From the Pink Power Ranger to writing and directing her own films, Amy Jo Johnson’s career has significantly changed since she started as an actress decades ago.
“I knew I wanted to perform...since I was seven years old,” Johnson told the audience at the OLG Dream Deck at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday. “I wound up acting, went to [Los Angeles] and got Power Rangers, so I acted for 15 years and I liked it, but I never loved it.”
Although she’s American-born, Johnson became a Canadian citizen in 2015 after not being entirely fulfilled in career in the U.S.
“I hated acting actually at that time. I found myself to be a very insecure actress...I needed to get out of L.A. because I found, for myself, I was constantly comparing myself to everybody around me and that’s just a terrible way to live,” Johnson said.
She picked up her things and moved to Montreal, eventually settling in Toronto after landing a role in the television show Flashpoint in 2008.
“That’s how I came to Toronto and...I fell in love with acting again, I fell in love with the entertainment industry again,” she said.
Johnson made her Toronto International Film Festival debut with her second feature film Tammy’s Always Dying, starring Felicity Huffman and Anastasia Phillips. Kathy (Phillips) is taking care of her alcoholic mother Tammy (Huffman), who has been diagnosed with cancer. Tammy is extreme, threatening to jump off a bridge regularly so Kathy can talk her down. The film showcases the mother-daughter dynamic between the two as Kathy cares for Tammy, while she is also given a spot on reality talk show to share her life story for money.
The screenplay was written by Joanne Sarazen but Johnson instantly connected with the story. Her mother passed away from cancer nearly 20 years ago and Johnson describes her father as a “non-functioning alcoholic.”
“So I went to a reading of it and was just so blown away,” Johnson said. “I just walked outside and hugged [Sarazen] and cried because I got it on such a core level, it was very cathartic for me.”
‘Mighty Morphin Power Rangers’
Long before Johnson was directing emotion-fuelled feature films, the former actress played one of the most coveted characters in television - the Pink Ranger in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. As some might expect, Johnson did have some insecurities about moving away from the role.
“I think it was hard to transition and [be taken] seriously as an actress from this little kids show,” Johnson said. “Right after doing the show is when I sort of was like ‘oh my god I’m never going to get away, I can’t wear the colour pink.’”
But it’s her experience as a Power Ranger that gave her a cult fanbase, which has followed her career for decades and enables her to be a full-time filmmaker.
“Being a new filmmaker, you don’t really make a living at that until down the road and so, I started dong conventions in the last couple years for Power Rangers...these people are helping me have a living so I can focus on filmmaking,” Johnson said.
‘I need to learn how to make a movie’
Although she was a seasoned actor, transitioning from Power Rangers to television shows like Felicity, it was one piece of writing that compelled her to move to the other side of the camera.
She wrote a screenplay called Crazier Than You, based on her late mother who ended up joining a religious cult for 12 years when Johnson and her siblings were young.
“I wrote this story about my mother and I knew that I would want to direct it...and I would want to play my mother in the movie, and so I need to get good. I need to learn how to make a movie,” Johnson said.
To date, she has created two notable short films, Bent and Lines, and one other feature film, titled The Space Between.
“That’s why I made my first short film, and the second one, and then also The Space Between and even Tammy, to prepare myself and get better and better so I can make this movie about my mom that I really want to make,” the filmmaker said.
It was this transition that finally put into place what she was searching for as a seven-year-old who “needed a lot of attention.”
“I get to use every part of my personality...I don’t have to curb my bossy, driven side of myself. I get to utilize it,” she said.
In taking on the filmmaking role, Johnson admits that she is still learning how to be a better director and writer. She said what she’s had to learn the most about is the pre and post-shooting work on films, something she didn’t have much experience with as an actor.
Johnson also said that one of the hardest things for her to overcome is feeling “intimidated” as a director.
“You would think, as an actress, it would be easy...working with other actors, but I actually find that the most intimidating part of directing, especially at the caliber of a Felicity Huffman, or a Clark Johnson...finding my voice with their voice,” she said.
“There were a few times during the filming process where I was [saying]...do I have what it takes to have this conversation with Felicity Huffman, a serious conversation about the role. There were a lot of pep talks going on in my head.”
The OLG Dream Deck is running a series of panel with on-camera and behind-the-scenes talents from Sept. 6-9. Tickets are free and are available online until supplies last, or fans age 18+ can Rush for tickets on the day.