we ever fought again. Brendon is a role model for me. He inspired me to become an actor. He was the one who began taking drama courses in high school. He’s a sweetie.” I ask if they resemble one another. Bryce responds deadpan, “He’s much better looking.” Then he beams one of those endearing, infectious grins.
At his Denver high school, Johnson was never taught about HIV prevention. “The sex ed classes were a bit lame. It was just a buzzword back then,” he explains, as he fiddles briefly with his big-faced Diesel wristwatch. “HIV prevention starts with me. I knew that I needed to educate myself, which I have done, and I continue to educate myself by keeping up with the latest news. People need to take responsibility for themselves. Be protected when you’re having sex because getting infected can happen to any of us.”
Since many of his generation are being affected, what method does Bryce advise to reach them? “We are so celebrity-obsessed!” he replies boldly with a sarcastic laugh, adding instantly in a loud voice, “I guess if Britney Spears and Kevin Federline got AIDS, they would then pay attention.” He ponders, easing back in the couch so that he can stretch his legs. He also pulls his pantleg down that seems to have ridden up. “The media certainly helps, like great cinema and television. And the more celebrities who speak about it the better. I think that probably is the biggest ticket to gain awareness.”
Possibly, Johnson’s recent film, Sleeping Dogs Lie, may shed some light on these issues, since it focuses on whether one should be honest with one’s partner about past sexual encounters. Has Bryce played safe through the years, even though he has been married to a makeup artist he met in Vancouver for over two years? “Ya know, I was always a one-woman man. I was a pretty good guy, not too slooty,” he admits, deliberately mispronouncing the word “slutty.” “And I always used protection.” Always? “Without a doubt. Oh, absolutely,” he calmly reassures, flashing those baby blues framed by long, thick, dark lashes.
The conversation segues into men on the down low who are not upfront with their female partners. “I could never do that to my wife,” he says with a dead-on serious tone. “To have quick fun at a one night stand….I’d be worried about bringing disease home. These men on the down low are scumbags. It’s deception, it’s lying. They are not being honest with themselves,” protests Bryce. “Women need to protect themselves and be fully aware of who they’re in love with. If they’re in a committed relationship
they should be able to talk openly with their partner.”
The subject rouses Bryce. “Down low is just internalized homophobia,” he shouts, extending his arms outward, shrugging his shoulders. “I know guys out there who won’t admit they’re gay. They’ll say, ‘Oh, I was with this hot chick last night and we were bangin’ it.’ I say to him, ‘No you weren’t! Dude, you’re gay. It’s okay.’ C’mon, this is 2006! Sometimes it feels like our society is slipping backwards when it comes to acceptance and freedom.” The issue at hand ends on a lighthearted note when Bryce spiritedly proclaims: “Men are dogs, man!”
As the interview winds down, A&U’s photographer, Tim Courtney, takes the reins. Trekking to the first shoot location, Johnson offers to pitch in and help carry equipment. When an outside shot calls for being shirtless, Bryce is quite playful when the mailwoman whistles at him. He responds gleefully, “Join us!” When it comes down to it, Johnson is just a down-home boy, humble, courteous, and a good sport. I mean, when asked to remove his shoes for a pose, he does so easily, but is slightly embarrassed when he exposes one of his toenails, which is painted bright red. He explains that his wife, Dawn Johnson (yes, that’s her name!), painted it for him as a romantic gesture.
We finish the photo shoot near an office building just off Santa Monica Boulevard. We touch on Bryce’s brother once again. “I don’t know, but Brendon and Craig’s unresponsiveness surprised me a little bit, ya know. It was an eye-opener,” he reflects. “AIDS seems to still be a closeted subject. However, I know there was something behind their eyes. Maybe they have a story and know something, or maybe it just wasn’t the right time to share it over dinner. I had a sense that something was there, but I didn’t want to push it. When we get together again….”
Bryce doesn’t complete his sentence, but I’ll bet he’ll have something to say at their next family gathering.
THE BRYCE BOOK
Where do you go to recharge your batteries?
Palm Springs. It’s the perfect place.
Who do you look up to? Do you have a hero?
An acting coach I once had, and my family.
Name one job you had in the past.
A salesman. I sold AT&T, computer toner ribbon, and vinyl windows door-to-door. That was the one that broke me. I had a nervous breakdown and never went back to sales again.
Out of the many people you have worked with thus far, is there one in particular who stands out who impressed you or inspired you the most?
(A long pause) Three people: Christopher Munch, Ryan Shiraki, and Bob Goldthwait. All three had a vision that they felt was unique to them, a vision involving danger, risk, and even humiliation, yet they held course, they stayed true, and all of them sacrificed. These are the qualities that inspire me, because without struggle, there is no progress! All three follow their heart, that in the end, they beat what I fear most—fear itself.
Two tattoos on my arms. [One is] my wife and [the other is] a poker card—two things I love. “Grongy” means change in Japanese. I love to change. I never like to stay the same.
Name one of your bad habits.
It was smoking. I quit several months ago. [He’s doing the Nicoderm gum.] Mark Twain said, ‘Quitting smoking is the easiest thing I’ve ever done. I should know. I’ve done it a thousands of times.’ Me too. I’ve done it so many times.
What is the biggest mistake you ever made?
Not capitalizing on my success when I was younger. I would have liked to have hustled more and not have given myself so much relaxation time. I wasn’t a spendthrift, but I enjoyed the money I made.
What are you most proud of?
My marriage. I’m proud of not being afraid to make a commitment. I knew the third day I met her that I wanted to marry her.
Tell me something the public may not know about you.
I’m an average guy and don’t like to get caught up in the glitz and the glam.
Complete this sentence. The best thing about being Bryce is…
I’m not afraid to live and die in this business. I picked this career and I’m going to go for it, no matter what.
The Fav Game
Bryce, what is your favorite…?
Clothing to wear: Jeans and T-shirt
TV sitcom: Cheers
Movie of all time: Ghostbusters
City: Besides Los Angeles, Vancouver
Classic actor: Elvis Presley
Contemporary actor: Joaquin Phoenix
Classic actress: Sigourney Weaver
Contemporary actress: Cate Blanchett
Moment: Booking Popular.
Physical asset: My hands.
iPod song to listen to / CD: “Grills” by Nelly
Bryce gives a pithy response to some of the people who have intersected his life
Jeremy Sisto: Poker degenerate. I love him. He makes me smile.
Delta Burke: Love her! She’s like her own TV show.
Shannon Doherty: First celebrity I had close contact with.
Cole Williams: Open and trusting.
Bruno Campos: He reeks cool.
Michelle Phillips: (side note: It was Bryce’s suggestion to have her play the mother in Harry and Max) After talking with her about the history of the song, “California Dreamin'”, I will never listen to the song the same way again. I admire her.
Rain Phoenix: She has ‘It.’
James Madio: My wife and I call him ‘our son.’
Bryce names one word to describe himself — Real
Dann Dulin interviewed actress Jurnee Smollett for the August cover story.
Photo by Tim Courtney.