Heading into tonight's S03E11 "Broken Toys," Ryan (Javicia Leslie), Luke (Camrus Johnson), and Sophie (Meagan Tandy) have Mary (Nicole Kang) back on Team Batwoman and Rachel Skarsten's Alice on their side. Unfortunately, they're going to need a lot more than that to save the day for Gotham and themselves. What makes this episode even more interesting is Johnson at the helm directing his first, and what some will soon call the definitive episode of (at least this season) of The CW's Batwoman. Recently nominated for an NAACP Image Award for his work on She Dreams at Sunrise, Johnson sat down for an in-depth chat with Bleeding Cool before tonight's episode to discuss his views on the Joker, the challenges of directing not only himself but his longtime castmates, and the cartoons that shaped him as a person.
Although you've been staring as Luke Fox for all these seasons now, you take on a new challenge this week as a director of what I think fans are going to decide is the defining episode of at least this season "Broken Toys." My favorite parts are all the nods and Easter eggs to other Jokers. Can you tell me, did you have a favorite Joker growing up as a young lad?
Camrus Johnson: I don't know if you can be a better Joker than Mark Hamill, the animated Joker that he plays. That laugh is ingrained in my brain forever. When it comes to live-action, it's hard to beat Heath Ledger and also Joaquin Phoenix. I'm the biggest Joker fan. He's my number one villain. If you can't tell from all the purple and green lights that I put everywhere, right? I was such a huge fan of the character. The thing about this character is I love every iteration of him. I wanted to take a piece of each one, so I took little toys that I saw in this show, in this movie, in this comic book and put it all together. Since our new Joker [Nick Creegan] is new and is a culmination of all of them, I wanted to express that on camera,
Let's talk about sliding into the director's chair. You've been working with this cast- Javicia, Nicole, Rachel, Meagan for quite some time, does that make it easier or harder, when you're the director, to work with them?
CJ: In some situations, working with your own cast can be harder. Some actors can act weird when it comes to an actor stepping into a different position on set. I was very lucky. My cast is amazing. They were so supportive from day one that they wanted the episode to be as strong as it could, and they wanted to make my job as smooth as it could be. Man, they showed up. Not only were they so fun to work with, but they gave me incredible performances and they took my direction so beautifully well. One of my most favorite memories was a scene of Rachel and Nicole in the car, and I gave (them) basically three different versions of the scene. A scene that was very funny, kind of funny, and very sad. Rachel came up to me afterward and said, 'I never would have imagined this scene in some of these ways. You really gave me so much to play with.' For an actor like that is a dream, to be able to be in a scene and feel like you did everything that you could do. No matter what the scene ends up being, you know that you showed up and you gave your all.
And what about the final scene, that I'm sure everybody's going to be talking about, between Ryan and Sophie. Was that difficult to direct Meagan and Javicia?
CJ: Scenes like this are known to be hard. I've had to do one itself, and they can be very uncomfortable. That was the only thing that I didn't want. I wanted them to be happy, I wanted them to enjoy it. I wanted it to be seamless and fun. Early on, weeks in advance, I was talking to them personally and talking to them on the phone. I had a story artist draw the scenes so that everyone knew exactly what we were getting into. We also had two intimacy coordinators on set to talk them through anything and make sure they were looking good and feeling good. People tend to think that romantic scenes should be overly romantic. We should add flower petals, the music should be amazing, and it's candlelit and everything. That's not always realistic. It isn't always perfect. It is a little awkward. Sometimes it's a little funny, it's a little silly. I wanted to remind them of that. This doesn't have to be perfect, it should feel real. So enjoy it. Laugh, make mistakes, really get in there and smile and play with each other, as you would if this was real life. Man, it is such a great job. I think the way it turned out was exactly what I wanted. (The Network) really let me take some risks there.
How hard is it to get to direct yourself when you're in charge of everything? How hard? How hard is it to stay focused on your lines and your marks and whatever and all that man?
CJ: It was probably one of the more challenging things of the episode. I had so much to focus on to do and think about and watch. When I'm in the scene, there's so much happening offset that I can't be there to answer questions for and direct. I was literally running behind the camera and in front of the camera. Shout out to my stunt double slash acting double Jesse Miller. He really stepped in on this episode. He learned all of my lines for the episode, he was sometimes in the scene when the bat suit was covering my face, he was in the scene due to my rehearsals for me, so I could watch. He would do all of these things to really give me the opportunity to watch as much as I could. The times that I was on camera, I would yell out and say, 'Was it good? How did it look? It was great?' And I trusted them. I don't always have time to go, look at it. So sometimes I run over there and I check in, be like, Let's change one little thing. If you thought it was good, let's move on. It was also a huge trust process with my cast and crew.
Let me ask you also about Luke's arc. This season was filled with a lot of self-doubts with him in this suit. Does he deserve the suit? Coming to grips with himself being Batwing. Is there a time in the future that someday Luke will put on the actual Bat-suit and step in as this Gotham's Batman?
CJ: What I will say about the A.I. is that this relationship with his dad, he was in mourning for quite some time. Holding this huge weight on his shoulders of this loss because he blamed himself. Then this A.I. comes into his life, and it kind of feels like his dad is back and then that is gone and then his dad is back and his dad is taken. This is one unhealthy relationship. It's hard for him because he needs to grow. And not only as a person, as a man, as a son, but as a hero. Although his dad means the world to him and it is beautiful to have this relationship, his dad is no longer around, his dad is not actually alive. I truly believe that this relationship is starting to weigh down on him, even more so than before. I think it's going to take him growing and figuring out what this relationship truly is and who he is as a hero without his dad. I think with that, he can truly become the Batwing that the city deserves. Now, becoming the Batman that I'm not sure about. It depends on what you think when you think of Batwing becoming Batman. In a way, Batwoman of our show was already the new Batman. So I do think that there is a world where he fully falls into this suit. He fully feels comfortable calling himself a hero and knowing that he is one. Being in the field, more so than being in the back cave all the time, but actually doing (missions) with Batwoman all the time. There is a world where he can grow to the point where we see him as our, in a way, Batman with our Batwoman.
Johnson went on to talk about his favorite cartoons that inspired him as a young man.
CJ: My number one animated show was Static Shock. Teen Titans might be my second up there. Those animated shows inspired me not only to work in animation as I do now but to be an actor too. To be a storyteller because animation shows me how magical and endless the world truly is. I want to shout out my new animated short, She Dreams at Sunrise recently with Tribeca Studios, Procter Gamble, and Saturday morning. It recently got NAACP Image Award-nominated. I would not be here making animation, working in the animation space, if it weren't for these other animated projects. Without these incredibly influencing and beautiful projects showing me that I can do anything and be anything. Specifically, Static Shock showed me that young black nerds are cool and can be superheroes. And the fact that I watched that show as a kid and I'm now a black, nerdy superhero, it just goes to show what art can do. It can really shape you as a person.