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CATCHING UP WITH LIZE JOHNSTON

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We recently spoke with the talented and inspiring Lize Johnston about her interesting life growing up and performing from a young age, as well as her inspirations. She also caught us up to date with her latest projects, as well as her future plans. Here is what this shining star had to share with the readers:

Please introduce yourself to the readers and how and when did you first get into performing?

Hi there, I’m Lize pronounced like “fleecy” and I’m an actress based out of LA. I grew up in South Africa, then emigrated to Australia where I lived for a long time before finally moving to New York and now LA. I first got into performing when I was a little girl. My mom was an actress and so I became a child actor in her productions. Later I went to a school that was part of a network of private schools that had national and international talent contests every year. I always entered the drama categories – I still have about 15 medals that I won – and represented the country in the US when I was 13. My first trip to the States! That was very exciting. I got to see the Twin Towers in New York! Little did I know I would be living down the road on Wall Street in years to come, and how much things would change.

When I was 12, my dad got me a job at a restaurant as a clown. Two years in, I met some adult clowns who took me under their wings, teaching me tricks, makeup, physicality, and general clown etiquette, and so I started my own clown business, entertaining at festivals and children’s parties for years to come. At 15 I was cast in my first major musical, and at 16 I landed the lead role in a big local production. There was nothing quite like the feeling I had when I found out I got the part! My grades took a hit during rehearsals, but that was it – the acting bug had taken a hold and there was no going back!

What inspired you to get into this industry?

Although I grew up acting and wanting to continue acting after I finished school, I don’t think it occurred to me that it was a real possibility until I moved to Australia. While studying a degree in computer science, I had a part-time job as an acting teacher at a studio that was also my first agent. For the first time I was in an environment where I was surrounded by people who thought that working towards being a professional actor was courageous rather than reckless, and that maybe the dream was possible. After university I got a software job at a bank, but I could not stop thinking about acting. It was like a puppy that chased me around and wouldn’t let me go. So I decided to move to NYC –  one of the best decisions I ever made. Since then I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of very talented people on a variety of interesting projects. It’s been great for my professional development. So, to answer the question – I think people asking why I *wasn’t* doing more about it, rather than why I was.

I can also say I love a good story. Who doesn’t? And movies, TV, and theatre inspire me to no end. Seeing a performance that is deep and thoughtful and different and original – it hurts in a kind of cathartic way and it makes me feel less alone, and sometimes it makes me laugh when that’s what I least expected. So I work towards doing that – offering myself in a story and bearing all without judgment – and when I have that opportunity, it is one of my greatest joys.

What kind of training have you had, if any?

My most recent training was at Harvard University, where I got my Master of Fine Arts in Acting from the American Repertory Theatre/Moscow Art Theatre Institute. I got to spend a three-month residency at the Moscow Art Theatre in Russia! That was a pretty extraordinary experience. Prior to that, I graduated from the two-year evening conservatory at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York – two of the best years of my life. I’ve also done shorter intensives at NIDA in Sydney and at the Art of Acting Studio in LA.

What has been your favorite role to play so far?

I had the good fortune of playing Lady Macbeth in New York, and in Original Pronunciation (OP) too. There are many trains of thought on OP, but basically it’s the quest to understand how actors would have spoken in the 1600s. In this particular production, the pronunciation we worked on made Lady M feel a lot earthier than I otherwise would have thought, and it opened up a whole new world to me. Other than that, I really enjoyed playing a twisted, slightly more daring version of Shakespeare’s Desdemona in a three woman play I did last year called Desdemona: A Play About A Handkerchief by playwright Paula Vogel. We had the best director (fun and just a little bit naughty), and we got to play in 360 degrees in a space called the Oberon, American Repertory Theatre’s second stage, home to nightclub and cabaret evenings alike. We sat on tables, danced on the bar, had choreographed fights through the audience, and even climbed over the balconies!

What has been one of your biggest achievements in your career so far?

I was cast in a live-action feature called Toby Goes to Camp that we shot towards the end of last year, about a young white Bengal tiger named Toby (who is gorgeous!!) that goes to a kids performing arts summer camp. It was like the cast of Glee meets Homeward Bound! I play Lynette, the camp counselor, together with my partner Eddie, and we’re basically terrible at our jobs. Luckily the camp owners are there to check up on things, but who knows if they would ever hire us again! The movie is currently in post-production and is the sequel to another movie called Toby’s Big Adventure, in which I provided the temporary voice for Toby the Tiger’s mouth to be animated. I’m so excited for the movies to come out! You can’t miss me as I’m in a bright yellow camp counselor t-shirt the whole time!

Ironically, one of the most challenging roles I’ve had was one in which I stood completely still for 45 minutes. It was a play called Heroin/e (Keep Us Quiet) directed by Scott Zigler about two women who lived a century apart – Anna Pankiev, the sister of one of Freud’s most famous patients, and Ellie Nesler, a woman who shot her son’s accused molester in court. We worked with the playwright, Carson Kreitzer, on the language and rhythm, and on underscoring and complementing each other without ever once looking at one another. My character, Anna’s thoughts jumped around quite a bit as her memories moved back and forth, and she would repeat ideas with slight changes on every iteration. It was a serious exercise in precision and gave me butterflies every night!

What projects do you have coming up?

Last week I walked the runway at LA Fashion Week and was also in an anti-trafficking project as a crack addict, so I’m looking forward to seeing the photos and the final product. I’m currently preparing for two short films that Ill be shooting this month, and I recently booked a supporting role in a feature-length indie Western that will be going in to pre-production shortly. I’ll also be appearing on a couple of episodes of the TV show FABLife on ABC soon and did some commercial projects that should be completed in the near future – one for a skincare product, one for a medical program, and one for a film festival. And I’m excited to see the TV shows for which I did some language consultant and dialect coaching work – an episode of Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders, an episode of Life in Pieces, in which I coached Josh Groban in a fun Irish accent, and an episode of Castle!

Who would you most like to work with?

When I lived in Sydney I walked past the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) often and took classes next door at Sydney Dance Company. I love the STC’s work. I saw their production of Uncle Vanya with Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving in New York and I was so enamored with it. To say that I would love to work with them would be the understatement of the year. The same goes for the Globe Theater in the UK. What a dream that would be!
As far as film goes, I find that I gravitate most towards intelligent, vulnerable, and understated characters, and open-ended stories that refrain from making any sort of statement or comment about themselves; stories with no clear right or wrong. I also identify with the eccentric. I can be a glutton for punishment as I’m particularly inspired by work that is raw and hard to watch yet impossible to turn away from. The Australian movie Lantana, based on one my favorite plays, Speaking in Tongues by Andrew Bovell, comes to mind. (While we’re on the topic of Bovell, his play When the Rain Stops Falling is another outstanding piece. I did an excerpt of it and use one of its monologues for auditions and have wanted to do the full play ever since I first started work on it.) As an avid movie-goer, I love watching films with beautiful or unusual imagery, like the work of Terrence Malick or Tim Burton. Of course I have favorites from so many other directors – far too many to name.

What are your plans for the future?

I’d like to continue building my career and planting some roots here in LA. Visiting my family in Australia and South Africa more often would be great, and maybe I can even convince some of them to move here! And down the road I’d like a family of my own as well. But right now I’m just enjoying being back in sunny weather with palm trees and beaches after so many years of wearing seven different layers and looking like a potato sack while trying to stay warm in the freezing cold! (New York, I love you, but those winters were brutal!)

What is your advice to aspiring performers?

I’ve been thinking about this question for a while, trying to figure out what I’d say other than the clichéd “Never Give Up.” I think it has something to do with not focusing on yourself. You get caught up in your fears, your failures, your successes, and they go to your head making you think you deserve it and perhaps others just haven’t worked as hard – that luck had nothing to do with it. Or you get knocked down one too many times and bitterness starts driving you, making you want to succeed just to “show them” rather than because you love it. The work is always more compelling when your focus is outward. This is something I wrestle with a lot. I have to keep my mind active, thinking about other things, or else I lose my perspective. I become less present. It’s about gratefulness. It’s such a simple concept, yet it can be so hard to do. Not forgetting how far you’ve come – where you originally started out – and maintaining gratefulness.

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