While Joanna Johnson made headlines earlier this year when she publicly came out as a lesbian with a wife and two children, she hasn’t let any of that buzz slow her down in her work as actor, writer and producer in television. She hasn’t been seen too much in front of the camera on CBS’s The Bold and The Beautiful, but she’s been plenty busy behind the camera as a producer on the new CW series, Emily Owens MD, as Co-Executive Producer.
Photo by Sean Smith/JPIStudios
Since the new Mamie Gummer-starrer has a lesbian character in Tyra Granger, played by Kelly McCreary, it was only fitting that AfterEllen grab a few minutes with her to talk about what we’ll see with Tyra as well as how she has seen changes in how gay and lesbian characters are portrayed on television and whether we can expect to see her back on B&B anytime soon.
AfterEllen: To start, how did you become a part of Emily Owens?
Joanna Johnson: I was hired after the pilot. I was on [the Sarah Shahi USA series] Fairly Legal last year, which also shot in Vancouver. Then when my friend Jennie Snyder Urman, who created Emily Owens, got her pilot picked up, she asked me if I’d come over here and be her co-EP. I said, “I’d love to but let me see if I can get out of my contract.” They were kind enough to let me out since they weren’t sure if Fairly Legal was going to come back or not. I think it’s still up in the air but I’m glad that I’ve been gainfully employed these last few years. Jennie Urman is one of my best friends, but also, I gave her, her first writing job on Hope and Faith (the 2003-2006 Kelly Ripa-Faith Ford sitcom that Johnson created).
AE: Oh wow. So, full circle, right?
JJ: That’s right. Now she’s the boss.
AE: Hope and Faith was a while ago and the way gay characters are represented has changed a lot. What do you think are the goals now of having gay characters on shows? Because maybe ten or twenty years ago, it felt almost as though it was more about making a statement but I feel like we’re moving past that. So, when you see gay characters, it just seems to mean something different. I’m curious what your perspective is.
JJ: Well, it seems like we’re seeing more gay characters and it’s not such a big deal anymore. That’s a great thing. I think that it’s showing that, look, it used to be like on TV, everybody was white and then you started seeing more minorities and then you used to see black shows. Now it just doesn’t matter, every show has black characters, Asian, Hispanic, which is great. It’s not considered like, well that has to be a show like The Jeffersons. The world is becoming more integrated. I think the diversity of race and sexuality is becoming slowly, but surely, accepted. I don’t know, what was the first gay character ever?
AE: There was a sitcom in the ’70s called Hot’l Baltimore where there was a gay couple. Then, of course, Billy Crystal on Soap was probably the bigger one because that show lasted longer.
JJ: Then of course Ellen DeGeneres and then Will and Grace came along. I think that it seems to be not that big a deal. It’s nice to see more gay women, female characters, because I think it tends to be more men at least in the beginning there were more gay men. I think that a lot of the shows sort of do stereotypical gay males. I love Modern Family and it’s very funny, but of course, you have to have at least one of them that’s more eccentric, like Will and Grace where you had Jack or on The New Normal, one of them has to be more flamboyant. So, I’m hoping that more and more, we’ll just have characters where gay men aren’t portrayed as the funny, out there, flamboyant, and effeminate guy.
AE: So, to turn that to the lesbian characters, how do you feel that that’s being portrayed?
JJ: If you look at [Callie and Arizona] on Grey’s Anatomy, they both just seem like really normal — just regular girls, women. They’re not like, someone still has to be the guy. I think that’s great. I haven’t watched that show in a couple of years, but I always liked their relationship a lot.
I think that with Tyra (Kelly McCreary) on Emily Owens, she’s just a normal…she could be straight or gay. You wouldn’t look at her and say one thing or another. I think her struggle with her coming out to her father about her sexuality, which we’re going to be doing a story about, is really relatable. She has this very powerful father (Henry Lennix), who is Chief of Staff. She looks up to him a lot and is just sort of afraid that if she tells him that she’s a lesbian that maybe his opinion of her might change or he might have judgement. She’s afraid of that. I think that’s still very much a struggle that a lot of gay people have. Some are lucky and have wonderfully accepting liberal open parents and some don’t.
I think it’s still very hard to come out. I think that living in the city on the coasts, I don’t know about the middle of the country so much, but as being gay in certain places, it has become maybe easier to be out. I still think being out with your family is the hardest. It can potentially be the hardest if there are issues. I think people still face a lot of that. A lot of people are fine with gay people as long as their kids aren’t gay.
AE: With Tyra, she seems very strong willed and talks openly in the pilot about being a lesbian. But then you do find out that she’s great in this area, but maybe not so much with her dad, which I do think is very real.
JJ: Yeah. Absolutely. I still have some friends who are still not out to their parents who are very out in their lives and it seems like, “Wow,” I can understand why not because they’re worried but that seems kind of strange.
AE: Talk to me about Tyra and Emily’s relationship. I know it won’t be a sexual one, but they do seem to kind of have a bond. I was curious what you think that bond is about?
JJ: Well you know, Jennie, who created the show, has always had gay female friends. She has one or two really close girlfriends who are gay and then, of course, me. Jennie has never seen it as being, in any way, shape or form an issue or an oddity. It’s interesting because she’s heterosexual so she didn’t grow up with having to deal with any kinds of issues with her family or in the world. I think her parents are very open.
The show is really diverse in every way. I really credit that because Jennie really is a person who is just sort of doesn’t even really notice the difference between straight and gay or black and white. To her it’s just, not really a question. If she has a new character that she’s going to bring on the show, she’s just open to the best actor. We have two black girls, which is fantastic and The Chief of Staff and one of the girls is gay. It’s really great how diverse it is.
AE: What other stories would you like to tell for Tyra? I feel like the coming out story will be told but, I don’t feel like it’s a story that will go on too long. What can you tell me?
JJ: She’s like Emily’s best friend. We don’t spend every episode talking about her sexuality or even mentioning that. There is going to be an episode that I wrote, actually the third episode, where she says something kind of great where Emily says, “When did you know you were gay?” and she says, “You know its funny, people don’t ask straight girls when they knew they liked boys.” Then she kind of explains, based on my own experience, how that progress happens, how you just sort of slowly realize that you have a little bit different feelings about your friends than they have about, you when you’re younger. You think this is strange. At first you just think that you’re very passionate. Girls are very passionate about their friends. So, it can be very confusing and not seeing that was strange, but suddenly they get a boyfriend and they’re going out on dates on Friday nights. You’re suddenly kind of heartbroken for some reason and you don’t know why. You’re having these weird feelings. Tyra talks about that which I think is great.
Like I said, she has other storylines. We’re not going to be heavily weighing on this coming out story. It’s just going to be a part of her relationship with her father. Then she’s gong to have a romance. She will be dating another woman that will be introduced later in the show that works at the hospital. We’re going to kind of explore that she can have some commitment issues. That’s just a universal thing that some people have. So, we’ll learn that she’s kind of a player in the sense that she does hot and cold pretty quick. She’s going to be trying to figure out why that is and how she can change. So, that’s going to be kind of interesting.
AE: Have you found since you were involved in bringing a lesbian character onto Bold and the Beautiful, did you find that it’s a different kind of approach you have to take when it’s daytime as opposed to primetime?
JJ: Well I guess there is a different approach when it’s CW and it’s a nighttime show and then when it’s The Bold and the Beautiful, which is a daytime show. Daytime used to be the more progressive place where they would bring up controversial issues and you could sort of get away with things in daytime. The censors thought, oh the kids aren’t home during the day. Of course now with recording things, it’s changed. I’ve kind of found that in some ways daytime has gotten a little more conservative over the years, definitely than nighttime, some of the things…they’re not as provocative.
But I think The Bold and the Beautiful has been a certain kind of show that didn’t really tackle a lot of provocative issues, which is OK. It’s really a show for entertainment. They’ve done some really cool things and some great storylines, but they’ve never had a gay character before. I think it’s great that Brad Bell wanted to bring on a gay character. But I also will say that it’s a safe gay character in the sense of, I’m certainly not going to get involved in any romance. I know that my daughter now has two moms and that’s interesting but I’m sure he’s not going to have me suddenly falling in love with Brooke and have an affair. I don’t think we’re going to go there.
AE: I was also curious because you’ve worked on both sides of the camera, you’ve been writer and producer, but you’ve also been an actor, do you feel like it gives you a unique or different insight into one or the other?
JJ: Yes. Absolutely. One-hundred percent. I have learned so much from being on this side. I think a lot like a producer when I’m on the other side acting because I just know that they need to get things done. I understand the limitations and the pressures that they have. So, I can really appreciate what Brad does and how hard he works, just the sheer volume of a daytime show, producing a show every single day and now doing multiple shows a day, just a tremendous amount of work. I think he’s done a brilliant job. Everybody in the cast and crew, they are all wonderful.
I remember when I was an actress before I was on this side I kind of thought…you get on set, and you sort of forget that it’s really not about you. You get on set and you want your work to be good and you want the time you need and you want to make things good, but you don’t really see the big picture. As an actor you kind of see your picture. That’s the job, but it’s helpful now. Sometimes when I’m on the show, we’ll be onset and I’ll be like, “Come on, guys. Everyone pay attention. They need us to focus and get out of here,” just things that I’m much more sensitive to.
AE: I’m sure that Emily Owens is keeping you busy right now, but do you have any other projects you are working on or waiting to get back to once you’re on a hiatus?
JJ: Well, I have two young kids.
AE: That’s your project.
JJ: Yes. My wife (Michelle Agnew) and I have a six-year-old and a two-and-a-half-year-old. So, they are a huge project. So, I always like having more time to spend with them. I’d love to go back and do more of The Bold and the Beautiful. They’ve asked me a couple of times and I just haven’t been able to get away from here to do it. I hope that they still would want me to do it when I have a little more time and I can. I really enjoy it. I love all the people over there. It’s very sad that Ron Moss is gone and Susan Flannery is on her way out. It won’t be quite the same.
Joanna with Susan Flannery, 1987
AE: And Crystal Chappell?
JJ: We’re just recurring really. The show is really about the younger people. I think she’s gone back and done the show without me once or twice, because I just haven’t been available, but Crystal is busy with her web show Venice. She also is doing a pilot for something else.
Emily Owens M.D. airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on the CW.