Wil Johnson made his American debut when his character, Joe Abernathy, stepped onto the screen in Outlander S3 Epi 3, All Debts Paid. Being the first Black (‘Negro’) male in Harvard Medical School’s anatomy class and Claire Randall, being the first female, the two quickly became confidants and forged a lasting friendship.
There are interviews of Wil discussing specific scenes from Outlander and even one that found out what makes him ‘tick’. So, we wanted to follow with an interview to ask more about his background and to get his insight into his character, Dr. Joe. We appreciate that he was kind to grant us one.
Wil, let’s just dive right into it, shall we.
You have been acting for over thirty years in the theater, such as playing the title character in the Royal Lyceum Theatre Company’s Othello, the Earl of Kent in the Talawa Theatre Company and Royal Exchange Manchester co-production of King Lear and on the television screen in shows such as Babyfather and Waking the Dead; but it has been mostly in Britain.
Marcus Gardley’s A Wolf In Snakeskin Shoes ~ via Tricycle Theater
(L-R): Michelle Bonnard, Ayesha Antoine, Lucian Msamati, Wil Johnson and Karl Queensborough. Photo: Mark Douet
Babyfather (L-R): Fraser James, Wil Johnson, Don Gilet and David Harewood ~ via The Voice
Detective Inspector Spencer Jordan, Waking the Dead. ~ via BBC Press Office
What motivated you to become an actor? What was your training?
Wil: Acting found me . . . I didn’t find it (laughs). It was my last year at secondary school and an actor dropped out of the school play. For some reason, my drama teacher approached me and asked if I would step into the role. At first I said, “NO WAY!” BUT, I found out that a girl who I quite liked was playing the female lead and I saw doing the play as an opportunity to ask her out. So, I said “YES!” The rest is history.
My training was random at best to be honest. I didn’t go to drama school. I attended the National Youth Theatre which was/is a summer school that trains young actors over the summer holidays for around six weeks; plus, I attended evening drama classes in my local neighborhood, Tottenham in North London, and I studied drama at college doing my O-Level and A-Level Drama.
Is there an actor who inspires you or, by studying them, has helped you hone your craft?
Wil: Daniel Day Lewis is my idol. His dedication to his craft is inspirational. Every time he comes off the blocks, he reinvents himself into another person. My aim is that every time I step up to the plate, I present another persona – a different person completely away from who I am. That the audience sees the person I am portraying and not an extension of myself.
You mentioned in an interview that you have auditioned for American roles in the past, but never landed one before now. What is the appeal of getting an acting role either in America or for an American television show?
Wil: Securing or working in America playing an American role is the ultimate goal for most actors in the western world. Hollywood is the mecca for us and most of us strive to attain that ‘holy grail’! Having secured the role of Joe Abernathy is the first step on that journey to mecca!
While you were in Jamaica a couple of years ago, you came across the Outlander show on television and by seeing someone familiar to you, Douglas Henshall – who played Taran MacQuarrie (and stole the episode of “The Watch,” S1 Epi18) – you decided to watch the show. Prior to that, you didn’t know anything about Outlander. Is this what motivated you to audition for the role of Joe Abernathy when the casting call for the role was sent out? If not, what did motivate you to audition for the role?
Wil: The motivation for auditioning for the role was my agent who got me in the room (laughs)!
Was there any preparation for the audition? Can you tell us the scene you auditioned with?
Wil: Lot’s of prep!
At the time, it was just another audition for an American series, one of many. But as you do . . . you approach the audition as though you are the only one entering that room and the role ‘IS YOURS!’ So…you do your homework, prep, perfect your American accent and go into the audition with a confidence – ‘Knowing’ that ‘This role IS mine!”
My wife is my audition coach and we work on all of my audition scenes together. We analyze them, break the scenes down and we record them over and over and over until she feels as though I have nailed it! Then, I’m ready for the audition. The scene I auditioned with did not end up in the final product … pity because it was quite a long and funny scene. We really got Joe’s sense of humour, his wit and his sensitivity to Claire being a woman in a ‘White dominated male world.’
As Blacklanderz, you know we were ecstatic once you/Joe appeared on the screen and wanted to ask about Joe’s first day at Harvard Medical School. Ironically, this was the last scene you shot, but the first scene in which the television viewers see Joe. He walked hesitantly into the anatomy class knowing he was the first Black man integrating the school in the 1950s.
You’ve spoken about the other white actors and what they had to do to get into character for their mistreatment of you. Now for you, what were you thinking knowing how it was during that time?
Wil: At the time, I was thinking ‘I am an Ambassador . . . I am putting my best foot forward.’ When stepping into the shoes of Joe Abernathy, one is not just ‘playing a role’. One is representing a nation. So for me, it was ‘being the best’ knowing that I am about to start my journey at Harvard and I am the ‘best student here.’
Have you experienced any type of discrimination or mistreatment that you recall to get in the mindset of that time? If not, what was your preparation for the scene?
Wil: I never drew on any personal experience to get through that section of the story. I drew on the power of my imagination… to think only positive thoughts throughout the segment of the story. Joe and I are ‘the glass is half full’ type of guys.
What has it been like for you to parachute into Outlander with its fervent worldwide fan base and to be one of the few Black faces on the show?
Wil: Amazing! To be part of a show that is so universally accepted, loved and appreciated. I feel a sense of responsibility and to represent my people in the best light possible.
Early on you watched the first two seasons of the show. Since getting the role of Joe, have you read the books or will you read them to put Joe into context or to prepare you for your character’s arc?
Wil: I will not read the books because I don’t know if Joe will make another appearance in the show. It all depends on which way the story bends. I find it slightly dangerous to preempt what may appear or not appear in the final shooting script. I don’t want to build my hopes up (laughs). My agent and I will press forward with my career in other directions and if we get a call from the Outlander producers that my services are required again, then we will take it from there.
Speaking of scripts, just curious. What’s the length of time between receiving the script, learning the lines and shooting the scene?
Wil: It varies. Sometimes you receive the script way in advance and then there are re writes. And sometimes, the lines could change on the day of filming!
Joe and Claire have become very close friends, and we don’t use the word ‘friend’ lightly. He is the only friend she really has up to this point. Unfortunately for time sake, the television audience doesn’t get to see Joe and Claire’s friendship fully develop.
How would you describe their relationship?
Wil: It is a close, deep, respectful, open and honest relationship. They know they are bucking the trend of the day, but that also speaks of their strength of character. Joe knows that Claire is isolated in her world with Frank. It is not for him to cast an opinion but to be there as a true friend for her if she needs him. Claire I feel loves their relationship because Joe is a straight shooter. He will not mince his words and he gets straight to the point. Also, they worked extremely well together as surgeons. Their relationship works on a personal and professional level.
At the graduation party, in Epi3 – All Debts Paid, Joe is keeping a watchful eye on Claire. What do you think was going on in his mind? Any feelings you think he had about Frank?
Wil: Joe KNOWS that all is not well in the Randall household. He suspects Frank is having an affair, but it’s not his place to intervene at this point. His job is to be there for Claire when she needs him.
In Epi5 – Freedom & Whiskey, just from the title, there has to be some drinking going on there. Yeah?
Wil: A little bit of drinking yeah! For sure (much laughter)!!!
Did you do any medical research to prepare for this episode?
Wil: We had a medical consultant while we were rehearsing the medical scene, so I had conversations with them which was terribly useful.
What do you think it was like for Joe to learn Claire’s secret?
Wil: Joe always suspected that Brianna was not Frank’s child. So in that respect, it was not a surprise but more Joe being grateful that Claire could trust him enough to reveal such a huge secret in her life. That for me speaks volumes in terms of how close their relationship is. Episode 5 is a CORKER!!!!!!
What is your takeaway of Joe? Is there anything else you would like your fans to know about him?
Wil: Joe is a noble human being and he is a great dancer (laughs)!
Outside of Outlander, if you had to pick one role you’ve played that you’d want everyone to see (or that you’re most proud of) what would it be and why?
Wil: That is such a difficult question! I am proud of all of my work to date. It would be hard to single out a performance because they are all so uniquely different. So I would say . . . WATCH ALL OF THEM!!!!
Are you currently working on any projects?
Wil: I’m about to start work on a new Amazon Prime series, but I’m not allowed to divulge any information at this present time. But, it’s gonna be big!
Wil, thank you so much for taking the time and allowing us to get to know you and Dr. Joe.
Wil: It was my honour.
Follow Wil on Twitter.
Watch Outlander on Starz – Sundays 8EST/7CST.
As we are sure all of the Outlander fans would agree, we give Wil 5-shots (out of 5) for his portrayal of Dr. Joe Abernathy!
Contributing Blacklanderz: Vida (that’s me), Helina (@helinazewdu), Amanda-Rae (@amandarprescott), Evelyn (@ELoran), Lorinda (@RindalovesBruce), Cathy (@DrkKnightingale) and Olivia (@newsollie).
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