By Olisa Jr
It’s been almost a week since the thrilling finale episode of Hulu’s Wu-Tang: An American Saga Season 2 aired, and it’s still gripping the hearts of its fans as hard as ever. The Hip-Hop lover’s equivalent of a beautiful sunset, the critically acclaimed biopic is just about everything you could possibly ask for: iconic hip-hop history, portrayals of heartening brotherhood, and an unbridled stream of gritty, stellar acting—and the coming of age star Johnell Young is as much a part of the phenomenal project as anyone else on set. The actor and soon-to-be producer began his theatre journey at the age of eight-years-old before his heart was captured by his love of basketball. Like children, often trading away deeply loved hobbies for new ones, revisiting and constantly reshaping our thoughts on them, Young gleefully rekindled his love for acting as the end of his college career began back in 2017. “I think it was to mend up my heartbreak from not making the NBA, and it also being deeply therapeutic.”
Since taking on his breakout role as GZA The Genius in Hulu’s Wu-Tang, Johnell Young, despite being fairly new to the industry, has rightfully displayed his ability to take on the complexities of his characters, channelling their auras through his words, behaviours, and expressions - and with tremendous ease. As production on set has wrapped up, the Staten Island native is now in a time of reflection, committed to becoming more in tune with his craft, exploring ways to spark conversations, and re-inventing himself to prepare for the future. And so, as we await another season of awe-inspiring performances, Young gives us a rare glimpse into his mind.
“Not only am I an actor, I want to be an ACTIVIST.”
When did acting first make its way into your world?
Johnell: I wasn’t always an actor - basketball came first. Acting sort of came back for me while I was finishing up college, around 2016/17. I guess just being on set with some of my friends around that time and watching how the energy transferred between them and what they do at work, along with their co-workers, and the fans too are what grabbed me back into the life of acting. I wanted to really experience and see what that felt like.
What role does acting serve in your life?
Johnell: I think it was to mend up my heartbreak from not making the NBA, and it also being deeply therapeutic. It gave me a second chance to really take a profession seriously, and really make my mark known. It’s definitely still the case now, as I acknowledge that the more it’s gone on, the more I’ve grown to love it and take it a lot more seriously.
Are you someone who rewatches old performances to critique and improve yourself?
Johnell: Definitely! I watch it from a progress standpoint to see how I’ve improved and developed, and the things that I can work on for the future.
Is there any particular individual from the show or your past that particularly influenced your perception of the acting industry? Or inspired you to approach it in a certain way?
Johnell: Tristan Wilds and Micheal B. Jordan. They’ve definitely inspired me. Talking to them and being able to get little tips here and there and showing me the ways of this industry is really amazing. One thing I’ve learned is that it’s all about longevity too, being able to get better with every performance and diversify your talent as time goes on.
Moving onto Wu-Tang: An American Saga — It’s a big deal! I haven’t had the chance to see it yet, but I’m curious to know what you think was most special about it, and what made you take the role specifically?
Johnell: I think what made the show special is the fact that you’ve got these nine black men, iconic pioneers as they are to the world of hip-hop… putting down their egos, their attitudes, and their daily struggles, and coming together to see this bigger picture and make something phenomenal. That’s the biggest thing about the show that I gravitated towards. Growing up on Staten Island, I knew a little bit about each of them, so it pulled me into trying to learn more. And my role, GZA The Genius, I mean knowing who he is, who wouldn’t wanna take on that role?!
“You gotta be a GZA, you gotta have your intentions clear and know what you want, and that was him...he knew what he wanted to achieve and he had a plan.”
Do you feel as though you relate to your character in any intimate or personal way, beyond simply portraying him? And what might that be?
Johnell: Yeah! For sure. GZA hails from a whole other city going to Staten Island, and I hail from Staten Island going to a whole ‘nother city, chasing a dream. And in chasing that dream, his journey has impacted other people, and I can say - or at least I’d like to think - that my journey has impacted other actors too, as I’ve seen through the internet and my social media, so I think we can connect on some level in that way. And I grew up listening to them [Wu-Tang] so much, nurturing my self-confidence and determination that it became a part of who I was… who I am.
Given the cultural and musical influence GZA and the group have had in their era, flowing into current times, the accolades they’ve accomplished, classics produced, and so much more offered to the world, I’d like to think that taking on such a role must’ve come with a lot of detail-oriented thought and precision. Talk me through how you were able to prepare for the role?
Johnell: A lot of Youtube, a lot of calling him [GZA] and picking his brain. Spent a lot of time going to his concerts and being around him, seeing how he acts and engages with the other members. But it really boiled down to a lot of research and rewatching videos of him, moments from his career, really studying who he was.
Why do you think making this show was so important, and what made it different from simply creating any other ordinary, clichéd biopic waiting to be remade?
Johnell: It’s deeper than Wu-Tang Clan. It's inspiring. If you see their struggle from rags to riches, like in season 2, they’re starting to come up now, in comparison to their origins in the first season. It also conveys a strong message of brotherhood and coming together, and the power of it in God using these eight, nine kids from the hood. So if he [God] could use them to do what they did, he could definitely use you too. You gotta be a GZA, you gotta have your intentions clear and know what you want, and that was him… he knew what he wanted to achieve and he had the plan.
Working alongside a seasoned crew of actors, talented directors, and some of the most lauded personalities in Hollywood today, what was life like on set?
Johnell: Oh man, it was amazing. Being on set with Ashton Sanders, Siddiq, Shameik Moore, Dave East, TJ Atoms, Zolee, and everyone else, we were really like a whole family and it didn’t feel like work because of the connection we all had. It was very inspiring seeing how each of the actors went through preparation for their roles, sitting back and watching that because I’m fairly new. It really helped me to learn more and understand how to operate in these situations and improve myself.
Season 2 just wrapped up, and now there’s time to reflect on both the past, present, and future — what’s your biggest takeaway from this season and what are you most optimistic about?
Johnell: I’m gonna keep stressing is the brotherhood, the unity, the comradery. I feel that’s arguably the most important thing from this whole project. I think the show really communicated the fact that everyone needs to really come together right now, and work to inspire and help each other.
You’ve mentioned still being fairly new in the industry. Do you see yourself writing or directing in the future?
Johnell: Yeah actually, myself and TJ Atoms - who plays Ol’ Dirty Bastard in the show - are actually producing a film. It’s a skateboard film called Free The Dreamers, and it’s about some urban skateboard kids and BMX riders who have war in the streets of Philadelphia. We’re filming it in 2022 and it’s gonna be really good.
Being a black actor, and with the conversations sparked in the last few months, do you feel the need to take on roles that highlight the triumphs and not the tragedies or trauma of black culture? And what else do you think black actors can do to support their community?
Johnell: Yeah! I think there’s definitely a duty to do that because not only am I an actor, I want to be an activist for the community. I feel like I can use my voice to change the energy and the aura around what we come with as Black men. I can show a different side or shoot a different movie and maybe just spark the mind of somebody. You never know what your energy and what your performance can bring. I know what I hope mine does; I want it to be inspiring, moving, and touching. Together, we can shoot our own stuff and show the side we feel best portrays who we are and the community that has grown from what it was.