Johnny Wu, an actor in Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West, knew just what road he was traveling, and it ended in big money – not a big spotlight.
As a student at New York’s rigorous Stuyvesant High School, Johnny was on the high-finance track. All of his college applications were aimed at getting him into a top business program, and he was looking at, as he puts it, “a soulless 50 years, but a rich 50 years” working in the career ahead of him.
Over an early vegan dinner in Berkeley – Johnny’s first-ever vegan dinner, it should be noted – the Queens native recalls the senior-year event that derailed his plans.
During his last semester in high school, and in an effort to avoid writing more papers, Johnny and a fellow football teammate opted to take an acting class. “I had never seen a play, never read a play,” Johnny explains. “We picked a scene from Lyle Kessler’s Orphans and spent the semester memorizing our lines and working on it. I really enjoyed it because I was doing it solely for myself – not for anyone else. When we performed the scene, I thought we did really well. It wasn’t an ‘a-ha’ moment as much as a ‘hmmmm’ moment. Then the teacher, who I hadn’t really seen all semester, says to me afterward, `You kinda have a thing.’ Those were her exact words. ‘You kinda have a thing.’ My 17-year-old self was pretty taken by that statement.”
That summer before college, Johnny remembers thinking, “Well, I have a thing. I gotta do something.” Having been accepted into Binghamton University’s business program, the budding actor started doing some research and found Binghamton (in upstate New York) also had a theatre department. So he wrote a letter to the university requesting that he switch from business to theatre. Then, he decided to break the news to his mom.
“My mom came out of the Cultural Revolution in China,” Johnny says. “She came to this country in 1987, and with education provided so freely here, I think it was hard for her to understand why her child would choose a life of instability. Why, when my friends were heading into finance and salaries of $120,000, would I choose to make art and struggle to make a living.”
But Johnny’s mom came around—a little. “She saw how important it was for me to go after this, and she was as supportive as I could have ever expected her to be in that moment. That was a big deal for me.”
So Johnny began his college career in the theatre department, still never having seen or read a play (he had, after all, only performed a scene from a play). “I was willing to allow myself to fail,” he admits. During his first major audition, his carefully prepared monologue became a linguistic minefield. While trying to say “sloe gin fizz,” he reversed the “g” and the “f” and thought he was done for. But he ended up being the only freshman cast in a mainstage play that semester.
Soon, Johnny was a star in the department, and when it came time to think about graduate school, he set his sights solely on the top three: Yale, New York University, and the University of California, San Diego. He was accepted by all three, and when he opted for UC San Diego, his mother was able to brag that her son had turned down Yale. “She was on board at that moment, which made me so happy. It was a long time coming,” Johnny adds.
Within 10 days of completing his graduate program, Johnny was cast in a recurring guest role on 24, and then he booked a part on Cold Case. Soon after that, he was headed to Berkeley Rep for Naomi Iizuka’s Strange Devices, marking his first full-length run in a professional production.
“A lot of plays allow audiences to be passive, to have their hands held, and a lot of people enjoy that,” Johnny offers. “Every once in a while you should be jolted by a play. This does that in really smart ways. The play is a constant reveal, and I think it’s rather brilliant.”
In Johnny’s first scene, he appears to have a full-body tattoo, which is actually a superb piece of stagecraft involving a sheer body suit. “That suit is entirely transformative,” Johnny observes. “I look in the mirror and I see somebody completely different and in a whole different world – then I get to go be him on stage.”
Johnny also plays a Japanese man speaking through a translator in a scene that required him and fellow actor Teresa Avia Lim, who plays the translator, to speak carefully rehearsed Japanese. “That was a lot of work,” Johnny says, “but the effort was worth it because the scene, which is designed to make the audience think, really pays off. That’s one of the things I love about this play. It demands that you be active and reflective while you’re watching it. It’s a blast.”
Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West continues through April 11 in the Roda Theatre.
To learn more about Johnny Wu, visit johnnywu.tv.
Top photo: Johnny Wu Above photo: Kate Eastwood Norris, Bruce McKenzie and Johnny Wu in Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West at Berkeley Rep. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com.
During his last semester in high school, and in an effort to avoid writing more papers, Johnny and a fellow football teammate opted to take an acting class.
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