How ‘The Hate U Give’ Star Lamar Johnson Danced His Way Into Hollywood

From a bit part dancing in ‘Honey’ to a slew of upcoming roles, Johnson is Canada’s next big export

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Sarah Jacobs

It seems like Canada has become a conveyor belt of production for today’s superstars. Drake has been casually living up to the lyrics in his song “8 out of 10” (I been on top for three sets of three years) off of his latest multi-platinum LP, Scorpion. But on the come-up, there's Stranger Things' Finn Wolfhard, Room star Jacob Tremblay and Riverdale's Emilija Baranac. Add to that list another young Canuck who is primed to land in Hollywood with a boom-step thud.

Lamar Johnson, the 24-year-old star of The Hate U Give, can already be considered a “do-it-all” talent. He’s an incredible dancer and a talented actor who has Hollywood buzzing, having landed coveted roles in X-Men: Dark Phoenix and A24’s upcoming Native Son, based on the Richard Wright novel.

Johnson spent his early years growing up in the rough Scarborough suburb of Toronto. His mom emphasized the value of a strong work ethic. Through his efforts, Johnson was able to find his niche as a dancer. Johnson was self-taught as a dancer beginning with dancehall then hip-hop foundational styles; he was a “popper” and “waver” at first, who eventually moved on to train in ballet and the more traditional studio dance styles. Many may consider him a rookie in the biz, but he’s far from a stranger to the bright lights and cameras. He made his first cameo at age nine in the Jessica Alba fronted dance epic Honey. He later scored gigs that included performing at the Apollo Theatre in New York and opening for Chris Brown. This helped him sidestep into acting, where he clocked several appearances on Rookie Blue and the famed teen soap Degrassi: The Next Generation.

Things have only heated up for the rising star as he stockpiles praise from critics for his role as Seven Carter in director George Tillman Jr.'s The Hate U Give. Johnson joins a talented cast of Amanda Stenberg (The Hunger Games), Regina Hall (Girls Trip), Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker) and Issa Rae (Insecure). The film, a racially-charged portrait of Starr (Stenberg) who has to contend with the untimely death of her childhood friend by the police, currently sits on Rotten Tomatoes with a 97 percent. Seven is her older half-brother, and protects Starr as she grieves.

With the film out tomorrow, Oct. 5, ONE37pm caught up with Johnson to help him prep for his coming out party as Hollywood’s breakout star of 2018.

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Sarah Jacobs

Omari White: KJ Apa (who stars as Archie on Riverdale and the character Chris in this film) said he was “sad for humanity” when he watched the film and “sad we even have to tell this story." Do you agree?

Lamar Johnson: Yeah, it’s very important. The great thing about this film is that it starts conversations. People will be able to leave the film feeling mixed emotions and also, just the story, it’ll have you talking about [police brutality]. That’s really important for people to start a conversation about these things because this film is very timely and topical. It is currently something that is happening in our world. There have been a lot of narratives that are very similar to police brutality. You know what K.J. is saying is really sad, that we have to be making these type of films, but at the same time, it’s really important that these films are being made for people to see—and for people to wake up and recognize that this is really happening outside of your front door.

White: There have been a bunch of recent films that have come out with race at the center of the narrative: Sorry to Bother You, BlacKkKlansman, Blindspotting, Monsters and Men. How does it feel to make a movie where it stresses the importance of a message rather than putting emphasis on the entertaining aspect of it?

Johnson: As an actor, it is important for you to tell important stories that speak to people. Doing entertaining films is great because that’s essentially what the industry is made for: Entertainment. The Hate U Give touches on topics in the current climate we are in terms of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s a film that supports those issues that need to be resolved.

But also, it’s entertaining as well. There are moments of levity, there’s loving family and relationship moments that people can recognize and there’s representation in the film. It shows the white experience, where at times it shows how ignorant and naïve they can be and it’s not purposely done but it’s just that they are not exposed to certain things. It shows two sides and doesn't leave out the heavy stuff in terms of the story and what Star goes through in her journey.

White: Were you able to check out the other movies that I mentioned?

Johnson: I watched BlacKkKlansman and I loved the movie. Actually, there’s one moment in the film when the Black Panther Party had a meeting and the leader, Kwame Ture?! His speech?! [shakes his head] Damn! That hit home for me. I watched it and was like, “Yoooo! This is real.” Moments like that where there are gems and knowledge and facts being dropped. I think it’s such a great time for filmmaking right now. There is a lot of information that is being pushed through this medium of filmmaking, through visuals, through narratives. These major studios are now telling these stories and I think it’s really important.

White: Do you remember the first time seeing Michael Jackson dance? How did watching Michael inspired you to take the craft of dancing more seriously?

Johnson: Michael Jackson has been around my entire life. My mom, she was a big dancer, so she introduced me to his style of dancing. But when I saw the “Smooth Criminal” video, that when I was like, “Yo! This guy is so dope.” It was the way he moved. It was so smooth and so cool to me. I’m a visual learner and I can watch things and pick them up quickly. That’s what I did. I watched his live stage performances, the way he would move his body. It was super fluid and he would wave and it would just flow. It was like floetry in motion [laughs]. He was really instrumental in me wanting to start to dance. Also, another movie that really hit home for me was You Got Served. I really fell in love with dance after You Got Served. You know, I was in Honey with Jessica Alba when I was nine years old.

White: How did it feel to film with Jessica Alba and to live out one of your dream gigs at such a young age?

Johnson: Honestly, it was amazing. It was the first set I'd ever been on. So once I was able to get to experience that, that’s when it hit me—“This is what I want to do.”

White: Besides making an appearance in Honey, what was your favorite moment or experience dancing in front of a large crowd?

Johnson: It has to be when I performed at the Apollo Theatre in New York City. It was a crazy moment for me. Me and my dance partner at the time, Shamar, used to call our group 2 Badd. When I performed there, I was 11 or 12 years old and we had [comedian and actress] Mo'nique introduce us and we got a standing ovation from the audience. Everyone knows that the Apollo Theatre's audience is nothing to mess with. They can be tough. The fact that we got so much love, and they gave us a standing ovation, just meant the world to me. People like my idol Michael Jackson once performed on that stage, among other great legends, so for me to be there and share that moment where all the legends performed there means a lot.

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Sarah Jacobs

White: You told me you read the book Native Son by Richard Wright. You were recently been cast to be a part of the movie adaptation of it. Can you tell me about that?

Johnson: I’ll be playing a character named Gus, who is from the south side of Chicago. It’s all in the matter of survival in the circumstances I was given. I’m that type of influence to Bigger (Gus’s friend) and it is going to be really interesting to see how that dynamic with Bigger also wanting to escape the hard times intertwined with relationships with people and how it affects those relationships. It’s similar to my circumstances when I was growing up in Toronto.

White: How did you get booked for a recurring role in the X-Men franchise?

Johnson: I auditioned for another X-Men project. I got pinned for the role and they redrafted the script and I got written out of the script. Then they called me back for this role, auditioned for it. The next day, I got the call saying I was picked—so it was a process. But I’m so happy to be a part of this franchise. I remember watching X-Men cartoons growing up so the fact that I’m now a part of this legacy is incredible. I always wanted to have superpowers and to be a superhero. The fact I get to live that is very cool.

White: Do you hope to inspire youth as a black superhero?

Johnson: Just me being a black superhero is going to be really big, at least I hope it will be really big. It would be a big source of inspiration for the young black fanbase that are growing up. I want them to say they want to be a superhero and they can actually have that representation on screen with me being a young, black man doing this and to show them that it is possible.

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