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'Kindred' Star Mallori Johnson Makes Octavia Butler's Heroine Her Own

The actor tells Metacritic she 'wanted to put myself through the wringer because I felt that that was what Dana was going through.'

Danielle Turchiano
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Mallori Johnson in 'Kindred'

FX

Warning: This story contains spoilers from Kindred, . Read at your own risk!


It's time to learn the name Mallori Johnson.

The Juilliard-trained actor is not only the breakout star of FX's adaptation of Octavia Butler's seminal novel Kindred for Hulu, but she is the star of it.

Johnson steps into the lead role of Dana James, a young woman who (in Branden Jacobs Jenkins' version of the story) just bought a house in Los Angeles where she is hoping to become a television writer. But her life quickly takes a turn that few television writers could predict when she is unexpectedly pulled back in time to the Antebellum South to save the life of Rufus Weylin (David Alexander Kaplan). Rufus is supposed to grow up to father one of her ancestors, but obviously if he dies as a child, that can never happen. 

Dana is only back in the 1800s for a short time the first time because fearing for her life when Rufus' father pulls a gun on her is enough for the force that is controlling this to send her back to her own time (2016) so that she can be alive to save Rufus the next time he needs her. And he will need her several more times in his life, spread out by years for him but mere minutes or hours for her. And although she gets pulled back in time alone the first time, later she is accidentally joined by Kevin Franklin (Micah Stock), a bartender who chivalrously took her home and happened to grab her as he saw her disappear, which takes him with her, thus adding the complication of having to keep him alive and close enough to her that he can return with her, but also adding a layer of protection for her, since he is a white man.

From being asked to play a woman who, in present day, is still grieving the loss of her mother from a young age and has a contentious relationship with her other relatives, to that same woman having to pretend to be a slave when she is pulled back in time and therefore experience many of the atrocities they faced, from poor living conditions to whippings, while witnessing even more, Johnson has no shortage of emotionally meaty material to dive into with Kindred

Here, she talks with Metacritic about building Dana and Kevin's relationship, conflicting emotions about Rufus, and how she took care of herself after filming traumatic scenes.

How did you utilize Octavia Butler's original novel, in terms of finding character traits or threads you wanted to pull through for the show, especially given so much has changed from that version of the story to this?

I would say whenever I needed to draw from something fundamental about the character, I always went back to the book. I wanted to stay true to who Dana was in her spirit. Particularly her being from 2016, I could have taken a really modern approach to the story, and I did in a lot of ways in terms of shaping the character, but in terms of the emotional depth of what she was going through, I definitely wanted to stay true to what she wrote.

Part of the reason I ask is because one of the big changes in the show is Dana and Kevin's relationship. With them being husband and wife in the book, there is history there, there is love there. With Dana and Kevin having just met at the start of this but beginning to form a romantic relationship through their experience, how did you approach which moments she should be genuinely falling for him versus showing moments where maybe she was feeling some guilt for having — accidentally of course — gotten him tossed back in time or only connecting with him because of that experience?

I think that connection starts in the beginning where he first expresses that he believes her. Here Dana is, she feels incredibly isolated in the beginning of the story. Her aunt and uncle thinks she's crazy, think she's financially irresponsible. She's trying to come to L.A. and make it as an artist, and no one's taking her seriously except for Kevin. And I think that's the fundamental connection between them that sprouts that love story throughout. Of course because they're not married, they can leave each other at any time, but that's kind of what makes the relationship stronger to me and actually more exciting because they have no ties to each other, but she still feels like she's responsible for his survival and he is a key element to her survival in the story. It's a little bit of trauma bonding, but it's also a very interesting and deep love story.

What were the discussions you had with Micah and the episode directors about Dana's adjustment to and behavior in the place and time when they are pulled back onto the plantation, compared to Micah's? Aside from the fact that he has a higher status simply from his race, of course, because in certain ways, it feels like Dana is more equipped to handle the experience simply because she knows and understands this terrible history. Micah often looks shellshocked, perhaps a comment on how white America gets sanitized versions of history or simply disassociates from the stories.

There were a lot of discussions with the directors about how Dana would react to something or if she wouldn't. There were a lot of questions that I asked because there were moments where I felt like, maybe she doesn't necessarily understand the rules of this world, but at the same time as an African American woman, I know from my own experience that I understand what it means to be in the Antebellum South just from knowing history and knowing what happened to my ancestors on a very base level. But even in my own life, we have a tendency as Black people to to have to contain ourselves, and I think that that carries for Dana in the story as well. So, we were having those those conversations surrounding what was appropriate — what was going to be realistic in terms of her survival during that time.

Her survival in a much bigger way is dependent on keeping Rufus alive because he has to live long enough to create her ancestor. But he does say and do terrible things, emulating his parents. Did you feel it was important for Dana to actively try to shape him into a better person than them?

That's something that I was really curious about while reading the book too, because, Dana in the book is really inclined to shape and mold the growth of Rufus. She becomes really worried about whether or not he's going to grow into his father. Even though he is this young kid living in the Antebellum South who is emulating or repeating what he's being taught by his environment, she still sees that he's malleable — that there's potential to actually have a positive influence on a young child from her history, from her own legacy and her ancestry. So yeah, the dynamic with Rufus is really complicated, but at the same time, yes, of course, I do feel like there were moments where she had to shut down her own feelings for the sake of his development into adulthood.

From a performance perspective, what were the most challenging moments of that? There's the understanding that if she doesn't help him, she wouldn't exist, but it can still be hard to justify in the moment.

There's unfortunately a couple of moments where Rufus says the n-word, and those were always really strange to shoot. David is so sweet and he was so respectful on set. He was always asking if it was OK, we were checking in with each other a lot, but of course it was still really difficult to sit in those moments and not react in the way that I would if I were hearing that today.

Most of the show is fully of those hard emotional moments. Even when she comes back to present day, she's not without new scars, physical and emotional. Looking at the season overall, what piece of the story was the most challenging for you as a performer?

I would definitely say the last episode, with the whipping scene in particular. It's nothing that wasn't actually true to what Octavia Butler wrote. I had the page open, we did exactly what was written and with great care and respect, as well, for all of the actors involved. But it was still difficult to recreate that for so many reasons. Just just the physical recreation of having to recoil from a whip being on my back was enough to make me want to step out and have an emotional release, for sure. And I was not able to sleep for a couple of days after that.

Were you able to step out after a take or two? Were there procedures in place on set to help with this? How did you come out of that?

You kind of don't, or at least I didn't. Of course, I was able to step out [on set]. I want to stress that I felt extremely safe on that set, partly because of Branden Jacobs Jenkins; he was he was such a sensitive and responsible creative leader that all of us felt like we could step out, we could talk through anything at any moment and there would be zero issue — we could shut it down if we needed to or shoot it another day if it was too much. But I kind of embrace that as an actor. That's something that I find really beautiful about the art form — when the story takes an insidious effect on me to the point where I start to feel it when I get home. And yes, some people may think that that's not a healthy way to deal with that, but at the same time, I was new to this. I didn't really have a process — I didn't know how to take care of myself — so I just wanted to put myself through the wringer because I felt that that was what Dana was going through.

After the experience of Dana getting whipped, she comes back to present day where there are new physical threats, namely the cops entering her home. How much did you want what she had just went through on the plantation to affect how she reacted to them?

It's all equally terrifying because your life is at stake; you're not sure if you're actually going to be able to live under these circumstances, with the police being at her door and her potentially going to jail, and also with her facing potential enslavement and not being able to be free. It's the same fundament of discrimination, racism, terror, and essentially what a Black person has to go through in America, unfortunately.

And in the next moments in that sequence with the cops, she does get an almost surprise ally in her aunt, who not only has medical training to help with physical wounds, but also is finally listening to her and believing her. How important do you feel like that support is, especially coming in what seems to be the middle of her story, rather than at the end?

It's everything. I think that that's what Dana's been searching for the entire season. What's been driving her throughout the season is having people believe her — and not only having people believe her, but having people to help her and fight with her through this experience that she has no control over. She's trying so desperately to have a family and also to save her family, so to have her presence that to have the presence of her aunt and uncle and potentially her mother is something that is really exciting. And I'm excited to see where that goes, for sure.

Looking at a potential second season, is there anything you want to do with Dana that would be brand new for this version of the story?

I want to match what happens in the book as best we can because to me this is all about holding a candle up for Octavia Butler's legacy and the work that she has done. If I had a preference, I would add a scene about her going to NYU; I just think that's so funny, so I want a little flashback there. But ultimately, I just want it to stay true to the book. 


Get to know Mallori Johnson:
Johnson made her television debut in WeCrashed (Metascore: 65) earlier in 2022, but she also has a role in director Sara Zandieh's upcoming feature film The Other Zoey.