We'd go to a religious school in Denver and my dad was a stout atheist who would tear apart everything we learned. It was a great tug and pull.
If you choose an imaginary boyfriend while watching television, it’s likely you have someone picked out already like Bryce Johnson—or exactly him. Maybe it happened with Popular or you followed Pretty Little Liars. Maybe it was Glee when he was asked to play sexy Santa. Whatever the case, it’s probably not unlike someone who’s super charismatic like Johnson in real life. The 37-year-old is now a consummate family man who’s appeared on those very tween phenoms and so much more. Johnson is backing that up these days with a different kind of trajectory, appearing in independent films and, strangely, an onslaught of scary things. And this all started a long time ago when he moved to Los Angeles at 19 years old. This guy knows what he’s doing.
In Paul Harrill’s Something, Anything, he’s something else entirely. Mark (Johnson) is at the receiving end of his wife’s anguish following her miscarriage. In this quietly moving drama, we follow Margaret (Ashley Shelton) as she goes on a journey towards a spiritual awakening.
Something, Anything has an exclusive run at Made in NY Media Center by IFP from January 9 to January 15, and available for download on leading digital outlets on January 20.
I found the overall tone of Something, Anything exciting and unexpected because it’s at once peaceful and solemn throughout. How did the screenplay read to you in that first passing?
I agree with you. Gosh, when I first read it I found it quiet and compelling. It felt like it was an uncommon story and the script definitely stuck out from the normal fare that I’m used to reading.
How did this film enter your orbit? Had you known Paul previously?
No, I hadn’t. I worked with a mutual friend of ours, Chris Munch, on a film called Harry + Max. Paul and Chris are colleagues and friends, so when Paul was looking to cast this role, Chris mentioned my name and that’s how this got started. I put myself on tape, Paul bit, and off we went!
What sort of conversations did you and Paul have about your character in the early stages? What was important for you to get across?
I think that was achieved in the performance during the shoot, too. But the thing that was really important to me was to paint Mark in broad strokes without making him out to be this asshole or somebody who isn’t very thoughtful. I always looked at Margaret and Mark as two people who weren’t destined to be together. I didn’t want Mark to be so one-dimensional. It’s a complicated relationship, as most relationships usually are. I didn’t want him to come off like a jerk.
So you’re originally from Reno, Nevada, but you moved around quite a bit as I understand it. What’s the story behind that?
Yeah, I was born in Reno. My parents divorced when I was around 3 or 4, and that’s when my mom moved to Denver. I spent my schooling years in Denver and summers in Reno. After I graduated in Denver, my mom moved to Iowa and I helped her with the move there. From Iowa, I flew out to Los Angeles when I was 19.
What was it like to have that kind of nomadic lifestyle growing up? It’s almost like you were setting yourself up for the actor’s life you have now.
It worked out great because I experienced it with my older brother, Brendon. As soon as the school year let out it’s, “Let’s get the fuck out of Denver!” It was off to Reno for a summer vacation with my dad and at the end of that it’s, “Let’s get the fuck out of Reno and head back to Denver!” [Laughs] It worked well in that sense. We’d go to a religious school in Denver and my dad was a stout atheist who would tear apart everything we learned. It was a great tug and pull.
Brendon played a pivotal on you wanting to act. What was it about watching him in the school musical that clicked for you?
Well, you know, my brother’s gay. He came out to my father and I when he was 16. That really clicked for me. Me and my father, we fought like cats and dogs in my teen years—we were at each others’ throats. When Brendon came out, something clicked and it all kind of made sense and I saw him in a different light, and we’ve been close ever since. Through that, I was able to understand him. But to answer your question, I was sort of floating about through high school as a class clown, getting OK grades, but not really sure what I wanted to do. I was actually pretty close to joining the Navy. But I saw my brother up on stage in the play South Pacific. I knew my brother as being a kind of morose and quiet individual, but when he was up there on stage, he lit that fucking thing up. It’s like, “Who is this guy? He revealed a completely different side of himself that I’d never seen before. What that revealed to me was the power of transformation that a play or a movie can bring. As a brother seeing this, of course, I thought, “I can do that—better.” [Laughs] Being the class clown I thought, “That’s what I’ll do. I’ll go out to Hollywood and make movies.”
That’s powerful. That turned out to be a transformative experience for both of you.
It absolutely was. It grounds me as well. I’ll always remember why I wanted to do this and who inspired me to do it.
You were the class president as well, weren’t you? You were just picture perfect even back then. That’s really obnoxious, Bryce.
[Laughs] It’s funny, man. During my freshman and sophomore years, I was trying to please everybody and fit in with the crowd. It wasn’t until I realized that my friends were actually dicks that I thought, “What the fuck am I doing hanging out with these people?” They were bullies, cliquey and small-minded—I was just over it. So in my junior year, I decided to set out on my own path. I wasn’t going to try and fit in. I wasn’t going to try and be popular. And my dad was always political so I wanted to get involved with stuff like that, which is why I decided to run for class president. When I got elected, I had a great time and pursued it again my senior year.
Ironically, you made your big break on the TV series Popular.
It’s crazy how so many things mirrored my life experiences. In the original pilot of Popular, Josh Ford, the character I played, was torn between wanting to be the quarterback of the football team and wanting to try out for the school play. I could relate to that. Hats off to Ryan Murphy who would always come into my trailer and say, “Bryce, tell me a story.” [Laughs] I would offer some stuff from the palette of my life and he would take that and in a script three shows later, I would see it. It was amazing! There were a couple of episodes just torn from the pages of my book.
You ended up working with Ryan again on Glee further down the line. Do those sort of experiences feel pretty wild when they happen?
Absolutely! The funny thing was that the audition came and they wanted a sexy Santa. I was just like, “I gotta do this…” [Laughs] I thought the audition went great and emailed Ryan saying, “You gotta give me this part.” He emailed back three words: “How’s your bod?” [Laughs] That’s so Ryan Murphy. I was like, “I’ve been living at the gym,” and I got the call for the booking, you know? I want to mention this and it’s important: I wouldn’t have reached out to Ryan and made that call had I not felt I nailed the audition. If I thought it was a subpar audition, I would’ve never reached out to make that connection, you know? I let my audition book the part for me.
Were there instances when you felt that you were being typecast in any way? Shows like Popular and Pretty Little Liars have such a rabid fanbase that I’d imagine people would want to package your image in a certain way for obvious reasons.
I’m very apprehensive about that kind of stuff after Popular and I’ve done guest spots on more teen shows. I don’t feel challenged by that stuff. I want to see what else is out there. You can see in my credits that I’ve done unexpected things. For example, the movie I did with Chris Munch, Harry + Max, was about two brothers in the entertainment business who have incestuous feelings. That was great for me because it was an unexpected avenue. It opened up the field for me, if you like. Fear drives me. Nothing really scares me in a script or an audition—I’m drawn to it. So when I see those teen roles, and I see them all the fucking time, they don’t move me.
How would you compare the experience of being on Popular and Pretty Little Liars when you factor in social media? We obviously had no social media when Popular was going on.
It’s night and day! When I was on Popular I never even answered my phone, let alone worry about Facebook, Myspace or any of that shit. Fans wrote letters to the network, and your agents and managers. That was the only to make contact back then. 15 years later on Pretty Little Liars—and they’re smashing Twitter records—it’s a whole new experience. When I bother to, I really like reaching out to people through Twitter and Instagram. I like to hear the comments and questions. It’s such a great way for me to have a closer relationship with the people who appreciate my work.
What’s the experience like dipping in and out of an established show as a guest star, being thrown into an ensemble? Does it feel like you’re the new kid in school?
Absolutely it does. Most of the time as a guest star, you’re doing the heavy lifting! If you’re doing an interrogation scene, you’re sitting there crying and, like, “I didn’t do it! I don’t know!” The regular does the “Where’s the money? What did you do? Where is she?” [Laughs] When I did CSI, it was hard and Gary Sinise was sitting across from me. When I was done, I remember him winking at me and saying, “Hey, man. Thanks for bringing it to our show.” That was so great and, listen, I’ve been on both sides of that. Most people don’t give the guest stars the time of day. I think a lot of people overlook the work it goes into booking those roles and seeing them through.
Are you still looking for that role on a Western?
I’m definitely waiting around for the Western. [Laughs] I want that! My favorite movie growing up was Young Guns, man. I’ve been fucking dying to get on a horse with a six-shooter. I hear the Western is making a small comeback and I just hope there’s an opportunity out there for me.
I don’t even know how long ago you said that in an interview. Sometimes I take this kernel of information and run with it. Then people tell me, “I remember saying that ages ago!”
[Laughs] I still want to do a Western. If you hear of anyone casting, you let me know.
Do you ever get the urge to get behind the camera? The lines are getting really blurred these days because so many actors pick up the camera now. You could make your own Western.
I do get those urges, but I don’t know so much about directing. I started producing this short film called Broadtrip, which we’re submitting to festivals now. I really enjoy being part of the creative process, outside of being an actor. I love getting involved with that side of it, so I can definitely see myself directing down the road. I got a co-producer credit on Willow Creek and that was thanks to Bob [Goldthwait], you know? Bob appreciated all of it—what Alexie [Gilmore] and I brought to those roles and the project—but mind you, there were only the seven of us shooting the fucking thing anyway. [Laughs] It’s not like a bunch of credits drop after the movie is done.
You’re referring to Bobcat Goldthwait. What’s the story behind that name anyhow?
Yeah! Well, you know, his friend growing up in Syracuse was Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants. I think this is how it goes—I might be wrong—but they gave each other the nicknames “Tomcat” and “Bobcat.” Obviously, one stuck and the other didn’t.
You’ve collaborated with Bob three times now. Am I getting that right?
Yeah, we made Sleeping Dogs Lie, God Bless America, and Willow Creek together. I would love to do more with him. I just respect and admire that guy so much. If you’re talking about Willow Creek, people get the idea that they can just go into the woods with a camera and make a movie, too. Well, while that may be true, if you don’t have the vision or know how to execute it, you’re going to fall flat on your face. Bobcat has that in spades. I’m so enthralled with his career. He went from doing stand-up to directing TV and now he’s making a name for himself in independent film. And he just completed a documentary, his first-ever documentary, which I think was just accepted into Sundance. That guy’s not afraid to fail. He’s not afraid to try things. He’s not even a fan of found footage movies, but wanted to try one with Willow Creek. He respects all genres of film.
There’s obviously a creative spark between you guys. Is it easier to commit to a friend’s project or is it more difficult? What if you don’t like the material?
You know what? Sometimes it doesn’t even matter, man. If it’s someone that I admire and respect like Bobcat or Paul or Chris, I’d tell them all the same thing, which is an unequivocal “yes.” Whether it requires just one line or all of them, I’d be happy to do it.
What’s up next? What’s going on with Visions? That cast… Isla Fischer, Jim Parsons, Anson Mount, and Eva Longoria. I love everything about this.
Isn’t it a great cast? Hopefully, that will get released! It’s a great script and story. We killed that. I’d love to see that come out in theaters. With Blumhouse Productions, you just really never know.
When did you guys shoot that one?
About a year and a half ago, I suppose.
Is it weird for you to shoot a film like that and then have to revisit it so much later for the promotional trail, the release and whatnot?
It is weird. You just take so much time away from it. It’s like, “Oh yeah! I forgot about that one…” because, once I leave the set, that’s a wrap on Bryce, you know? I usually just forget about the film until it shows up again because—and I know this from experience—it might never show up again. Why wait and hope for something that might never come around, you know?
You also have Home Sweet Hell and Darkness Rising coming up. You’ve been doing a lot of scary movies recently, Bryce. Are you a fan of horror?
I’m a fan of all genres, but not so much horror. Do you know what’s funny about horror? I was actually thinking about this the other day… Everybody always says this or that about horror movies, but my wife and I won’t watch them in our own home because we know they’ll scare us. It’s a powerful genre. It’s a double-edged sword.
Does starting a family sort of shift your outlook when it comes to work? Do you feel like you conduct yourself differently in a creative sense? I don’t mean in terms of genre or anything like that, but the workload, how much you’re willing to take on, what you’d be doing—
Before I had a family, the thing that was most important in my life was my career, you know? As soon as I met my wife and had my children, it shifted. My family became first and career became second, obviously. It was an unexpected shift. When I moved to L.A. at 19, I wouldn’t let anything get in my way. But I’m glad it did get in my way because now I’m a family man first and foremost.