Lamar Johnson: creative powerhouse

Collage of Lamar johnson images

Multi-talented Lamar Johnson simply calls himself ‘an artist’. It’s a pleasingly concise description, as ‘actor/dancer/choreographer/creative director/entrepreneur’ is quite the mouthful—and at 24, he’s only getting started. Lamar told ALHAUS magazine’s Emily Cathcart about storytelling, inspiration, and what lies ahead.

“My storytelling would differ from one medium to another—different media affect the type of story I tell. I’m extremely visual—whether I’m acting or directing a video, I like to feel and visualise these characters and these environments. And tell it in a very honest way, whether that’s in front of or behind the lens.

One storyteller I’m very inspired by is Barry Jenkins. Every time I see his work, it ignites a fire in me to tell stories in as nuanced a way as he does. George Tillman Jr., whom I had the pleasure of working with, is another real inspiration. He truly is an actor’s director; very collaborative in his process. That allows everything to be so real and authentic—not only for the story, but for the actor. I would love to have more opportunities to learn from them both.”

Talking about the strong themes in much of his acting work (Kings, The Hate U Give, Native Son), Lamar agreed that he’s chosen projects in the hope that they’ll start conversations: “Absolutely, I think it’s important to tell stories that shift perspectives and create a dialogue. My job as an actor is to do just that—allow people to step outside of themselves and empathise with the characters portrayed on screen.”

In a different, slightly more adrenaline-filled vein, he also described what’s it like coming aboard a certain mega-blockbuster franchise: “It’s truly an honour to be a part of the legacy that is X-Men. I grew up watching X-Men cartoons, so now to join the franchise is incredible—and very nostalgic in so many ways! In X-Men: Dark Phoenix, you get to meet my character … hopefully as the franchise continues you’ll learn more about my character and grow with him throughout the films.”

With such a diversity of parts to inhabit, what’s Lamar’s process? “First, I read the script, live with the text for a while and try to understand the arc and motivation of my character. Then I create a backstory to set roots and purpose for certain actions and behaviours. At the end of the day, we’re all human, and most of our lives are lived through action and reaction. I just try my best to be present in my characters’ reality—act or react to the world around them and make dynamic choices that are layered because we are very complex beings. It also makes it more interesting to look at.”

Although acting keeps him busy these days, dance came first: “Acting and theatre was something I fell in love with in high school—but dance is definitely my first passion. It was watching Michael Jackson that first inspired me to even want to learn how to dance. I’d say Chris Brown was huge in my development as well—seeing him perform, his stage presence was a big thing for me. The movie You Got Served stoked the fire even more.”

Having drawn from these influences to learn how to dance independently, does being self-taught provide more freedom of expression? “I’d say so. You don’t learn through the confines of someone telling you what you can and cannot do, what’s right from what’s wrong. You learn at your own pace—and do it the way that feels right to you. I’m glad my foundation was set through freestyle and literally having to figure things out on my own.”

Lamar’s sense of style is clear: fashion and a visual aesthetic are intrinsic to what he does. “I’ve loved fashion from a very young age, before I even knew it was an interest—it’s always been a part of me. I always cared about the way I looked aesthetically, the clothes that were on my body. I even sourced a pattern maker at one point and started making samples just for myself! Then I kind of fell into ‘modelling’, but I still wouldn’t really consider myself a model. I’m more of a creative—wanting to make images that are imaginative and editorial.

So fashion informs what I do because it’s an extension of your creativity, it allows you to think outside the box and piece things together to make it all cohesive—where what speaks to me visually is anything that sparks some sort of feeling. I like to feel, so if an image makes me feel something, that in itself is a beautiful exchange. I want to create work that makes people feel—and that resonates beyond just the visual.”

With so many interests, talents, and offers—how does he make his choices? “I’m very intuitive, so if an opportunity comes that feels right, I believe it is. And if it turns out not to be, then it is what it is. So long as I know that in the moment, it felt right—I can live with it. On the other hand, ‘no’ can sometimes be the single most important and powerful word in your vocabulary. It’s pivotal, especially in this business, to know what you want versus what you don’t—and have a very clear vision of that.”

Apart from performing, Lamar is already producing, directing, choreographing—what’s next? “I really want to start designing. Again, I’m just extremely creative, and any way I can exercise that muscle I will. I definitely want to get back into that space when I have the time [to try new things]—I also want to creative-direct and choreograph a live stage show. To go back to my roots and bring my performance back to the stage would be something very fulfilling.

There will be many obstacles in my career and life I’ll need to overcome, that’s inevitable. But I think having the mentality to know that I will triumph allows me to move and navigate through everything with a strong sense of confidence—and mindset to win!”

Lamar plays the role of Gus in the movie Native Son, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival on 24 January.

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