Interview: Sons of Anarchy’s Kenny Johnson: “I believe there are projects and characters that are supposed to be yours”

Kenny Johnson talks about Sons of Anarchy, memorizing lines with dyslexia and watching Ron Perlman crash his motorcycle.


Kenny Johnson plays ‘Kolik,’ the ex-Marine who makes his way in the world with brute force, in the FX series, Sons of Anarchy.  He was also on The Shield and Saving Grace and has a résumé a mile long.

Kenny also has dyslexia and the process he goes through to memorize his lines and work on his character are incredible.

I talked to him in a conference call where he talked about that process, the show and watching Ron Perlman crash his motorcycle.

When you first get a script, what’s your process of going through it?

Kenny Johnson: My process of going through it, I’ll read the script.  I’m a slow reader.  I have dyslexia so it takes me quite a while to read a script.  I take notes on it.  I then I will read it again and again and again.  I just start taking notes of things I really need to know to follow exactly what Kurt is trying to say in the entire episode.  Then from that point, I have somebody help me memorize it and I do a ton a character work on my own.  I’ll spend hours writing little freebased thoughts about my character and my points of view towards all the other people and build a complete back history.

I will constantly write every day to keep that kind of alive for me.  That way whatever he writes for me as a character, I have at least in the back of my mind, I’ve filled it up as much as I can.  It helps me to memorize that way.  The more I know my character, the easier it is to memorize it and know exactly how you fit in and your point of view for each scene and each character.

What’s your advice to actors?

Kenny Johnson: My personal advice is that if you feel— I always felt like there was a seed planted somewhere inside of me.  When that was revealed to me, I knew that maybe what I was supposed to do.  I don’t look at it as putting a time limit on it.  I don’t look at it as a competition.  I just look at it as you work as hard as you can to be as prepared as you can for an actor.  The more work you do on yourself and put into learning about acting and characters and everything you could possibly do, the more it sets you up to be prepared for it when something comes up that’s supposed to be yours.

I believe there are projects and characters that are supposed to be yours.  As long as you have a belief in that and you don’t buy into, “Oh this is so hard.  There’s so many people.  What makes you think you can be an actor?”  It’s about not caring about who rejects you or whatever.  It’s like you do what you want to do and don’t let anyone tell you any different.  That’s what I believe.

I am so enjoying your arc on this series.  I love how you fill out a cut.  So I’m curious; Missy is between you and Tig.  I want to know how two bikers, two manly bikers, are sharing a dog.

Kenny Johnson: We didn’t know she was a dog until the week that we shot that scene that she was a dog.  So the whole time, we thought it was … and it was somebody that maybe lost their lives, whether it be his sister or an ex-girlfriend of his that he was blaming me.  So that’s kind of what we thought.  That’s what Kurt told us.  He said that, but even deeper.  He goes, “Go as deep as you can and think really dark,” so that’s kind of where we went.

You’re in a cast with a variety of the most interesting and fun character actors. You get to play a lot of scenes against one of the big boys in Kim Coates.  I wanted to get an idea how you guys achieved that dynamic that you have.  What’s Kim like as a guy offset and how do you guys get that dynamic to work?

Kenny Johnson: Chemistry I think is something that I guess it’s just there.  Again, Kim Coates, his character, is such kind of bold, out there guy.  He’s a Canadian guy.  I married a Canadian.  He’s so brass as a character and so— There’s something about it personally that I thought was going to work for me because I thought, “I want to hate this guy.”  I go, I know so much on this guy that no one else knows and I just want to reveal it all inside of my head and let him know that I knew.  It’s kind of easy to do.  I mean, he’s an amazing actor.  He’s completely in his character when he’s doing Tig.  Off the set, he’s like the nicest guy in the world and it’s hard to not like him.

So after the second week, he was such a good guy that I was starting to really work hard to have that angst and that tension against him.  But I’m telling you when he’s in character, he’s like unapologetic and brass and just in your face kind of guy and it triggers me off.  So I just try to play the character as true and genuine as I can the way Kurt writes it.  I think the tension just sort of happens.

We definitely get into stuff.  He has a certain style of acting that also helps feed me.  I’m not going to say what it is, but it definitely feeds me and we get into it a little bit.  I’ll pull aside some people and talk about it, so we can get on the same page, but it’s really good.  The tension is just naturally there between us, so I kind of dig that.

Is the set of Sons of Anarchy a family type atmosphere or is there that machismo that pushes it forward?

Kenny Johnson: It’s like both, I think.  I have to say the SOA family is so tight and so fun and yet so crazy.  Like you say, all these actors are pretty amazing character actors and they have crazy personalities, a lot of them.  Charlie will just run full speed and tackle somebody like Boone and he’ll knock him on his … in the middle of the road.  Boone will get up and chase him and everybody kind of challenges each other, but it never gets to— It’s always in love, so it’s very crazy, yet safe in a fun family type of atmosphere in that respect, but not like—you know, family.

There are a lot of different biker gangs that are there that are real biker gangs and has all the background and so I found the first week when I was there was really uncomfortable for me because I was in there with the real deal.  I’m not only working with all these great actors that I didn’t know, which was really exciting and neat, but you have to feel your way in.  At the same time, everybody in the background was from a real motorcycle gang or real porn stars or real whatever and they’re all there.  It starts to feel like this is a whole other environment and world that I wasn’t used to.  But then, probably two weeks into it, I felt like I knew these guys all my life and everybody was great.

You’ve been on The Shield and Saving Grace, how is playing Kozik different from playing those characters on the other shows? Since you’ve played mostly law enforcement officials, is it different?

Kenny Johnson: These are motorcycle outlaws, so there’s a little bit less of a conscience with what you do.  Like playing Lem on The Shield, he was a guy that did dirty stuff and he had a conscience about it, which started eating away at him.  Then on Saving Grace, you didn’t really break the rules, but you’re playing a cop that’s kind of out there and morally maybe not following a straight line with what he did.  This character as far as I know is written where you don’t know if he’s a good guy or a bad guy, but he does what he does and I don’t think he feels bad about it.

If you kill somebody or you take somebody out, it’s part of the job.  It’s what you need to do to make your group function and be stronger.  I think in other shows if I would have done that, there would have been a moral compass that maybe I struggled with more.  Maybe this guy will later on, it  depends on what Kurt does with it, but I think he supposed to be riding that line where you don’t know if he’s a really good guy or a really bad guy, but I don’t think he has a conscience really about what he does, if that makes any sense.

How stoked were you when you had the news that you were going to become a series regular in the season three?

Kenny Johnson: Totally.  I was totally stoked, man.  I was totally excited about it.  When I talked to Kurt and those guys, coming off of Saving Grace, which was Holly Hunter, so it was definitely geared around a female feminine energy and I really was, I don’t know, jonesing for something with a lot of balls to it.  This show was great and I’m thankful that Kurt actually called and asked me to come on to do this.  I was really happy, man.  It’s the funnest [sic] gig.  It’s effortless and I love it.  I love riding bikes and I love the way Kurt writes, so I’m having a blast.

What has been your experience working with the cast?

Kenny Johnson: I get along with everybody great.  I came on, I was little tentative a little bit for a second just because I didn’t want to overstep any boundaries because I didn’t know these guys.  But in Perlman that comes off as big, tough, grizzly dude is like one of the softest, nicest, funny guys in the world.  He has the craziest, dry sense of humor and Charlie is as crazy as they come.

At the same time, these guys are amazing actors with great work ethics.  Everybody trusts each other, which is great.  There’s no arguments or fights about scenes or interpretation.  Everyone does their own thing.  It’s not like The Shield, but even maybe more effortless.  Instead of like with three core people that I felt, Walton, myself, and Michael Chiklis, this is like with ten guys that kind of ping pong off of each other and are just pretty phenomenal actors.

Kurt has been great to me.  I’ve known him since like the beginning of The Shield.  I think it’s an amazing show that he wrote.  I get along really well with him.  I feel like it’s my family and FX is like my family.  It just feels like I’m back home, so I love it.

You first appeared on the finale of season two, sitting on a barstool in the very beginning.  How did this happen?  Did Kurt call you up?  Did he have you in mind for the role?

Kenny Johnson: Yes, I think he had a whiff of that the Saving Grace, the show I was on with TNT, was going to be cancelled.  He asked me; he said, “If you have a second, can I throw you in—?”  It was episode 12, not 13.  He just said, “I want to introduce you as a character.  Maybe next year if your show doesn’t go or whatever, I could maybe add you on as a guy.  I’d love to at least do this as a cameo.  Would you do it for me?”  I’m like, “Yes, of course.”  I had two days off, so it worked out perfect that I could just go on and play this character, Kozik.  He goes, “I hope it works out.  I’d love to have you come on and do an arc and who knows where it would go.  It might be a few episodes.  It might be more.  It might if it works out, we could go and do more.”

So I was glad that he actually— Kurt is a really good guy.  He had met with me prior to doing this series.  He had a movie that he was going to direct and write—or that he wrote and was going to direct—for Warner Brothers that it ended up not panning out for some reason.  But he wanted me to play one of the characters in that.  He kept saying, “I’d love to work with you.  We will work together.  I promise you we will work together.”  A lot of people say that kind of stuff, but he actually kept his word.  I feel really blessed that he developed this guy.  So, yes, that’s how that came.

Who drops their motorcycles the most?

Kenny Johnson: I would say Ron Perlman dumps his bike the most.  He’s the guy who will tell you that he doesn’t ride.  He took lessons in between seasons this time to learn how to ride.  Look, I’m not going to say what happens, but he’s definitely dropped the bike more than anybody.  Even in the finale, twice he dumped his bike … probably going about 30 where he kind of panicked when the bike went down and hit the throttle.  It can get scary.  It can get scary.

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