Joshua Caleb Johnson is learning from Ethan Hawke in ‘The Good Lord Bird’
Newcomer Joshua Caleb Johnson is bursting onto the scene alongside acclaimed industry veterans.
Johnson, 15, stars in Showtime’s new Civil War-era miniseries “The Good Lord Bird” as Henry, aka “Onion,” a former slave boy who becomes entangled with famed abolitionist John Brown (Ethan Hawke) and his army. As an added wrinkle, Brown mistakes Onion for a girl; he wears a dress for much of the story.
Based on an award-winning 2013 novel of the same name, it mixes fact and historical fiction — all filtered through the eyes of Onion as he witnesses the events leading up to the Civil War.
Hawke co-created and executive- produced the series; Daveed Diggs co-stars as Frederick Douglass.
Johnson has also appeared in episodes of “Black-ish,” “Animal Kingdom” and FX’s “Snowfall,” but “The Good Lord Bird” marks his first starring role.
He spoke to The Post about working with Hawke, learning about the Civil War and more.
What attracted you to this role?
For my first audition, I had to learn a monologue from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” And I love Huck Finn. So I auditioned, and “The Good Lord Bird” was such an interesting story about a young man who is so complex and has so many awakenings in the show. It’s also a coming-of-age story. As an actor, I really wanted to bring Onion across on the screen.
What was it like for you to work with all these well-known actors for your first major role?
It was an amazing experience working with Ethan Hawke, Orlando Jones … and being able to work with big networks like [executive producer] Blumhouse, Showtime, Jason Blum, all those people. I got to learn a lot and add more technique to my arsenal when it comes to acting. I don’t think I would have done as well if I didn’t have people like Ethan guiding me along the way.
The show is based on a book, but did you use anything else to inspire your interpretation of Onion?
Basically [it was] if Huckleberry Finn had to wear a dress to survive. I really based it off that and off of my experiences in my life. I experience a lot of hate for being African- American, and also I’m in-between — not white enough, not black enough. And that’s how Onion feels a lot of the time. He doesn’t really have a place to call home, because he doesn’t fit in with the other slaves who think he’s too uptight, and he doesn’t fit in with the older men because they don’t know his true nature and who he really is. Playing Onion, who’s so complex, was a way to let out emotions that had built up inside of me. It was amazing.
Did you learn anything you hadn’t known about the Civil War?
There is one thing I did learn, which was the amount of white people who were behind John Brown in fighting the cause of slavery. They supplied him with weapons and money to fund his army. They just weren’t brave enough to put their lives on the line like John Brown was willing to do.
Also one thing that surprised me which was [in the episode] where Onion walked into the slave pen. I had never seen or heard of [the slave pen] before, and it kind of made me sick to my stomach, seeing my people living amongst animals and in dirt. It hurt my heart. It kind of made me sit there and relive the reality of a lot of my forefathers and ancestors.
What was the best part of this experience, for you?
Making a new family, in a sense; making new friends and working with Ethan. I already feel a close connection with everyone, and it made it easier to work on set because it’s all like John Brown and his sons and his daughter. I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world. I met so many amazing people.
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