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.
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?
AE: Oh wow. So, full circle, right?
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.
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.
AE: So, to turn that to the lesbian characters, how do you feel that that’s being portrayed?
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.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
AE: That’s your project.
Joanna with Susan Flannery, 1987
AE: And Crystal Chappell?
Emily Owens M.D. airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on the CW.