It’s not every day that a celebrity is willing to go on the record and say he could crush Sylvester Stallone. Anyone willing to step up and make that kind of bold statement is our kind of guy. So when Kenneth Johnson, of The Shield and Saving Grace fame, promises he could beat Sly in less than a second, that’s not something we’ll soon forget.
We recently caught up with Johnson to chat about working with one of the biggest names in porn, getting killed off of a major television show and being the second-best arm wrestler in the world.
Where are you originally from and where do you call home now?
I was born in New Haven, Connecticut, grew up in Guilford and I think when I was in the third grade we moved to Vermont. So Vermont is where I grew up, and LA is definitely my home now – although I’m still a diehard Boston fan for all the sports. I can’t convert to LA after all this time.
How exactly did you get into acting, and when did you decide this is what you wanted to do for a living?
Its weird man, I went to college for like three and a half years trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I lived in Boston for a while and modeled out there a little bit. I flew out to LA just because I kind of talked about it with my friends and I think if you grew up out there you always think “One day I’m going to go to LA and I’m going to go to Hollywood.” You don’t know why, but you just throw it out there. I got on a plane one day and thought, “I’m just going to go to LA and see what happens.”
I was working some, doing some modeling and making some money doing that, and then one of my friends wrote a script. He was friends with Stallone and was a trainer at the gym I was working out at. He wrote a part for me as his best friend in this movie, and I had no idea. He approached me one day and said he wrote this script. The lead guy was his best friend and he wrote it for me. I said I don’t want to do it, and he said, “What do you mean you don’t want to do it?” I said I don’t know how to act, so I don’t want to do it. He said, “But I wrote it for you,” and I said, I don’t know anything about acting. He said, “Please just do this thing for me,” so I said if you get me someone to help me read the lines I’ll do it.
The first day, when I started shooting the first scene, something happened. As soon as we started shooting I felt like this epiphany happened – like something said, “This is what you’re supposed to do.” Right there and then I knew this is what I’m supposed to do for the rest of my life. From that point on, I started taking classes and got hooked. I had no idea I was going to do it until then.
What was that project called?
I don’t even remember what it was called. It was a student film for, I think, the UCLA/USC film festival.
How tough was it to break into the business? How many auditions did you go to before you landed a role, and was there ever a point where you thought – I may have to do something else with my life?
(Laughs). That’s a funny question. There’s a lot of rejection that goes along with it. I did a lot of auditions for a lot of shows and maybe people didn’t get me back then. I played in The Forbidden Dance, which was my first film that went out in the theaters and maybe a couple of small things, but I auditioned a lot and people just didn’t get me. There might have been something about my speech pattern or rhythm, I don’t know. Sometimes, if people don’t quite get you, they don’t know what to do with you. So they don’t cast you in stuff, and I fell into that for a long time.
I never thought I was going to do anything else. I thought even if I’m starving, I don’t want to do any other job because in my mind I knew this was what I was supposed to do. So I never thought about backing out and doing another job. But I’m sure I went to hundreds of auditions and I learned early on that rejections don’t affect me, if anything, they make me want to try harder.
You’ve appeared in a laundry list of shows, such as Family Matters, Grace Under Fire, Caroline in the City, Just Shoot Me! and Smallville. If you had to pick one, which of these did you enjoy working on the most and what makes that experience stand out?
I really liked Smallville. I enjoyed it because I got to play a superhero villain with powers. They put tattoos on my arms, neck and body and I was just this guy coming off these drugs that they gave him, so he’s jonesing out and all over the place. But he’s got these super powers and at that time, Superman had lost his powers so I was just going around dominating everything. It was pretty crazy, and it was a lot of fun.
We apologize in advance for our curiosity, but what’s it like being in the Red Shoe Diaries? Are the scripts straight out of Penthouse Forums?
(Laughs). The ones that I’ve watched on TV are. The one that I did, we had Ally Sheedy in and this Italian award-winning actress that they flew in to be my love interest. Because of all that, they kept it fairly tame. It wasn’t as Penthouse-y as I’ve seen them.
So you’re trying to tell us you were in the one classy Red Shoe Diaries?
Yeah. When you rent them now, they actually have ours in a four pack. One of the special ones. (Laughs).
You were in Major League III: Back to the Minors with such names as Dennis Haysbert, Scott Bakula and Corbin Bernsen. What was filming that movie like and what did you take away from working with such well-known actors like that?
That one was like a dream come true. I played baseball in college and my dream was to always be a professional player. I obviously didn’t, because I went a different route, but it was great. We went down to South Carolina and they put us up in these homes on the beach. So we’re either on the beach, fishing, swimming or playing baseball. It was like a three month party. It was insanely fun. If I could have lived there for a year and done that I would have.
What position did you play and what did you bring to the table?
I pitched in college. My freshman year I played varsity ball and I pitched. I could throw 91 at that time and was one of the faster pitchers on our team. I know the pros going higher nowadays, but back then that was pretty fast. I could play outfield too, but they thought I was better as a pitcher and kept me there.
You also shared the screen in that movie with a guy by the name of Walton Goggins. Was that the first time you two worked together, and what can you tell us about the guy who went on to play Detective Shane Vendrell on The Shield?
It’s funny, we were with the same agency at that time and we didn’t know it. The first day, before we got to the beach house, he asked if I wanted to toss the ball around. He had said he was really experienced playing ball so I asked him where he played. He said he’d played all the way up to eighth grade and then dropped out. But no one knew it at the time.
We started working out and practicing together, and we shared the beach house together and became best friends. We were tight as can be out there, which is weird because when we got cast for The Shield, we had no idea until the first day of shooting.
In 1998, you shared the screen with Wesley Snipes and Traci Lords in a movie folks might have heard of, an awesome flick called Blade. Could you talk a little bit about working on such a blockbuster hit?
Steve Norrington directed it and I got cast as this guy Traci picks up. They go to this club at this meat-packing plant where these people turn into vampires. It was really fun and this really intense opening scene for the movie that we shot for maybe two weeks in the bloodbath and everything.
Traci was as nice as could be. Obviously a lot of people have seen her work before. I hadn’t, so that was a good thing. I was acting normal, while everyone else was acting weird and giddy. But we actually got along really well and Wesley was very cool to me as well.
You also filmed an episode of one of our favorite shows, Boomtown. How would you describe that experience?
Boomtown was really cool. Donnie Wahlberg was a really cool guy and Vanessa Williams was there. I’m not going to comment on her. It was a really great experience. I know the show got a lot of hype, but I got to play a little bit of a crazy guy and had a lot of fun.
Everything else aside, you’re probably most well known for your role as Detective Curtis Lemansky on FX’s smash-hit, The Shield. What was it like auditioning for the show, and how was the character “Lem” originally described to you?
Originally, the breakdown on him was someone who looked exactly like Michael Chiklis. Shawn Ryan, who created the show, was on another show at the time and he’s bald. So he would put these lemons towels on his head to keep cool and he always smelled like lemons, so people would call him Lemonhead. So he actually made this character based on himself. He ended up casting Michael Chiklis, who looked exactly like him, as the Lemonhead looking guy and my guy didn’t really have a description. He just had to be opposite of what Michael was.
I originally was auditioning for Terry Crowley, the guy who got killed. And then the lady who was casting it said she wanted me to come back in for Lemonhead. They gave me these sides right before I came in and they were really nondescript sides and I didn’t really know what to do with it, so I worked on it and even my friends weren’t happy with it. When I went in there I told Shawn and Clark Johnson, who was directing it, I really have no idea what to do with this guy because everyone else is very specific, but this guy is very neutral. So Shawn says one thing and Clark Johnson says something completely opposite and they kind of argued over it.
What I tried to do when I was auditioned was to please them both, which was a mistake. As soon as I got done reading, I said that f’ing sucked. I said one of you needs to shut the “eff” up and the other needs to tell me what to do so I can focus on just one thing. After I said that, I started thinking in my head that I can’t believe you just said shut the eff up. I’m like, I don’t even know these guys and just tried to do something. I don’t even remember what I did, I just went after it. When I got done I thought I was horrible and embarrassed. Clark Johnson said, “That was a sporty read,” which sounded like an insult and someone else said “buh-bye.” I grabbed my jacket and headed out and I remember CCH Pounder was there and asked me how I did. I just threw my sides in the trash, walked off and thought that was it. I didn’t hear anything for like two and a half weeks until I got a call offering me the part. I thought it was a joke.
We don’t think it’s much of a secret that The Shield is one of the best shows on TV. What about the show do you think sets it apart from everything else, and what have you gotten out of your time with the hit show?
The line they always use is “Does the end justify the means?” in everything we do, it’s always about how far can these guys go and how far can you morally accept what they do. You know, do they make the world a better place? Are they doing more good than bad? There’s so many lines that these guys cross over the years and the more they get away with, opens the door for them to become more corrupt. It just builds and builds and builds.
Shawn is a genius writer. He doesn’t write each show separately. He connects and has these underlying themes that will go throughout an entire season. A lot of other shows don’t do that. And there are so many storylines always going on at once because it’s a very complicated show. I just found it genius. It’s very real. Obviously, the way they shot it was like a docu-drama made it seem real and the writing made it seem real. And it was all scripted. As much as it sometimes sounded improvised, every word is scripted with those guys. They just took television to a whole new ballgame, where you get guys like David Mamet, the guy who directed The Green Mile and all these movie directors wanting to come in to be a part of it because they’re like “I’m not doing TV. I’m doing The Shield.”
Season five took viewers on a wild ride, with the “money train,” the feud between Forest Whitaker’s and Michael Chiklis’ characters and the stunning death of a very key character. Talk to me a little bit about filming that season and what went through your mind when you read the script for the “Of Mice and Lem” episode?
When the season came up, the writers kept saying, “This is the year of Lem.” I was all excited because they were finally taking a chance on me, and then Forest Whitaker was coming in. They finally trusted me and believed in me enough to start going on a storyline with my character, so I was thrilled.
I had just went to Maui and gotten married to my wife Cathleen when my entertainment lawyer heard a rumor. She said, “Kenny, talk to Shawn and find out if anything’s going on. Everyone’s negotiating for season six and we have to do new two-year contracts, and they haven’t called yet.” So I called up and asked,”What’s going on? Is everything alright?” They tell me everything’s fine and say, “You know we promised that if anything was ever going to happen to you we’d call you way in advance and tell you. No, you’re fine. Everything’s cool.”
I got off the phone and Michael was banging on my door because we were on location and ready to shoot in some seedy alleyway. Right before I was about to go out the phone rang, so I picked it up and the executive producer said, “I feel like such an asshole. I lied to you. You’re going to die. They’re going to kill you. I wasn’t supposed to say anything because Shawn didn’t know when it was going to happen and he wanted to be the one to tell you. But you can’t tell anyone – especially Michael.” They thought he was going to go bonkers or something because Michael, Walton and I were best friends, so I had to bite my lip for quite a while.
It was a weird one because I spent three months not saying a word. Eventually Michael and Walton knew something was wrong and would question me, but I wouldn’t say anything. So they started asking other people what was going on. When he found out, Michael said to me, “Look, you give me the word right now and I’ll make sure this doesn’t happen.” I said no. Shawn explained why he wanted this character to die and how he was going to do it was like this Shakespearian tragedy, and it just felt like it went with the show.
I accepted it, but I was also pretty devastated. When I got home that night, I remember walking up the stairs and Cathleen asked how my day went. I lost it. I dropped and started sobbing uncontrollably for like 30 seconds. I finally got up and told her they’re killing me off the show. I was calm as can be after that, but for that 30-second spot, it was a complete breakdown.
Are you still involved with The Shield? Will we be seeing any flashbacks or anything with you in the final season?
I can’t say anything about that. I’m not supposed to say anything. I was around for a few of the episodes for season seven, especially the end, and it’s going to be pretty sick. It’s going to be great.
We need to point out that the two characters you’ve read for on The Shield have both been killed off. You might think these guys were your friends, but apparently they don’t feel the same way about you.
(Laughs). Right. They’re like, “We didn’t get him the first time, so let’s get him this time.”
From there you landed the role of Ham Dewey on Saving Grace. For those not familiar, what can you tell us about your character and the show itself?
He’s a good old Oklahoma boy who prides himself on being the best cop he can. He’s married to a person he’s not in love with. She’s a great girl, but he and Holly Hunter’s character are partners and are sleeping together. He falls more and more in love with her, but overall he’s just a great guy. He’s kind of a badass. He’s got a brother in Iraq, a gay brother who lives in town and runs an art gallery and a brother who is a rock and roll singer in Austin, Texas. It’s cool because there’s this small town feel to everything – these guys drink a lot and do silly stuff – and Holly Hunter’s character has this experience with an angel that gives her an ultimatum that she needs to start changing her life or God is going to take her out. From there, it’s just an exploration of these characters – their lives and what they go through.
It was “Lem” on the first show and now it’s “Ham,” which is really cheesy, on the second show. But they’ve taken the character in a cool direction because they’ve thrown some tragic things that have happened in his life that he has to deal with, and he doesn’t deal with it well. It spirals into things to do with drinking, fighting and passing out – all things that are out of the ordinary for him. He spirals as deep as you can get, and you can tell they’ve really stepped it up with the show this year compared to last year.
Is it true you are a former champion arm wrestler?
No. See there’s no truth to that. I was second in the world and if I wasn’t in first then I’m not a champion. The number one guy in the world at that time was so strong that when I arm wrestled him I realized that I’d never be number one in the world. I could be California’s champion or something like that, but not the world champ. It kind of bums me out, but it’s a reality.
As fans of the movie Over The Top, we have to ask – could you beat Sly Stallone?
Dude, I could kill him. I could probably kill any actor. I have an ongoing thing on any set I’m working on – and maybe I should back out of it because I know there are some ringers coming up – but I always say, “If I can beat you in less than a second, you’ve gotta give me 10 bucks. If you can hold me up for more than a second, I’ll pay you a thousand.” So I get everybody coming around to arm wrestle me and I get to beat people, which is fun.
What goals have you set for your career? What would you like to see yourself accomplish in the future?
I see Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp and all these guys doing these incredible characters and roles, and at some point I would love to have a shot at doing some of these really cool films. I like flawed characters. I like anti-heroes and guys who are a little bit out of the ordinary. I hope that this season helps to make people look at me a little bit differently. I would love to do more films. Ultimately, I think that’s everyone’s dream, so I hope it happens.
Which actors out there would you like to work with next?
I would love to work with Clint Eastwood. I’d love to work with Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise. Angelina Jolie. Meryl Steep. There’s a million actors and actresses that I’d love to work with. I have such admiration for film actors period. I’m always in awe about what they do and would love to work with so many of them.
What would you be doing for a living if you never got in to acting?
I’d probably do something with kids. I worked at an orphanage for a while, and I like helping children. In college I was in phys ed and corporate fitness and I thought I’d get into something like that, but now I think I’d be happier working with kids. If I knew nothing about acting, then probably something like that.
What do you do to unwind? What hobbies do you have?
Boxing really unwinds me. I play basketball a lot. Golf. I got into golf like seven or eight years ago and totally dig it. I play poker a lot because I like to beat people and win money.
So it’s safe to say you’re pretty competitive in whatever it is you’re doing.
Pretty much. (Laughs).
Tell us something not many people know about you.
That I own … well … my wife owns two small dogs that are under like five pounds each.
Together they might equal one real dog.
(Laughs). That’s what I’m saying. I would never tell anybody that. When I have to walk the dogs, I go by the basketball courts and the guys that play in this NBA entertainment league looked at me, looked down at the dogs, and just shook their heads. I was like, “They’re my wife’s dogs.”
Where we live we can’t have dogs over 10 lbs., so she talked me into these dogs that are not like the kind of dogs I grew up with.
They have cool names though. I picked the names. Blue is the white dog, and the other one – I was watching Rocco Mediate play Tiger Woods a few weeks back and I thought that was a cool name, so we named him that.
I could have said something like I was dyslexic or that I battled bulimia for eight years, but that gets really heavy. But the dogs, that’s simple and embarrassing. I would never tell anyone, and now I did. (Laughs).
What does the future hold for you?
If I wake up tomorrow and get to work on something cool, then I’m happy. I really don’t know. Life is a different journey every day. I’ll just see where it takes me.
Interviewed by Brian Murphy, July 2008. Saving Grace airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on TNT.