AJ Johnson Talks Latest Role, 'Stuck With You,' Creating a "Happy List," and Teaming up With Ghana
Updated: Mar 11, 2020
Growing up in a predominantly white area of New Jersey, AJ (Adrienne-Joi) Johnson has always achieved everything she set her mind to. From being crowned Homecoming Queen, to participating in various school activities including basketball, track, and theater, Johnson has always been active. After high school, she attended Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia where she pledged Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated. Johnson was the lead choreographer for ‘In Living Color’ before transitioning into her role as Sharane in the 90’s classic ‘House Party’. Johnson attributes the way she approaches a role to her growing up with a different background and wanting to bring that difference to the role. Johnson has captivated the hearts of fans worldwide through her characters from the ‘Ink Well’ and of course a cult favorite, ‘Baby Boy.’
In addition to being an actress and dancer, Johnson is also a wellness coach and owner of The AJ Zone which encourages healthy living on all levels. Syppin With Symone recently got a chance to speak with Johnson about her latest role on the Urban Movie Channel, ‘Stuck With You’, having faith in God, creating a “happy list” and her partnership with Ghana.
SWS: How did you prepare for your role as Juanita in Baby Boy? You graduated from Spelman and you're a part of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated while Juanita was a young mother from the streets who was trying to live her best life.
I credit John Singleton and my acting coach at the time Ellen Bradley. John was very instrumental in introducing me to a lot of the girls from South Central. I spent two weeks with some of his friends from the hood. We went shopping at the mall, they took me to get my nose pierced because I wanted that to be a part of the character. I listened to their conversations and studied their mentality because it was so different from mine. I had trouble letting go of AJ the Spelman and Delta girl. John would say a lot, this is not AJ from Spelman, this is Juanita from South Central. John would also remind me not to worry about not knowing. A lot of the times I would say I feel silly for not knowing more. John would say she is Juanita and she doesn’t know. He was very instrumental in helping me prepare for that side of it. My acting coach was very instrumental in bridging that part of Juanita with what we thought would help me stand out as the actress who was chosen.
You stepped away from the cameras for a while, what made you decide to take a break and what was the determining factor that made you come back?
I was having a hard time being passionate and happy with the roles that were being offered and the work I was doing. I came into Hollywood with a lot of passions and interests. Although I was focusing everything on my acting career, I just wasn’t happy spending 15 hour days on set, sometimes with people, you don’t particularly like, you take the job at that point because you need the job and it’s your career, it’s not a character that you want to portray. I grew up taking multiple dance classes, figure skating horseback riding, I’ve always been a spirit of choice. So, when I started seeing that acting wasn’t holding my interest, I had so many other things to choose from that I was equally passionate about. I wanted to take some time and do something different. My parents did advise me to own something. I would get angry when I would say hey, I got the project, and they would reply, yeah but Paramount and Sony aren’t your last name, you don’t own anything, you are their employee. Finally, I decided, let me build something that I own, hence The AJ Zone Healthy Living Company. I finally understood what they were saying to me. I never knew the sidestep from acting would be 10-12 years of a sidestep but I loved what I was doing. I didn’t miss acting. I was hearing my friends complain about pilot season and not getting this job or no movies were coming out. I didn’t miss it. I was living my best life enjoying the fruits of my labor.
I didn’t feel like I was skipping any beats and then a couple of things happened. I saw where platforms were expanding therefore so did content choices. More content gave an ear to African American writers and African American females telling stories. I also felt like my particular voice was missing meaning that I had lived a life of purpose and I knew if I started acting again, I would also use my platform to also life coach. I would choose characters with a message and a story behind them. I knew that I could hopefully touch or change at least one life with my story. So that’s what made me come back.
You said that you had other options, what would you say to someone who is unhappy with their job but doesn’t have any other options?
There is some spiritual work that is needed because God is not a God of limitations. So whatever limitations people are putting on themselves is not God-ordained, that’s self-inflicted. You have to have faith in God. What if this is not the right job for you? Do you have enough faith to quit and try something else? What if this is not the right field or career? Do you have enough faith to know that God is going to have your back to where you stop doing what you hate to try and do something you love? That takes faith, I’m saying this from experience. It takes believing that God will not forsake you once you make that decision and step out on faith to do different things then all of a sudden your world starts to open up and you may say I never knew I would be doing this for work, traveling to Africa, or have my hand in so many philanthropic opportunities. So, I would say, stop limiting yourself.
Let’s talk about your latest role on ‘Stuck with You’ for those who may not be familiar, can you tell us about the show, your character Stephanie and what drew you to this role?
‘Stuck With You’ is the story of a few couples who are navigating life, love, relationships, and business. The leading couple is a celebrity couple that is doing well publicly but they are the most dysfunctional couple ever behind closed doors. So, they are trying to figure out should they continue in this dysfunctional relationship for the sake of their careers and the paycheck that comes with the celebrity couple or do they go for their happiness and take a chance on losing their brand. I play Stephanie who is their close friend and publicist. I help them navigate what they need to do both personally and professionally. What drew me to the role was one of my closest friends Patricia Cuffie-Jones is the creator, writer, producer, and director. She was the one who said, “I think I have something for you” I said, whatever it is I want to do. We talk all the time about what I want to do. It was more so that I wanted to work with her, and I trusted her decision that the role would be for me. Going back to John Singleton, because he spoiled me and how I make my acting choices now. I want to work with writers, directors, producers, that I love. I want to work with people who are sensitive to the type of roles and characters that I want to play. It’s now more of a hobby than a career so it has to be fun and enjoyable. Patricia was one of those people.
In Gabrielle Union's sit down with Jada Pinkett Smith on Red Table Talk, she mentioned that one of the first things you did was have her create a happy list and she could not. Do you think that not knowing what makes you happy and having low self-esteem are related?
The reason why I created a happy list is that I believe not knowing what makes you happy is the reason for a lot of things, not just low self-esteem. You could be settling for the job you don’t want or settling for the relationship you don’t want or settling for behaviors from other people that don’t make you feel celebrated. The reason why I started initiated the technique of the happy list is that I did that when I decided to focus on the AJ Zone more than acting. When I made my happy list the next phase of it was for me to understand and accept the things that make me happy had nothing to do with the industry. On my list, I had to have a puppy and going for long walks at sunset, stuff that didn’t have anything to do with the industry. That’s what made me say I’m spending my life chasing something that isn’t even in the top 5 of my happy list, something needs to change. When I paid attention to my happy list it made me decide to start using it with other people If you don’t know what makes you happy then there is no way we can design it. I tell people you may be thinking differently about what goes on your happy list so you may self-sabotage or criticize it.
Let’s transition into Ghana, how you end up partnering with them?
I went to Ghana for the first time in December 2018 for a holiday vacation with The Full Circle Festival. I had never been to Africa, so the way I wanted to go was going to be produced through this group. I was going to go with people I knew, people who were also of the Hollywood community so I knew it would be safe. They already had an itinerary planned! I had no idea that I would be transformed. I had no idea that there was going to be so much history for us a people that we just don’t know, and you will not learn it until you have that experience. To go into the slave dungeon and experience that part of our ancestry, to taste different foods and to learn the different dialects. There was so much that I did not know and to see it in real life! My introduction to Africa was Wakanda in Black Panther like most of us. People are in dresses and other beautiful garments, and jewelry I was like wow! I had no idea and I was so attracted to it. I partner with The Ghana Tourism Authority because I had some friends who were working with them and I expressed some interest in doing more in The Year of Return(2019) which is the acknowledgment of the 400 years Transatlantic slave trade. There are different programs throughout the year, and they asked me to host and attend so I was going back and forth. Then I connected with the President’s office and I spoke at the Emancipation Day when I was there. Now The Year of Return has become Beyond The Return. It’s like I returned in 2019 and now in 2020, the goal is moving beyond that in service. So I created an organization called The Bridge To Better where not only am I participating in any way that bridges us, but I’m also building the organization to take people who are interested in bridging rather its philanthropy and service, learning the foods and bringing them back to America, learning languages to help teach other people because that’s our native dialect. Everything that happened to us as African Americans happened after we were removed from our homeland, now I feel we should not be separate. So, whatever that bridge is what I’m trying to do.
Lastly, are there any upcoming projects we should know about?
Look for me on Love & Hip-Hop Miami. I’m also going to be doing a project for BET which will film in April. It’s a new degree of content that they are creating for BET and BET Her, so it’s about women, for women, by women. I love it because there is going to be a series of shorts, but the storylines will focus on mental health and breast cancer. The stories are written by Victoria Rowell, Vanessa Bell Calloway, and Kim Fields. I’m excited to participate and be directed by them because I respect all of them and they are amazing talents so I can’t wait to grow from learning from them. The episode I’ll be on is directed by Vanessa Bell Calloway. We worked together on The Inkwell and we haven’t worked together since so I’m excited to be directed by her. I’m looking forward to opening myself up to learn from her.