Bates Motel may be over for the season, and we may have to wait til 2016 for season 4, but that doesn’t mean we cannot get our fix. The Psycho prequel tells the story of young Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore), that famous motel, and the family and friends surrounding him – mother Norma (Vera Farmiga), brother Dylan (Max Thieriot), close friend and motel employee Emma (Olivia Cooke), and Uncle Caleb (Kenny Johnson).
Geeks of Doom got the awesome chance to speak with Kenny Johnson, now that the crazy season has come to an end. Johnson is a TV veteran, best known for his years on The Shield, where he played Detective Curtis Lemansky for five seasons. Other notable work includes Dewey on Saving Grace, Kozik on SOA, a brief stint on Dexter, and actually, he is currently also on Chicago Fire as Tommy Welch. He can soon be seen in Solace, alongside Colin Farrell and Anthony Hopkins. I think this guy is a workaholic.
He is also a sweetheart, a genuine family man, and really made me feel like we were just shooting the shit, instead of doing an interview.
GoD: How come you weren’t on the finale? I mean. I know you went away, but come on! Dylan was so upset.
Kenny Johnson: Yeah…I don’t know. I mean, I know there was a little more to it than that, but they kept it out (ok – we’ll wait for the Blu-ray, Bates Motel), which I think keeps it a little more gray, a little more ambiguous about where’s he gone and why he’s gone. So he came in like out of nowhere, and then left the same way. Like in season three, he shows up and then, at the very end, he kind of just disappears. He has to go. I mean that’s the way they wrote it. He realizes, obviously, he’s a trigger point for Norman. It’s not making Norman’s life any easier, and also the relationship she’s (Norma) building with Dylan So he kinda looks out for other people, and at the same time, wherever he is, it seems like stuff follows him. Obviously, he went up to Canada, and had to pop off two people just to defend himself. And at the same time, send a message to Chick (Ryan Hurst). How much are you really going to trust Chick? Is he gonna come back? Is he gonna do something to Dylan? Is he gonna try to track me down? It’s all kind of left up in the air.
GoD: I know. I was like, “I have so many questions now. Damn you Carlton Cuse! He always does that to us!”
We both had a chuckle at that.
GoD: Even with the show that’s on after yours (The Returned), after Bates Motel, he did the same thing! I have NO idea what’s gonna happen. It’s not fair! (Laughs)
Johnson: Right. I mean that’s the great thing about Carlton and Kerry (Ehrin). I know Carlton said at the beginning of season 3… right when you think you know, it could be something completely left field, completely opposite of where you thought it was going. So… you just never know.
GoD: Oh I know. So my husband and I, we almost got a divorce over LOST. I loved it. He hated it. I love shit like that, so…
Johnson: (Laughing) Right.
GoD: So can you tell me, or do you know, if you are popping up in season 4? I mean, I looked you up and you are working on like 5 things at once, right?
Johnson: I have a couple of movies in post production and Chicago Fire is an ongoing thing. And yeah. They have not started Bates. I’m pretty sure it’s going. I think the writers are in meetings right now. But what actually season 4 is gonna be, who it involves, and what direction they’re going to go… I don’t know. I never know. I kinda like not knowing.
GoD: Oh. So are they like, “Hey – come on. You gotta go to work today?”
Johnson: Yeah. I mean. I don’t even know Season 4. I have no idea, until somebody tells me. In season 3, they started coming out with the scripts, and I would rather not know script to script, and I know the other actors don’t know. So we really have no idea where it’s going. It’s a brand new thing and kind of like a discovery. It was like that when I was doing The Shield too. We had no direction, no idea where they were going. And it keeps it fresh that way, so you don’t have anything premeditated about what you think it should be. It’s kind of…
Johnson: Absolutely. You stay true to it.
GoD: Do you want to move towards more movies? Though the trend seems to be movie stars going towards TV.
Johnson: Whatever it is, I try to just look for the writing – if the writing’s really really good, I tend to gravitate towards that. There have been things that I’ve turned down, a lot of shows I wouldn’t do. Because if you’re gonna do TV, for me, the writing has to be there. I mean, I also did Dexter which is a high profile show and they offered this little arc. I did a couple of those too, because they were high profile shows and they were interesting characters.
GoD: And it’s freakin’ Dexter. Come on!
Johnson: Yeah. Dexter‘s phenomenal. And The Shield. I did a show called Pensacola which was about F18 fighter pilots, and we got to shoot down at Miramar base, and 4 out of the 7 days we were actually at the live base. We’re in these jets and we’re with the pilots. We were kinda going what they go through, and that was really fun and interesting. So that was like 2 years of that, and then The Shield came up which was another five years. You get really good writing and you get to live in a character and grow. Films can be phenomenal when they’re really well written, but again that experience comes and goes fairly quickly. If you really look out for a TV show where you think the character is really well written, there’s a part of you that speaks through it. It’s like a 5-year experience that you get to live in every day. Stay in one place like LA, you don’t have to move your family, or travel from place to place. You kinda sit there and live in it. You know the TV, I would say from 2000 on – The Shield, The Wire, and The Sopranos, everything kinda changed, you know? They became really popular with writing, and then obviously, the actors are like there’s only so much out there in films. Why not do what you truly love to do, which is to go as deep and far as you can into these characters. And in great television, you can just keep going. I think it’s an amazing journey. I love it, personally.
God: Well, I like TV better than movies. I just like to be in my bed with my drink…
Johnson: Yeah! (laughs)
GoD: And I don’t have to sit next to anybody and my feet aren’t sticking to the floor. So I like TV better anyway, so… good job! (For some reason I gave a thumbs up even though he could not see me through the phone.)
God: So now I’ll ask a boring normal question. So Caleb is very… you play him very desperate. It seems like that. You know – desperate for Norma’s forgiveness, and desperate to prove yourself to Dylan, and it’s working, obviously. You can see his little yearnings for his dad, even while he’s trying to reject him. So how is playing him different than your character on The Shield? Obviously, you don’t approve of what Caleb did, but how are they different? Or even with Kozik?
Johnson: Something I always try to do is personalize. Like with Lemansky on The Shield. They’re bad cops, corrupt cops, like Training Day with Denzil Washington. The Ethan Hawke character is like at a certain point, if you were really that person, and you’re getting rid of bodies and setting people up, and having people offed… just because they’re bad people. Sometimes you off people just because you need to like divert a track so you guys don’t get caught. In real life, how would that affect you? Would you really just shut it down so that you have no conscience whatsoever? Or would at a certain point would it be eating away at a human level? So I try to humanize each character and really what it might do to them. I know I did that with Lemansky – made him the conscience of the strike team. He was the one that started feeling and getting ulcers and the guilt. You know he’s doing all these things but there’s a part of him that’s going, “You know what? This is wrong.” So you play that yin yang. And with the Kozik character. You know he was a biker guy. I tried not to be too aware that you’re doing these bad things, and let that bother me, yet at the same time play it real. The energy is real and the competition is real. The conflict that’s there – you can heighten that to whatever degree you want, like between Kozik and Tig…
GoD: Oh. That was the best.
Johnson:: You know Kurt (Sutter) never told us. He was like, “Pretend it’s an ex-girlfriend that he got killed, or you did something to, and that she dies and it’s your fault. And he blames you. So we had this thing going on. We didn’t tell each other, but he kept saying, “Raise the stakes, raise the stakes.” And then he twisted it and made it about a dog.
GoD: Oh my god. He is so smart. I can’t even take it.
Johnson: (Laughs) We were like,”What?” And it’s just like Carlton Cuse. You think it’s one thing, and it’s something else. And the thing with Caleb, obviously, what happened and where he came from and his childhood, was something that you won’t fully know. You only know the one thing he did, and at a certain point in their lives when they were kids. And everything they went through and whatever happened prior to that, she realized that what they were doing together was wrong. And then she basically said, “Stop. It has to stop.” So to me… my backstory could be completely different than theirs or what they might be telling the audience just to make it real for me. You know I had a lot of other stuff and it was again, what I make up in my mind in my fantasy world or my real world for Caleb. It could be that things happen when they are kids. Or it might not have even started from him. But it ended up when she said no, and he couldn’t deal with the fact that he was afraid he was going to lose the only thing he knew which is her. He did what he did, which was then the thing that can’t be forgiven, and that kinda messed everything up and they went in different directions. And he didn’t know he had a kid. And I came back in season 2. Dylan didn’t know. I didn’t know. How do you then recover from that? You know that was my thing for season 3. He has to REALLY be remorseful and it’s gotta painful and then he has to feel through Dylan’s pain. He wants to be a parent and he wants to love the kid. He wants to have a family, just like Dylan wants to have a family. But at the same time, it’s all from something that happened that happened that how society pegs as that’s one of the worst things in the world.
GoD: You know I almost feel like that desperate love he has for Norma… it is his kid, but he’s almost feeling exactly that way for Dylan, because he’s doing these crazy things, not to prove it because it’s sincere. You know? That’s his natural reaction is to just go and put his life in danger for his son, so it really works. That’s how he loves, I feel like. I don’t know (Laughs). It’s your character, not mine!
Johnson: No, but that’s what they wrote and that’s exactly it. In every episode, I know that’s a thing that the directors and I would talk about. There’s gotta be that pain coming through him. In whatever scene, it’s gotta be that remorseful pain. The universe is hitting him with a bat, but at the same time, he’s trying to make some sort of good in this lifetime, before he goes. Even if he’s gotta go or everyone hates him. He’s gotta try to do something good – to not right the wrong, but right what he can in his life.
God: I hope he comes back.
Johnson:: Thank you.
GoD: Because I don’t know. We know how Norman ends up. But we don’t know anything else. I mean. We know what happens to Norma, kinda. But we don’t know what happens to any of these other people. So that’s the surprise. I’m like, “Everybody’s gonna die! I don’t wanna see this!” (My fear – not a spoiler). That’s it. Everyone’s gonna die and Norman is gonna be the only one left and Janet Leigh’s gonna come and that’s it.
Johnson: (Laughs) Right.
GoD: So I looked you up and it says you’ve been married since 2005 and you have a kid. Is it a boy? Is it a girl?
Johnson: A little girl. She just turned six last week. We were at Disneyland for 3 days, and it was awesome. And she’s awesome. She’s in a play right now – her first musical, her first audition. She was obsessed with Into The Woods when it came out. She was saying, “Daddy, daddy… I wanna audition for Little Red. And I was thinking, “Ok. How often does? And for whatever reason she kept on me. And when we got back from Vancouver, she said, “Daddy, daddy… I really really wanna act. I wanna do Little Red. I wanna do Into The Woods.” So I call my buddy Chiklis (that would be Michael Chiklis) who I did The Shield with, because he knew about this playhouse that his kids had actually done plays in when they were her age, or a little older than her actually, and I said, “How do I… what do I do?” He said, “Just go down there, sign up and pay for it, and see what’s playing.” So I went down there and that day that I went down with her, they were actually auditioning Into The Woods.
GoD: Oh my god, that’s so weird!
Johnson: Yeah. And that day was the auditions, and they said, “Listen. All the spots are already taken because it’s first come first serve, and everybody paid for it. We’ll put her on the waiting list and have her come tomorrow anyway and just audition. We’ll see if anybody gets moved around to a different class or a different play. We’ll see.” So she went that day and auditioned for 2 hours with all the kids. And that day later on, they called and said, “Ok. She’s in the play, and we’ll decide what part next week.” And she came the next day for the 2-hour rehearsal and they announced everyone’s part. She got Little Red and she had been wishing on the star every night – star light, star bright. She would pray every night to be Little Red.
GoD: That is so cute. In a few years you may have to tell her that auditions don’t always go that well.
Johnson: I know! Look ignorance is bliss. I told her, “If you get lucky. probably, you’ve never done this before and all these kids have been taking classes and doing plays. You might just get a little role to start out with. And that’s ok, because even the tiny parts are still something. It’s part of a whole, so don’t be upset.” And she goes, “Ok Daddy. I know I might not get Little Red and I might just get a little part, and that’s ok.”
GoD: Aw… So cute!
Johnson: And when they announced it, I thought she was gonna be like, “Daddy! Daddy!” But what she did, when I came to pick her up, she smiled and put her finger up for me to wait. She brought out the book that they gave them, and it said Into The Woods. And I open it, and next to her name it says “Little Red.” Dude… I almost cried. Are you kidding me? I was so happy. She was just glowing.
GoD: (Laughing) She is already more successful than you, right?
Johnson (Also laughing): Exactly!
GoD: That is so cute – 1 for 1! Ok. So I have like one minute. So… what is your favorite TV show that you’re not in?
Johnson: For me I have to say Vikings.
God: Oh my god. I love Vikings. You know, my first interview was George Blagden – Athelstan! How cool is that?
Johnson: That’s awesome. Travis (Fimmel) is a friend of mine, and I didn’t know he was on the show. We box at the same boxing gym. We’ve known each other for a while. I kinda didn’t know anything about him, but we saw each other every day at the boxing gym. And he would always come up and kinda talk, and he’s super cool and friendly. So one day I’m driving down Sunset, and on this building I see this huge billboard and it says Vikings on it. And he’s got a beard with a shaved head. And I thought, “That’s interesting. he kinda looks like Travis.” And every day, I’d drive by and I’d say, “I swear that looks like Travis.” And he never said anything and I didn’t say anything. And all of a sudden, I saw the show, and I’m like, “This is a real TV show. That’s Travis!” He’s such a humble, quiet guy. It’s just funny. But I started watching the show because it just seemed really interesting. My dad was born in Sweden and my mother, Latvia, so it’s like viking history.
GoD: My husband’s a history teacher. That’s why I started watching it.
Johnson: You’re kidding me!
GoD: Yeah. That’s why. Oh yeah. I forgot to ask you. How was it working with Ryan (Hurst) again? I wrote about it, “Like hey… they’re reunited!” Did you have many scenes with him? I can’t remember.
Johnson: In Sons? Yeah. We’re obviously all around. But, in this show, all my scenes are with Ryan and Max (Dylan). We got along like brothers when I first met him. He reminds me so much, from his nose up to his eyes, and I always tell him this, of my dad who’s no longer around. When my dad was really young – he’s got the same eyes and nose and eyebrows as my dad. So every time I would look at Ryan, I would go, “It’s so freaky.” So we connected. When I first started doing Sons, he was like, “I love you dude. You’re good. You came along and we’re always feeling out new actors. You came and we were like, whoa ok. This guy is real.” (not exact Ryan Hurst quote – but close enough). He was very complimentary, and I think the first day we all had a wrestling match in a parking lot. I got along with Charlie Hunnam too. But Ryan, he was like a soul mate. And the fact that he came and did the show and everything was with Ryan… it was dreamy. It was great. I mean, he’s phenomenal. Again, he’s like a soul brother so we get along so effortlessly.
God: It was dreamy for us too. All us Sons Of Anarchy fans were like, “Whaa!!! They’re gonna be together!”
The interview ended as all interviews should – with laughter.
Hope we get to see Kenny Johnson on season 4 of Bates Motel in 2016!
Bates Motel: Caleb Tells Dylan About His Past (S3, E1)
Caleb confesses that he knows about Dylan’s true parentage in this scene from “A Death in the Family.” Video