The term “former child actor” has come to signify the dark underbelly of Hollywood: champagne-soaked parties, DUI mugshots and beachside rehabs. Keean Johnson, a 22-year-old who’s been working since the age of 10, is about as far away from that as you can get.
Johnson is one of the stars of HBO’s hyped and controversial Euphoria, a drama that paints a bleak portrait of Gen Z, depicting insecure teens exploring the internet’s id and engaging in pill-fuelled debauchery. It’s Riverdale’s sinister foil; over half a million people tuned in for the premiere, and the show’s highly stylised cinematography will certainly be sliced into GIFs that will haunt Tumblr for years to come. Johnson doesn’t seem to inhabit this post-millennial hellscape though: he hasn’t had a drink in three years, only dabbles in marijuana and adamantly disavows Los Angeles nightspots such as clout chasers’ favourite, Bootsy Bellows.
He has a tight family unit (living with his younger brother Cade in North Hollywood, just 15 minutes from his parents), his social media is sparse and he offers only vague answers to personal questions. What’s his social life like? He hits the LA art scene and attends performances at choreographer Ryan Heffington’s intimate Silverlake space, The Sweat Spot. His politics? He’s a fan of Bernie Sanders, but is diplomatic about Trump supporters. His love life? Here things get interesting. Turns out Johnson is dating 37-year-old French-Algerian actress and dancer Sofia Boutella, the star of Gaspar Noé’s recent Climax, which film critic Peter Bradshaw deemed “a satanic dance-troupe freak-out of sex and despair”. In the Insta photos he’s taken of her, she’s naked, in glow-in-the dark paint, striking sensual poses. But before you get too excited, the pair met at a games night and Johnson coyly describes her as “lovely”.
Raised in Littleton, Colorado, a suburb of Denver, a five-year-old Johnson was taken to dance classes by his dancer mother (a former cheerleader for the Denver Nuggets basketball team). Fast-forward five years and he was playing Billy Elliot’s cross-dressing best friend in the Broadway run of the musical. Before he bagged the role, his mother sat him down. “She was like, ‘Look, some guys wear dresses and it’s totally cool and it’s awesome and your character really likes to wear dresses.’ So I was like, ‘OK’ and spent three years in a dress, age 11 to 14, doing crazy dance numbers!”
When his voice started to break, Johnson abandoned musical theatre to move to Los Angeles and pursue TV and film. He’s already racked up roles spanning sci-fi (Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel), to network drama (ABC’s Nashville) and moody indie (A24’s Low Tide) to heist flick (RZA’s upcoming Cut Throat City). In Alita: Battle Angel, he starred with heavy-hitters Christoph Waltz and Mahershala Ali, and this autumn, he’ll be alongside Nick Jonas, Woody Harrelson and Dennis Quaid in Roland Emmerich’s World War II epic Midway. Before he knows it, he won’t be just another anonymous person drinking juice in the San Fernando Valley.
There’s certainly no lack of ambition: Johnson dreams of working with Quentin Tarantino or Francis Ford Coppola and cites Leonardo DiCaprio, Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy as inspirations. He’s impressively studious about his craft, making our one-hour boba and strawberry-lemonade meeting at a North Hollywood coffee shop feel more like a live taping of Inside the Actors Studio. Johnson scoffs at how some casting directors book talent merely based on their social media statistics. When I ask him if he has any advice for other young actors out there, he gets frank and f-bomby. “If you want to be famous, get the fuck out of LA because there’s no point,” he says. “I think that’s just the wrong path. But if you know that you want to be in film or you want to shoot for Vogue – if you have those kind of goals, and that’s why you’re here – then I think that’s more important.”
His advice is a plea for a more dignified culture that stops glorifying Instagram influencers hustling SugarBearHair vitamins and once again uplifts actors who put in the work. For Johnson, LA isn’t a city you go to just to take #sweaty selfies at Runyon Canyon or to land a role playing the hot, misogynistic jock on some reality TV show; it’s a place to make art that will last.
Production Rosanna Gouldman, Photography assistance Julien Kelly and Parker Woods. Thanks to The Rose Hotel Venice