“The thing that I fear most in life is getting to the end of it and coming up with something I wanted to do and didn’t.”
— TJ Johnson
Driving a tank, living in the back of a pickup truck, surfing, and William Shakespeare don’t typically come up in casual conversation together — unless you’re talking to TJ Johnson.
Johnson is a 1988 Marion High School graduate who lives in Nampa, Idaho. He is an actor, pilot, racecar driver, surfer, and family man, all because he is passionate about acting on his dreams.
“When I get into something, I’m absolutely all in. I don’t want to miss an experience in my life,” Johnson said.
When he was a high school freshman, Johnson left his home in Cedar Point and moved to California with friends. Johnson’s mother, Velma Duncan, asked Johnson to come home two years later when she moved to Florence. He gladly did during the Christmas season in 1986.
“Living out there I was missing the small town environment,” Johnson said.
MHS was the perfect place to nurture Johnson’s growing interest in acting.
“In California I was one of 80 people in my drama class, and I get back to Marion and I’m one of nine,” Johnson said. “You get good roles because there aren’t that many people. I could really focus on what was going on.”
Johnson said his drama teacher, Mary Griffith, set the right tone for his development as an actor.
“She was excited about whatever we were doing. She was always super-positive,” Johnson said. “Nothing in acting is ever wrong. You’ll come across teachers who believe there is a right and wrong choice, and they’ll beat you down.”
Johnson immersed himself in forensics and drama. He competed in poetry, prose, and improvised duet acting, and as a senior had the lead role in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Johnson bounced around colleges after graduating from MHS. He spent a semester at Kansas State University, completed an associate’s degree at Butler Community College, and took classes for a semester at Emporia State University.
But the Kansas National Guard, not college, set the stage for Johnson’s next adventure. The Guard unit in Emporia expected to get back a tank commander when they sent Johnson to training in Idaho. The move backfired.
“I had never seen such a beautiful place in my life,” Johnson said. “Two months later I’d sold off my stuff and moved out here.”
Johnson used his experience working for NAPA auto parts stores in El Dorado and Emporia to land a job at a Boise NAPA store, and spent his first six months there living in a truck camper parked in a yard, using an extension cord and a hose for electricity and water.
“People would look at it and think it’s horrible,” Johnson said. “I had everything I needed. It was a lot of fun.”
Johnson made connections with people in the local theater. He started taking pilot lessons in 1994, and that led to a role in a short film.
“There was a company doing a video and they wanted a pilot who could act. I was like ‘Hey, that’s me!’” Johnson said. “That was the first time I came to an understanding of how little I knew about acting.”
Johnson started taking acting lessons. He took classes at the New Heritage Theater in Boise, a union theater that counted noted actors Anthony Hopkins and Olympia Dukakis among its board members. He traveled to Los Angeles, Calif. to study at Actor’s Studio West, and started getting various jobs.
“We would bounce out there, work for a little while, then come back. A lot of them were staged readings and script development. There were a lot of commercials. There were a few indie films. It was sort of whatever you could do,” Johnson said.
Like many actors who call Nampa home, Johnson continues to commute periodically to Los Angeles and Salt Lake City for acting jobs. He has appeared in short movies and feature-length films, and had the starring role in “The Broken Quiet,” the first full-length movie shot by Boise filmmaker Brandon Freeman in 2006.
“I looked it over and thought no, I don’t want to do that,” Johnson said. A friend who was auditioning for the film insisted he try out.
“She kept hounding me, and I said ‘Fine, I’ll come audition,’” Johnson said. “I got the role, and unfortunately, she didn’t.”
Acting is also how Johnson met his wife, Leyla, seven years ago.
“She actually hired me for a film she was directing, a small indie piece called ‘Train Wreck,’” Johnson said. The couple has an 18-month old daughter, Chloe.
“Now when I’m getting job offers I’m coming back with ‘Hey, I need child care, too,’” Johnson said.
Johnson’s latest project is a series of four feature-length films written, produced, and directed by Freeman. The first, “The Mark of the Veil,” is in production, and for the role of Harper Stone, Johnson will spend the next three years with a shaved head and a beard. But that’s not the greatest sacrifice Johnson is making to help Freeman make his mark in the industry.
“All of us actors that are in it are pros that have donated our services to get this started,” Johnson said. “Brandon will remain an unknown if we can’t get one of his projects out there. If he gets the opportunity to be seen, they’ll snatch him up.
“It blocks me out of a lot of other jobs that would pay a whole lot more,” Johnson said. “This is about making art on a higher level. If it all comes together, by the third film people will be fanatical about it.”
Johnson said he’s right where he wants to be, choosing the roles he likes that support the lifestyle he loves, without the loss of freedom that comes along with being an ‘A-list’ actor.
“I get to do everything I want. I pick jobs I enjoy. There are a thousand actors just like me, having the time of our lives, lucky enough to make it without all the problems of our friends,” Johnson said. “Will I ever make it to what somebody else would consider successful? It doesn’t matter. The next experience I have, the next character I get to inhabit — that’s what success is in this business.”