Arts and Entertainment

Portrait of an Alumni Artist: Johnny Wu (’01)

An interview with actor Johnny Wu (’01).

Reading Time: 6 minutes

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By Rajhasree Paul

THEATER Broadway: “Chinglish” (Longacre Theatre); Off-Broadway: “Washer/Dryer” (Theatre Row), “The Subtle Body” (59E59 Theaters); Regional: “Noises Off (Guthrie Theater) Glengarry Glen Ross,” “Peter and the Starcatcher” (La Jolla Playhouse), “Concerning Strange Devices From the Distant West” (Berkeley Repertory Theatre).

FILM/TELEVISION “Tracers, Limitless, Certainty”; “The Code,” “Elementary,” “Blue Bloods,” “Kevin Can Wait,” “The Good Wife,” “Person of Interest,” “Covert Affairs,” “24,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”

Looking back at your time at Stuyvesant, which is known as a “STEM school,” can you remember a moment that led you to acting?

This is the first time I’ve come across the word STEM—I had to Google it. I think most of what I gained from Stuyvesant was rooted in the humanities and the arts. I never felt like I could keep up in science. I failed my first marking period of bio in freshman year, a “U”—that destroyed me.

Junior year: I saw that they were offering an acting class that could be taken as an elective in place of regular English. And I took it, mostly because I was really burnt out. So I think I chose to take the acting class, which was taught by Ms. Sheinman, (who I’m sure is still there), because I was tired. I didn’t want to write any more papers.

I like to tell people that my entire career was born out of a moment of laziness. On the first day, she was like, “Here’s a stack of scene books. Find a scene, and a partner, and go rehearse it.” I was on the football team, and there was another football player in the class with me, so we teamed up and did a scene from the play “Orphans.”

Every day we’d come into class, and she’d take attendance, and she said we were all free to rehearse our scenes, which of course turned into everyone’s second lunch period. At the end of the semester, I memorized the lines—the only task we’d actually been assigned—and I got up on stage in the auditorium. I was operating on sheer instinct alone. I had no idea what I was doing, but it felt very much like something that I inherently knew how to do. Now I attribute that to the fact that I had so much in me at that point of darkness and trauma, and I needed an avenue of release. And the dramatic elements of that particular scene offered that to me. When I finished, Ms. Sheinman looked at me and said, “You know… you kind of have a thing.” That’s exactly what she said. And my 17-year-old self thought, “Oh… word? I have a thing. Oh my God.”

By senior year, I’d been accepted by SUNY Binghamton into their management program. But the summer after graduating from Stuy, I wrote them a very formal business letter saying they could drop me from the School of Management, that I was going to be in the regular arts and sciences program, and that I was going to be a theater major.

What did you learn about yourself and the world at Stuyvesant that still guides you today?

I was in chorus. That was probably the best overall experience I had while there. It was with Ms. Hall, who I guess is retired now. You probably have Ms. Shamazov, who was Ms. Hall’s assistant then. Ms. Hall was tremendous for me in that she had absolutely no [EXPLETIVE]. She had a tremendous skill set to offer, but more than that, she had an overwhelming passion to offer, which was very influential to me. In sophomore year, I was in a very dark place outside of school. Getting into a lot of fights—I was a very angry kid. And that week, “Hell Week,” when we were rehearsing feverishly for a big concert, I decided that I wanted to miss a rehearsal, to hang out with a friend. The next day I came in and told Ms. Hall that I’d been at the doctor’s. And she called my mom to ask about that, and my mom said “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” So Ms. Hall sat me down and confronted me about having lied to her.

And to my absolute dismay, she stuck to her guns and kicked me out of that concert. I was destroyed. I was sitting in room 125, at her desk, just sobbing my eyes out. And she wouldn’t budge. I look back at that moment, and it made us very close. I gained so much respect for her, because she had the foresight—though I was really hurt then—that if she held fast I would really learn the lesson that honesty carries a lot of value in this world. I definitely learned that for real. And I carry it with me still.

You went to Binghamton University and UCSD for your MFA. How did you develop as an actor in school?

I gained so much from school, especially in undergrad. My learning curve was quite steep because I was so brand new. But I was just so excited to absorb everything that was taught to me. I definitely benefited a whole lot from being in school, where I was constantly encouraged by my peers and the faculty, and I was constantly working to stretch myself, to lift up weakness and expand on strengths. The grad acting program schedule—15 hours a day, four hours of rehearsal at night, six days a week—that was heaven for me, not having free time. That was the best. I don’t enjoy free time; I want to be working all the time.

You audition a lot. What’s it like being an actor during pilot season? How do you deal with nerves before auditions?

I’ve always been good at memorizing material. I spent my first eight years in Shanghai. At five or six, I was forced by my father to learn double-digit multiplication tables. This was before I’d even learned English. He would ask me “What’s 13 times 13?” If I hesitated even a little, I’d get hit. So I had memorization… well, beaten into me.

Now pilot season demands a great deal of fast memorization of lines. And I don’t start the acting work until I’ve gotten very familiar with the words. The sides for a series regular on a pilot can run up to 10 pages, as opposed to around three pages for a guest star on an episode of a show. And if you have four series regular auditions a week, that’s a lot of prep work, and many people can’t keep up with that. But the people who are viewing your audition tape for a pilot want someone who’s ‘picture-ready’ NOW. TV moves at a ridiculously fast pace, and they don’t want to have to use their imagination in determining your potential. They want to see that they could put you in front of the camera today.

I have a different perspective on nerves. I do a lot of coaching, so I see how many actors, especially younger ones, are hampered by the perception that the casting director is looking for you to fail. That’s horribly wrong—they’re very much hoping that you will land your best work. And that simple understanding, that they are in fact on your team, can be enough to quell the nervousness.

Beyond that, and this might just be my own thing, I think that (and I tell my students this) in order for you to say with conviction that you’re an actor, it’s necessary that you have a certain amount of life within you that is way beyond the norm. And you really have to benefit from other people seeing that. Now I don’t encourage actors to always lead with their ego, but you have to know that you have an engine inside you that makes you distinct from the general populace, that you have something that’s worth watching, and it doesn’t even matter what you’re doing, what story you’re telling—simply because you’re up there, you deserve to be watched and enjoyed. That’s enough to engage viewers.

If you could go back in time, what would you tell your teenage self? What would you want yourself to know about how to handle Stuy life and planning for the future?

Oh, man… that’s tough. What I would like to say to my teenage self is: embrace the positive of the competitive environment. Really put effort toward being aware of all the kindness and warmth around you.

And then find ways to benefit from that awareness. Because it’s way too easy to succumb to the pressure in such a way that you decide that you have to put other people down in order to have the ability to believe in your future self. I felt like that at Stuy. I was rocked by how smart other people were, and it was detrimental to my mental health. I was genuinely in despair because I knew I was just not going to catch up to that.

Forget my teenage self—what I would tell current students at Stuy is that love and caring exist in overwhelming amounts in people. And if you can, really try to embrace that, because the alternative can land you in a pretty heavy spot. You don’t need to be the very best in whatever subject in order to understand your inherent value as a human being.

And trust that the future will be bright as long as you carry compassion in your heart for your peers. And don’t stress about the other stuff. If you’re at Stuyvesant, you’re an exceptional young human, and you should carry that knowledge forward with you.