Amy Jo Johnson is covering her face with her hands while she tells me about the recent email she accidentally sent Felicity Huffman. It’s the day after the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of Johnson’s feature-film directorial debut, Tammy’s Always Dying, in which Huffman plays an alcoholic and verbally abusive mother who threatens to jump off a bridge every month in order to keep her adult daughter tethered to their small town. Huffman gives a jarring and transformative performance that I’m sure she'd be promoting under different circumstances. (The actress is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to committing mail fraud in the now-infamous U.S. college admissions scandal.)
Johnson doesn’t reference Huffman’s situation directly, but she does reveal the "mortifying" mistake she made in sending the actress an invite to the Tammy premiere. "I did accidentally CC Felicity on a massive email to a bunch of friends, going 'Did everybody get your tickets?'" Johnson laughs nervously. "And then [Felicity] texted me, 'Hey pal, sounds really exciting. Congratulations!' I was like, 'Oh my God. Felicity, I'm so sorry!'" It was an honest mix-up (she meant to include her friend Felix) but Johnson is clearly still embarrassed — she tells the story in a polite and profusely apologetic way that feels very Canadian. It’s fitting that the Massachusetts-born actor-turned-filmmaker is now an official citizen of the North.
After starting her career as the pink Power Ranger on Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and landing a supporting role as Julie on the classic J.J. Abrams-helmed teen drama Felicity, Johnson spent much of the rest of her acting days in Canada, with a role on the hit show Flashpoint, which filmed in Toronto. A decade later, she’s settled down in the city with her daughter and moved behind the camera. Here, she tells Refinery29 why her feature-length directorial debut means so much to her, what she loved about working with Huffman, and revisits her days in pink spandex and playing the other Felicity’s roommate.
Congrats on Tammy’s Always Dying. Tell me about your personal connection to the film.
I connected to it on a cathartic core-deep level because my father struggles with depression and alcoholism and my mother passed away from cancer. It was the first time I directed something that I didn’t write, but the fact that I could climb my way inside the story because of so many personal connections was helpful. Otherwise, I wouldn't have tried to make it.
So, you could see your father in Tammy.
Oh god, yeah. My dad is a non-functioning alcoholic. Now, it's just sad and depressing how far gone he is, but he was a very funny person and so eccentric. He used to wear a baseball cap with a fake ponytail on the back. Seriously.
Felicity Huffman was not at the premiere. I imagine you’re disappointed that she couldn’t make it.
All I will say is it would have been lovely to have her here, because she's so good in the movie. And she’s been really wonderful through the whole thing, even the editing process.
She goes through a complete transformation for this role. Where did that come from?
Yeah, she's unrecognizable in the film. Jessica Adams, the film’s producer, and I met with her in New York. Felicity took a minute to sort of wrap her brain around the script and then she said, "If I sign on, I'm going to need to make this decision really quickly because it's only two months away to shooting and I have work I need to do [before]." And it was like, "God, what is she going to do for two months?" It was really exciting to me to see who was going to show up on set and she delivered. She does her homework. Watching her, I was like, "I was such a lazy actress."
Let’s go back to Power Rangers. You’ve said that, for a time after that role, you were really trying to escape it. How do you feel about the experience now?
I mean, it was a bad, terrible show.
Hey! I grew up with that show and loved it.
You know what I mean. The acting! You could see the ropes hanging from the [stunt doubles]. It was cheesy. [Laughs.]
But seriously, looking back now, it was such a gift that fell into my lap. It’s really cool how positively it affected so many kids. I hear stories from people whose parents were going through a divorce and it was their reprieve from that pain. I met this guy named Matt at the last convention I was at. He said when he was a kid, Power Rangers was his best friend because he was so bullied. Then he looks at me and he goes, "Thank you for being there before I knew how to laugh." It was just the sweetest thing anybody has ever said to me.
You’ve admitted that doing fan conventions actually helps fund your directing. I love how transparent you are about that.
It is how it works. I don’t want to give a beauty pageant answer or whatever, but I am truly moved by the passion that people have, and I think it was important for me to understand the power of it. It sounds so cheesy, but… I'm not going to say that because it's so cheesy.
No. Okay, it's just that [Power Rangers fans] feel like the fuel to the engine of my new career. It is really fueled by these people's love and passion for this show. I get to meet people through these conventions and also spread the word that I'm writing, directing, and filmmaking now.
We know that female directors have a harder time financing their projects and getting publicity for their projects. So, I think it is so smart of you to capitalize on Power Rangers and get the projects that you want to get made.
Yeah, I was just looking at the stats from this year’s TIFF about number of films directed by women. It is such a great time for female filmmakers and it's just really great timing and to have moved my life to Canada on a whim. Who knew? It’s just all kind of working out.
Tell me about moving to Canada.
I was sort of spiralling out of control in Los Angeles. I moved to Montreal on a whim and took a break for a year. When I first got to there, I felt like I could breathe. It was exactly what I was looking for. When I got to Toronto, I was like, not only can I relax, but I love this city. And it's been so kind to me and so generous in the filmmaking world.
What was it about L.A. that pushed you to leave?
I think some people can handle Los Angeles and handle that extreme competition. I just couldn't. I remember being almost 35 and looking around at the women in their 40s, and — not to judge or anything — but I was like, "I need to get out of here because I want to be able to grow old gracefully and not worry." Another reason why I think I've let go of acting a lot is because I just don't want to worry about what I look like. I just did a photo shoot and I hated it. I’m 49 years old. I want to relax and not worry about that stuff. I definitely had an insecurities as an actor, but I needed all those years to prepare me for directing.
It seems like the height of those insecure L.A. years happened during your time on Felicity. You're playing this young woman who's coming of age, but it seemed like you were kind of going through that at the same time. Were you?
Yeah. Also, my mother had died right when I got Felicity so that was a part of it too. I think I never really had time to properly grieve. So the next five years after my mom died was sort of a spiralling out of control for me. There was more than just feeling the pressure of Hollywood. It was also a lot to do with losing my mom, who was my best friend.
And a lot of Julie's storyline was about a complicated relationship with her birth mother.
I think J.J. did that on purpose.
Wow. How did you feel about that?
I didn't mind. I'm a cathartic person. I like to work through pain and grief through art anyway, so I appreciated that opportunity to be able to sort of deal with some of my feelings with it.
We're in this culture of nostalgia where everyone's revisiting those shows from that era. Are you finding that there's a new generation of people discovering Felicity?
Yeah. It’s fun to see. We did a reunion last year in Austin, TX. It was really cool and interesting to see these people I haven't seen in almost 20 years. I look at Keri [Russell] and what she's gone on to do, and it’s amazing. It was so nice to see Scott — Speedman and Foley — and it was really great to see Greg [Grunberg].
Are you done with acting?
Well, I still want to play my mom in a screenplay I wrote called Crazier Than You, but as soon as I did one short, Shooting Blanks, without being in it, it was like a breath of fresh air. I was like, "Oh, I'm done with acting."
What would it take for you act again in a film that you don’t also direct?
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Tammy’s Always Dying is playing at The Toronto International Film Festival until Saturday, September 14.