Unstoppable Woman: Joanna Johnson

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Joanna Johnson has worked in television for close to 30 years, first in front of the camera as an actress on CBS’s long-running soap The Bold and the Beautiful and now as a an executive producer, writer and show runner on ABC Family’s hit series The Fosters. Also a director, Joanna first had a hit with her sitcom Hope & Faith and went on to single camera series Make it or Break It and Emily Owens M.D.

The Fosters, which will enter its third season tonight, is especially close to Joanna’s heart. The show follows a family with two mothers and their adopted foster children. Joanna has an eight-year-old son and five-year-old daughter with her wife, Michelle, and says she works hard to balance both her TV and real life families.

We spoke with Joanna about her multi-faceted career, the women she admires and the advice she’d give to women to achieve their goals.

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On balancing work and family: “It’s hard. I always work at least one day on the weekend. And then I try to have one day, if I can, where I can just be with them and with my wife. So it’s challenging. I don’t work really late at nights. But I’m in a fortunate position because I run the show with the guys—with Peter [Paige] and Brad [Bredeweg]—so I have more support than if I were running the show by myself. Then I would probably have longer hours. But it’s all about, also, delegation and the support you have around you. Hire good people who can take up some of the slack.”


On how having kids can be motivating: “When I was running Hope & Faith, that was a sitcom—those are very long hours. But I was living in New York, I didn’t have kids, you know, and Michelle was out here—my wife was out [in L.A.]. I could work until 9 or 10 o’clock every night and work on the weekends and it really didn’t matter. I don’t mind—I like to work, so I really didn’t mind it. What I feel bad about is when I’m not seeing my family. I think women always have that pull—men too. I shouldn’t say just women. We have that pull between needing to work and wanting a certain lifestyle, making a certain amount of money—my kids go to private school. And so I sometimes wonder if they understand why I’m at work, and that I’m not there because I don’t want to be with them. think they do.”

On using real life to inspire stories on The Fosters: “I figured when would I ever have a chance to write about my own life experience? We have adopted children. We adopted them as babies. We were there when they were born—in the room for both of them. We’re a multi-racial family and so there’s so much I can draw upon. I love to write what you know. I think it’s very rich and a lot of my marriage is in this show, and a lot of our experiences, a lot of our parenting experiences, even though these are teenagers. There’s just so much to draw on—it’s really fun.”

On women that inspire her: “I admire so many different women. I really admire Eleanor Roosevelt. I watched that documentary and I read about her and sort of her ability to step out of the shadows of her husband and also being a very shy person. And Gloria Steinem. I had the pleasure of meeting her and I think she’s amazing. Hillary Clinton. All of women who have had to work very hard to get to where they are.

“I do think the bar is set higher for women and they had to be more politically sort of careful. I do believe that a strong woman will be called bitch and a strong man will be called passionate. So you do have to ride that line—it hasn’t changed. I’ve been watching Mad Men and seeing how women in the workplace struggled back then and a lot has changed—a lot has changed—but a lot still hasn’t changed.

“I really admire women who are able to have their family and their work and balance that, because it’s really hard. I don’t really believe you can have it all. I think that’s kind of a load of you-know-what that women try to sell themselves. I think there sacrifices that you make. You cannot be a totally present full-time mom and run a show. You just can’t do it. I’m lucky that I have a wife that is, right now, not working and can be there and do all of that. I can’t. I try to be there as much as I can. I don’t go out at nights, I don’t go out on the weekends. I never leave. Rarely! I really look forward to seeing my kids. The weekends we spend with our children. We don’t go out. That time’s really important to me. That time I can never get back. At the end of my life, I’ll be proud of the things I’ve done, but the most important thing will always be my family. That’s what matters.”

On how women can empower other women: “I always encourage women to hire other women, and we hire probably 70 percent of female directors and our editorial staff is all women. I really believe in empowering each other to create that balance in the work place and to create opportunities.”

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On coming out: “I hadn’t been on [Bold and the Beautiful] for 15 years or something, and [EP Brad Bell] called and said “Would you mind if she has two moms? We want to do that story.’ I said, ‘So you’re really just taking from my life now. Well sure, but I think if I do that, I’m going to have to come out, so to speak.’

It’s not that I had been in, because I hadn’t been an actress for a long time. So everyone in my professional life knew that i was a lesbian and that I was married to a woman. The fans hadn’t known that, so I thought I can’t do this character and not say, ‘Hey, this is my life.’ I was happy to do it. Especially if it can help other people feel—when I was in my twenties doing the soap, I was terrified of anyone knowing because I thought they’d fire me: ’Oh, she can’t play straight.’ So much has changed now but there’s still a lot of work to do.”

On making the transition from acting to writing/directing/producing: “I went to USC film school. I had always thought I wanted to be behind the camera. But I think a part of me wanted to be an actress but I didn’t feel like I could. I never felt confident. My mother once said to me, ‘Well you can’t be an actress because you don’t sing or dance.” I realized “Well this isn’t the 1930s!’ It’s not like everything is musicals.

“When I was in film school, I got into some acting workshops so I would know how to talk to actors when I was directing, and I kind of got into it. I enjoyed it—but it was not really enough for me. I wanted more creative control. I realized I wanted to write. I would always go home and write. I would write for free; I wouldn’t necessarily go act for free. I wouldn’t work all day and go to the theater—I wasn’t that type of person. And ultimately I just felt that was more of what I wanted to do. I wanted more control.”

How she got her start: “My first thing that I got started as a writer—well first I was working with Peter Berg. And I was helping him with a movie called Very Bad Things. I got to be an associate producer and got a credit on that, which gave me enough money to write full time for a little while. I wrote a movie called The Shrink is In with Courteney Cox and David Arquette. The movie didn’t turn out that great but it kind of got me going. Then I was writing features that didn’t get made, but writing features and writing re-writes and then my manager said, ‘TV is where it’s at. Get into TV!’ And I didn’t want to. I’m really, basically, I love just to be alone. And also don’t want to wash my hair every day. A lot of work involved in washing your hair and drying it. But they said, ‘Come on—just get in the game. If they even buy something from you, the chances of them making it are so small. The chances of it going to air are ridiculous; never gonna happen.’

“So I wrote Hope & Faith and, next thing you know, I’m moving to New York and running a television show. I’d never done anything like that before in my life. And I never worked with people! I mean, I’ve worked with people—but as an actress, you kind of sit in your dressing room and then you go out and do your thing. Then when I was writing features, I was just home alone. I never managed people. And so that was a big learning curve.

“I don’t love conflict. You have to be direct, I’m learning. I’m learning a lot about how to sort of say yes and no and, ‘Here’s what we need to do’  But I actually think I did a very good job running that show—especially having no experience doing it.”

On still getting nervous in the writers’ room: “I love hanging out with writers. Writers are funny and smart. We have a good time in the writers’ room. But every time we start a new episode and looking at the blank walls, because we write on boards on the wall, I get a little sick to my stomach. You know, we have to do it again? Can I do it? Every time I’m like, “OH no, can I do it? Can I break another story?” Every time! I’ve written hundreds of hours of television now, but every time I think, ‘Oh, that’s going to be the last one!” It’s hard in the third season. We’re producing something like our 47th episode.

On if she’ll ever return to acting: I’m rather shy and uncomfortable in front of the camera. I like it now—it’s fun when I can go back on Bold and the Beautiful because it’s a very safe place to work and I know how to do multi-camera that we do on soaps. I feel very free because I have nothing to lose. It’s not my career, it’s not what I have to make my money on. It’s sort of fun. I would like to do it again, at some point. I think I could be a better actress now than I was in my twenties. I think as you get older, maybe you’re a little braver and willing to expose more of who you are.

The advice she’d give to young women who want to write, produce or direct: “Go to school. Get a lot of life experience. Because the best directors and writers, I think, have a lot of life experience. And get an entry level—find a mentor, male or female, doesn’t matter. Go above and beyond the call of duty in any job. Start as a PA. Start wherever you can get in and work your way up by being the person that’s the first one there, the last one to leave, the one who’s willing to do any job—I’ll get your coffee. Do you want me to go pick your dry cleaning up? I’ll also take notes, I’ll also do whatever. Be willing to do it all because, a lot of times, in business and in life, people want to be around people that are positive and they like and they know want to work hard. It’s not always the most talented person that succeeds; it’s the most hard working. And sometimes the most positive person. The other thing I think is important is be specific about your goals. Figure out what you want to do and laser focus on it. You just can’t do it all at one time, so I think being specific has always been helpful to me.”

 

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