PTR Senior Staff Writer
Kenny Johnson is that guy.
The guy you want to have as your leading man.
The guy who brings to the screen a unique combination of intensity, compassion and sense of ease.
The guy who had never starred alongside a leading lady for any extended period of time in his career but wound up next to Holly Hunter in a twist of meant-to-be fate that, as a Cold Case viewer, now has me feeling not nearly so bad in having seen his role of Joseph Shaw cut short.
The guy who has definitely struck gold portraying the loyal, good-hearted yet emotionally confused Detective Ham Dewey on TNT’s hit series, Saving Grace.
And by the way … did we mention he's awfully cool, too?
It’s a known fact that everyone loves to talk to Kenny about his time as Curtis “Lem” Lemansky on The Shield. That seems especially true now as The Shield enters its final season, and fans anxiously await what everyone says will be one heck of a series finale.
But we’re different here at PTR.
And I confess I am one of three (or is it four?) people on the continent who: a) don’t watch The Shield; and, b) didn’t come to know Kenny through his role as Lem. Rather, I came to know him as Joseph Shaw, the only decent guy Detective Lilly Rush ever got her hands on over on Cold Case.
Fair enough, you might say.
But when I recently had the chance to chat with Kenny about all-things Ham and Grace, even I was surprised to learn that his limited time on Cold Case actually played a key role in how he came to be a part of Saving Grace, and thus, begin his segue into leading manhood.
“Paris Barclay, who directed a couple episodes of The Shield, was working at Cold Case at the time,” says Kenny. “He asked me to come in and meet with him to pitch this idea of Kathryn Morris’ character, Lilly Rush, having a boyfriend that might be on-going – a guy that would be good for her. So, in the episode of ‘Joseph,’ he gets introduced as this guy who had taken on his brother’s identity [and of whom] had been hiding for a year, yet ends up falling in love with Lilly [given it was Lilly who was assigned to investigate his case]. And, that was really my first time getting to play alongside a leading lady – or [play] a love interest – because I [had] always played the rebellious guy [who] had a lot of girls but never really had a [serious] girlfriend.”
Our readers know we lament the fact that Cold Case has consistently botched any attempt they’ve ever made at giving ol' Lil' a personal life. We hadn’t had a decent guy for her (read: no thug cop, no motorcycle reject) since the first season, and Kenny’s portrayal of Joseph gave us hope.
Both for actor and viewers.
Despite the fact he was excited to take on the role, and shared a great rapport with series lead Kathryn Morris, Kenny says there was a great deal of uncertainty in what the producers wanted to do with the Joseph character.
“I was so up for Cold Case. Kathryn and I had really cool chemistry when we first met. We used to have the same acting teacher in the early 1990s – Larry Moss. And apparently, we were in class at the same time [though] I don’t remember,” he says with a laugh. “We have a lot of mutual friends, and we know a lot of the same people.
“She was also on a TV series called Pensacola Wings of Gold for a year with James Brolin,” Kenny continues. “[Even though] that whole cast got replaced by myself, Sandra Hess and Michael Trucco [for season two], we [still] knew each other from that time. So, when we met for Cold Case, we already had a lot in common, and we just sort of clicked. We played off each other really well. I had no idea how it was going to come out on screen, but I could feel a chemistry with her. I remember [the producers] saying, ‘Look, you know, we’ve had a lot of people with Kathryn that didn’t have that energy, but you do.’ So, they were really happy at first, and they originally had me for about 13 episodes. And, although I had always thought it was a really, really cool show, at the same time I kept thinking, ‘How am I going to fit in there? What are they going to do?’ I didn’t know how far or how deep they were going to take my character, and I didn’t want to just be ‘that guy’ - the guy that, every once in a while, just shows up to have these little scenes together with [Kathryn]. I kind of wanted it to be a little more in depth. And because I don’t think they could commit to that idea given they themselves didn’t know where it was going to go, we kind of cut it short in five episodes.”
Much to my chagrin. And yet, this actually was a good thing for Kenny. Cutting it short on Cold Case gave him a golden opportunity to audition for the role of Ham Dewey.
“When I left The Shield, I wanted to be smart, and whatever [I was going to do next] had to be equally as powerful to me in some way, shape or form [as it was on The Shield]. It had to really say something. One of the scripts I read was for Saving Grace. I thought the pilot was great and, of course, Holly Hunter was attached to it. I really dug the energy. It spoke to me – kind of like when I read the pilot for The Shield. I thought Saving Grace was different from anything I had seen, and if [a show like that] was willing to take a chance to go down [a certain] road [to] bring up things that will make people think, I wanted to be a part of it,” says Kenny.
But like everything in Hollywoodland, it was a long wait-and-see process for Kenny to determine whether the role of Ham would be his for sure.
“The audition didn’t come for almost a month and half to two months,” he says. “I didn’t hear anything about it. So, I went on to Cold Case, but as I said, it wasn’t like I was fully content there given so much was uncertain. So, as they were writing me off, I got the call from Saving Grace. I went in to audtion, like, two days after shooting my final episode of Cold Case [“Saving Sammy”]. [Creator and executive producer] Nancy [Miller] stood up and was like, ‘Great, great! I loved you in The Shield! I was sad they killed you off, and now Cold Case … what’s happening with that?’ When I told her I had just been written off, she asked me to come back in the next morning to audition again. They got my tape to Holly Hunter in New York, and a couple days later, they called to make me an offer.”
Now, if that's isn't a meant-to-be moment, I don't know what is, eh?
Totally, says Kenny.
“It was sooo meant to be! You know, my manager was home sick, and I thought maybe she was delusional [when she called to tell me about the offer]," he says with a laugh. "Holly had been looking for the guy and couldn’t find him. She just thought my energy was [Ham], and she didn’t want me to get taken by another [show]. She was like, ‘Get him now!’”
Nothing like having an Academy Award® winner instantly become your biggest fan. But, the admiration goes both ways, and the experience of working with Holly Hunter has been a phenomenal one for Kenny – both personally and professionally.
“I had been a fan of hers forever. I loved her in the Coen Brothers movies [Raising Arizona, O Brother, Where Art Thou?] to Always with [Steven] Spielberg. I just remember thinking, man, one day I would love to play opposite of that woman because she has such a beautiful energy and presence on screen. [So, in reading for the role of Ham], I was [totally thinking] I could play this, [but] then [when I was also supposed] be the love interest, I was, like, completely having panic attacks before I met her,” Kenny says laughing. “You never know how people’s energy are going to be together. But, the first time I met her to rehearse ... she’s just got this thing that sort of melts you. I remember looking into her eyes, and I felt so completely safe. It was just this thing where I knew it was going to be a great experience.”
“[During that first rehearsal], we read through the whole script without the directors or writers even saying anything to us – they just watched,” he continues. “And when we got done with our first read of all of the [Ham and Grace] scenes put together, she looked at me and said, ‘This is not easy stuff, but you’re making it seem like it’s actually simple.’ We obviously didn’t know how it was going to go, but I think there was something right away that we had with each other – kind of a trusting, got each other [kind of thing] – that in turn showed up on the screen.”
But the shift to full-time leading manhood has definitely been an adjustment for Kenny as an actor – particularly in coming off a rough-and-tumble, testosterone driven show like The Shield.
“It’s definitely a huge shift,” says Kenny. “That whole best friend/testosterone thing [on The Shield] is definitely a different bond than the one you build in a male/female partnership [whereby] you are secretly in love with that person. It’s [actually] really hard. There’s a lot of work [put into] the layers and the subtleties – you know, the job, the partner, how you feel about that person, being married yet knowing that person isn’t right for you, not being able to confess your love to the person you’re with every day even though you have sort of that unspoken understanding. For me, all of that has been definitely a huge shift – almost like night and day with the way I approach everything.”
And just as the actor has evolved over the course of the first and second seasons, so has the character.
“Nancy Miller wrote a pretty wonderful arc that includes my brother in Afghanistan. My other brother is in town, running an art gallery and happens to be gay. There are also going to be some things [coming up] that happen to Ham that turn him into a complete basket case – that really kind of [find him] taking [the] opposite role [from] what he’s been doing, especially with Grace. You know, he’s been trying to be there for her through everything, trying to understand where she comes from. Now, their roles [are going] to get reversed because of some things that happen [to him] and the places he goes [both emotionally and psychologically]. It gets extremely dark - episodes five, six and seven pretty much go as dark as they’d allow on television,” says Kenny.
Even if that that sounds pretty ominous, rest assured it’s really just great storytelling that is going to allow the audience to see a character not only grow but also recover from being knocked off his feet.
“This show deals with tragedies in people’s lives,” Kenny says, “and how you deal or not deal with obstacle and life-changing events. Just when you think you’re OK with things, or you think that you’re making all the right choices in your life for the right reasons, something can come and hit you in the face [like a baseball] bat, and you can’t recover. Things that seem solid go away. And it’s on many different levels – it’s not one particular event. So, it’s [been] interesting to see [all that play out for my character]."
It’s also part of yet another collaborative environment that is fostered with the show runners – very much like the folks over at The Closer.
“Nancy Miller is really beautiful about saying, ‘Where do you feel you want it to go? Where do you feel we can improve?’ with the characters, with the show, with the stories. She is so open. I definitely expressed a lot of things to her that she [took to heart], and it’s just pretty awesome [to see it come to fruition],” says Kenny.
And yet, the challenge for Kenny is portraying someone who is, essentially, opposite from him in a very key area of life: being a happily married man.
Kenny is; Ham is not.
“Ham is married, yet he’s cheating on his wife and in complete denial about it. I had a hard time talking to Nancy about [that], saying ‘How do I justify this without be a complete schmuck.’ For me personally, it would never happen. So, because it’s very opposite, it’s [been a challenge] not personally judge myself as the character, yet still try to find reasons why Ham is who he is, why he's caught up being in love and acting out even though he’s a married man,” says Kenny.
But as different as Ham and Kenny are on the personal life tip, there are some elements of the character that the actor feels are part of his core make up, too.
“Ham’s a loyal guy in some respects,” Kenny says. “He likes to be the best that he can be at what he does – like his work. You know, if other parts of your life aren’t going well, what do you fall back on? If you can obsess on one thing that you become great at, it takes your mind off other things where you might be lacking or definitely having problems. So, for me as a person, I like to put my energy [into being the best I can be]. And Ham does the same thing with his work – he wants to be great at what he does, be helpful at what he does and contribute. He’s also got a sense of humor, and he tries to make light of things when they’re really heavy. So, there’s definitely human similarities that kind of crossover, and then there are other ones that become deep, moral choices [at which point] you know we’re two different people.”
Given that, it makes you wonder what Kenny might say to Ham in a conversation. Or better still, what might Ham say to Kenny.
“My conversation with him would be, like, ‘Man, what are you doin’?’” he says with a laugh before turning serious. “No, actually, my conversation would go back to the loyalty thing. Like, dude, you got married to somebody. If you’re not happy, get out of it before you go off and do your thing. I’m personally a big believer in commitment. So, [he needs to] man up and get out. That’d probably be my conversation. But,I'd also want to ask him how do you [continue to have an affair] without having a conscience about it - or do you? I’d want to know how a person does that – how are you still married, not being held accountable for an affair and simultaneously justifying that affair. Not that he’s a schmuck, or that he’s even acting like a schmuck, but he is acting out. I understand why [Grace does what she does], but why doesn’t [Ham] choose to clean up that other part of his life first in order to try and make it work [with her]. I’d be curious to know that.”
He then pauses for a moment.
“So, now let’s do the other side. Here’s Ham talking to Kenny: ‘Okay, so listen dude, this is how it is,’” he says laughing.
And it's pretty good for Kenny at the moment. And for all those folks out there who do watch The Shield, Kenny's thoughts on the final season can be summed up this way: shocking and unexpected.
“Oh man … I know what happens, and I was there for a couple of those last episodes. It’s going to be a pretty shocking ending in a lot of ways. It’s not going to be what people expect at all. I was pretty blown away when I was told. I mean, I was on the episode where one thing happened, and I thought they were lying to me. I was, like, ‘No?’ and they were like, ‘Yeah!’ and I was like, ‘No way!’ and they were like ‘Yeah way!' It’s pretty unbelievable. And as much as people that [have been] following [the show] got affected by Shane killing [my character] Lem, I think they’re going to feel as much – probably more of an impact – with how The Shield ends. [Creator] Shawn [Ryan] is pretty genius. It’s going to be great. I think people are just going to be blown away by how it unfolds.”
Hmmm ... I may just have to tune in.
We at PTR extend our great thanks to Kenny for taking the time to chat with us. We'd also like to thank our friends at Turner publicity for putting it all together. You can catch Kenny in the second season of Saving Grace Mondays at 10 p.m. on TNT. Visit is official Web site, or check him out on MySpace. You can also check out Kenny’s award-winning short film, I Heard the Mermaid Singing, that he both directed and starred. It was accepted into the Cannes Film Festival, and it won a silver medal for excellence at the 2008 Park City Film Music Festival. It’s a tribute to his very first acting teacher, Michael Shurtleff, who wrote a play of the same name.