Anjelah Johnson Johnson-Reyes
Stand-Up Comedy, Social Media and a Strong Foundation
The notes section on her phone is full of jokes, potential material for her next stand-up comedy set. She’s starred in films ranging from Our Family Wedding to Enough Said, and she brought her MadTV character to life by showcasing the rapping skills of Bon Qui Qui on stages across the country. Most likely you are one of the 35 million viewers who have seen her Nail Salon video which went viral in 2007, and for 34-year-old Anjelah Johnson-Reyes, there is still so much territory she wants to cover. With her new film The Resurrection of Gavin Stone hitting theatres in January, Johnson-Reyes sat down with Risen to talk about the power of social media, her family, and how her convictions have led to all her career decisions.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: What was it about The Resurrection of Gavin Stone that made you want to be involved?
Anjelah Johnson Johnson-Reyes: The script. I had gotten an email from the producer of a movie I had just done, Mom’s Night Out, and he said, “Hey, I have a director friend who has you in mind for his movie. Can I put him in contact with you?” I said, “Sure.” He [the director] calls me and my first response, to be honest, was, “I don’t want to do another Christian movie.” I didn’t want to get pigeon-holed as a Christian actor that does faith-based films only. This would have been the second one back-to-back. He said, “Well, let me send you the script and you read it and tell me how you feel.” I read it and I loved it. I loved that we were able to talk about God and faith without it feeling preachy because it took place in a church. You are used to hearing that kind of language in a church and would expect it. I think sometimes where Christian movies may get it wrong is when [the setting doesn’t match the dialogue and] you quote [random] scripture for no reason. This script just felt very natural and super organic. I loved the character of Kelly and the journey she goes through in the film.
RM: In the film you portray a pastor’s daughter and you are running the church play. Your character does look to her dad for advice at times. In your own life is your dad someone you look to for counsel?
AJ: Hilarious. No actually my dad is not that guy. Sometimes I wish he was. I’ve gone through my phases of seeing my friends with their dads and wishing I could have that kind of relationship where my dad would be able to give me advice, but my dad is the funny guy. I get my personality and my jokes from my dad. I fell in line with my dad, and his dad, my grandpa – they are big jokesters. My dad is super witty, the life-of-the-party guy who makes friends with everyone. My dad has always been more of like a friend and a good buddy. We’ll laugh on the phone together and talk about movies and disagree about politics, but I haven’t had the kind of relationship that Kelly has with her dad.
RM: Speaking a little more about your family, you grew up in the [San Francisco] Bay Area as one of five, what stands out most about your childhood?
AJ: My huge family – lots of cousins, aunts, uncles – I loved that I got to grow up with so many family members. Any time there was a holiday or a birthday party, it was just filled with so much love.
It would be easy to move to Hollywood and lose yourself if you don’t know who you are. I know who I am.
RM: What was that catalyst to wanting to make a career out of entertaining others?
AJ: I was that girl that would go to the movies and I couldn’t enjoy the movie because I was just mad that I wasn’t in it. I just knew I could do it. I wanted to be an actress, but I would never dare say that out loud because it was almost embarrassing – it felt too far-fetched. I live in San Jose, where do they film movies in San Jose? They don’t. For me to say, “I want to be an actress,” it was almost like saying, “I want to be a princess.” Then I had a friend that moved to Los Angeles and she was an actress and she was in music videos and she was a dancer and she said, “If you move to LA, I will help you get started.” This far-fetched fantasy was now becoming more of an attainable dream. I had another friend who was a cheerleader for the Oakland Raiders and she told me I should come try out. I told her, “No it wasn’t really my thing.” But then I thought more about it and I said, “I am going to use this as my sign. I am going to try out for the Oakland Raiders and if I make the team I am going to do it for one year and then move to LA and pursue my dreams to be an actress. If I don’t make it, then God just show me another way and what I should do with my life.”
I auditioned for the Raiderettes; I ended up booking it and I cheered for one year. We went to the Super Bowl that year and it was an amazing year to pick to be a cheerleader for the Oakland Raiders. I came back from the Super Bowl, packed up my room and drove down to Hollywood. I’ve been here for 13 years starting at the ground as an “extra” and working my way up. My friend kept her word and showed me how to get started and I just worked my way up.
RM: As you were navigating your desire to act, and your year as a Raiderette, and we haven’t even talked yet about your stand-up comedy and the millions of people you make laugh across the country on tour and through your videos, but what role does your faith play? And, speak to those that might question how someone in your field can use your skills sets and gifting to bring glory to God?
AJ: All of the decisions I have made in my career so far have been very much based on my convictions, my heart and my own personal relationship with God. The most [conviction] I ever had, and I had to really pray about this and let it go, was not disappointing the church. I think sometimes people may confuse that [the church] with following God and having your own relationship and the Holy Spirit convicting you. What people don’t understand is that everybody’s journey is different and looks different. When you look way different than me – and I’m in ministry, and I’m in the church or whatever – then sometimes Christians tend to think that you must be doing something wrong. I got that a lot when I was a cheerleader for the Oakland Raiders. I remember this one Christian guy was like, “How do you think Jesus feels about you being a cheerleader?” And I was like, “Umm, probably proud because I feel like He called me to do this.” I think when people see celebrities do something that is against their own personal convictions, but not against the celebrity’s convictions, then they point and say, “You must be wrong because I feel in my heart that I would never do that.” I’ve never been afraid of disappointing God, because I feel that all of my decisions come down to my personal convictions with God, it’s more been that I am probably going to hear something from the church.
RM: Talking a little more about your convictions and living those out. How did your faith get to be so strong? To have such an unshakeable foundation and a secure identity in God; how did you get there?
AJ: Everybody has their own journey of how they got to where they are and with my faith, I didn’t grow up in the church. I really started to pursue a relationship with Jesus when I was a teenager because that is when I was first introduced [to Him]. Then it’s really been a journey of learning and growing and my small mind trying to understand such big things. Sometimes I get it right and sometimes I get it wrong; beingeing able to admit when I have gotten it wrong and then also standing firm when I know I have it right. It would be easy to move to Hollywood and lose yourself if you don’t know who you are. I know who I am.
RM: We can’t talk and not mention your Nail Salon comedy set (YouTube video with more than 35 million hits) and your character Bon Qui Qui from MadTVthat has taken on a life of her own. Share how the Internet and social media have affected the way that you are able to connect with your audience?
AJ: For me, with my stand-up comedy, my whole goal by the end of the night is to connect with people. I share my personal stories because I want to relate to people and I want them to relate to me. It’s so important to be able to connect. This day with social media there are so many different avenues for people to connect with you that it can be a positive and a negative. Social media changed my life, YouTube is what put me on the map. People can tweet me, they can leave me comments on my Facebook, or on my Instagram and they can follow my life. So there are so many people that have a way to reach me and that can be a dangerous thing sometimes. As much as there is someone who wants to comment and say, “Oh my gosh I love you, you’re the best,” there is someone who says, “You’re the worst and I hate you.” Sometimes even meaner words than that.
People think that celebrities have this bubble around them where words don’t affect them, and that is not true. I’m really surprised at the kind of hateful things that can come out of people towards celebrities because of this way of thinking. Social media avenues can be good and bad. I can post something that says, “Hey everybody I am going to be in Corpus Christi next weekend, come see me.” People will see it and go buy tickets and come see me and then next I know I have a sold-out show. That is amazing and the power of that is amazing. The fact that I can show a picture of me and my husband and then someone will comment and say, “Your love inspires me and gives me hope.”
At the same time, you have those that want to reach out to say something negative and it is super hurtful and then you start dwelling on that, and then you start doubting who you are and who God has called you to be, and now there are so many more things you have to battle in your mind. It’s funny because I will see fifty positive comments and one negative one but that one negative one is the one I will remember when I am going on stage next time. Then I got to this point where all of the comments were affecting me – even the positive ones – and I started getting anxiety about it. Somebody would say something negative and it would suck and hurt, but then somebody would say something positive and it would give me just as much anxiety. Someone would say, “You’re my favorite comedian.” But then I would have all this anxiety and pressure that I would put on myself not to disappoint them. I need to stay super funny to stay their favorite. I got to a place where I said, “God, I don’t want my identity to lie in the negative comments or in the positive comments, let me just know who I am in You and what You think about me and let me just rest in that place. Let every other comment go in one ear and out the other and not be identifiable to who I am.” And it’s easier said than done, trust me.
RM: That is powerful especially because as you stated, your stand-up comedy is personal in order to make that mutual connection. How do you decide what parts of your life to share in your work and do you have a time period you wait before talking about a situation, or could it be something that happened the morning of a show?
AJ: My material comes from everyday life and in my phone I have a notes section and I write down ideas I have of something that is funny, or something that I think could eventually be funny. A story that has already happened I’ll write in my joke notebook to remind me and when the time is right I start working on it and writing it out. And sometimes it just happens at a show in a green room and I say something and someone says, “Oh that’s funny.” And I didn’t realize I was saying something funny and I’ll say, “I’m going to try it on stage in my next show.” The other day I was at a comedy club and it wasn’t my show, it was a random Tuesday night at The Improv – I just stopped in to do a quick ten-minute set – and I noticed that every comic that went up before me was trying new material, they had their notebooks out and they were trying new stuff. I thought, “I don’t really have anything new to try. Let me go pull up my notes on my phone, look at some of these ideas that I have written down, and let me just start talking about one of them.” So that is kinda what I did and thankfully it worked out [laughter]; that’s not always the case.
I loved that we were able to talk about God and faith without it feeling preachy because it took place in a church.
RM: You seem game for trying new things like taking your MADtv character from the show and giving her a real rapper’s career. [Laughter] Is it true that your husband, who is a musician in the band Group 1 Crew, had the idea to bring Bon Qui Qui/you on tour with him as the opening act?
AJ: He came up with the idea of making her a music artist. We kind of did it as a joke, just for fun. We recorded a few songs and did a couple music videos and put them on YouTube. Then next thing I know, my husband is pitching the idea to Warner Bros Music and they ended up signing Bon Qui Qui to a record deal. So we did a full comedic hip-hop album. Once we released it we thought, “Why don’t we go on tour as this character?” I had been touring as a stand-up comedian for years, but this would be the first time I would be bringing this character to life in front of live audiences. So we put together a tour and said, “If people come out to see her we’ll keep it going. If people don’t want to see her, then we will take that as our sign to move on.” The tour sold out. We did another run of it and that tour sold out. Now we are about to do our third, and final run of the show this spring.
RM: You are so gifted in comedy and it has definitely led your career. Would you be up for tackling different genres as well?
AJ: Yes! I never imagined myself in comedy. I thought I was going to be this dramatic actress – that is what I wanted to be and that is why I moved to Hollywood. It is very much still a goal of mine to do an action movie, or superhero film or take on a dramatic role, yes to all of it!