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A.J. Johnson Shares The Real-Life Heartache That Made Her Cry On Camera

These stories about her iconic movie roles will make you want to watch them all over again.

I wouldn’t be surprised if A.J. was an acronym for Always Joyful. Instead, it’s short for Adrienne Joi, the first and middle name of the New Jersey-born actress better known as A.J. Johnson. You’ve heard the name and you certainly recognize the face. From the late 1980s to the present, Johnson has been nothing short of a class act, boiling over with humility and wisdom. The screen veteran is a ball of personality personified and a wealth of wisdom.

RELATED: Kellita Smith Shares Her Secret To Longevity In Hollywood

We met at the St. Jane Hotel on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, where the beauty donned a gorgeous braided updo and a black and white ensemble. We took a stroll down memory lane, reminiscing on the days of old and the proud Delta Sigma Theta sorority member's most iconic roles during her Hollywood tenure.

  1. Rewind back to 1988. Budding director Spike Lee premieres School Daze, a trailblazing musical-comedy-drama crossbreed detailing the trials and tribulations at Mission College, a fictional historically Black university. It’s there where we meet an array of coeds with varying complexions, including Johnson as Cecilia, also referred to as the “Girl in the Window,” next to Cassi Davis, a Tyler Perry mainstay best known for her roles in everyone’s favorite gun-toting grandmother’s theater plays, Madea, and TBS’s “House of Payne.”

    Although the film depicted colorism, elitism, discrimination and the battle for power and authority amongst the students, Johnson, a real-life Spelman College honors graduate, admittedly couldn’t identify with her role.

    “I couldn't relate to it because that's not the HBCU experience that I had. Of course, I was aware that that used to be the experience that I was pulling from, I didn't have that experience,” Johnson describes. “My experience was more-so that for chocolate women it was 'the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice.' So, I was highly celebrated.”

    And that movie was more than a blessing in disguise. While the aspiring actress was simply searching for her first on-camera opportunity, Lee was preparing her for her long-term future, unbeknownst to her.

    “I knew that I had a scene in the movie. I knew that I had dialogue in the movie. But at the time, I did not know that Spike was [helping me] become eligible for my Screen Actors Guild card. So, in order to be a member of the Screen Actors Guild, you have to have a screen credit and lines. I had no idea. So, Spike was really putting me in position to launch my career as a film and TV actress.”

    And for that, Johnson unapologetically credits “God’s grace and favor” that predestined her. “I was an actress, as opposed to just an extra dancer. And that's what launched things, because I got to L.A. with a screen credit and a movie under my belt. And it was a hit movie.”

  2. Fast forward two years, the world is introduced to House Party, a pioneering hybrid of hip-hop, friendship and growing pains, sprinkled into a gumbo pot of originality, rawness and realness. Johnson, who was the Fly Girls original choreographer on FOX’s variety show, In Living Color, plays Sharane, the smart-mouthed, no-nonsense teenager alongside rap-duo Kid ‘n Play, Tisha Campbell and Martin Lawrence.

    2020 marks the film’s 30th anniversary and three decades later we are still celebrating the gut-busting moves, 90s fashion and the now-infamous choreographed dance battle between the friends, which was not originally in the script. Instead, the friendly battle was captured during one of the cast’s lunch breaks. It was added to the final cut later on.

  3. “[Tisha Campbell] and I were always in a friendly, challenging battle with [Kid ‘n Play] while we were filming. They were battling our moves. They were teasing us and we were teasing them for their moves. And Reggie Hudlin just so happened to witness one of those teasing sessions at lunchtime. And he said, ‘We have to film this!’ And we [filmed it] not even knowing that it was going to even make the movie or be what it's become.”

    The cast was “new friends [and] new talents” who yearned “to create.” Johnson candidly admitted many of the film’s lines were ad-libs. “A lot of stuff that makes the movie memorable is just us trying different things that actually made the movie.”

    The cult classic, filmed in four weeks with a $4,000 cast payout, even helped spark an advertising deal for Johnson with Burger King. 

    “Remember there was the [scene] when Play comes to get me to help get Kid out of jail? And he says, ‘If you come with me, I'll take you to Burger King.’ And I'm like, ’Burger King?’ They turned that into a commercial. We made more money on that commercial than we did during the movie.”

  4. House Party went on to spawn two sequels; House Party 2 (1991) and House Party 3 (1994), but one of the original cast members, Sharane, was noticeably missing from the reunions. Sharane’s absence was not by mistake, as Johnson opted out of reprising the role.

    “I was looking at the content of the sequels and I just felt like the content didn't do the characters or the storylines any justice. I was offered the sequels. But after House Party, I got offered Dying Young (1991) with Julia Roberts. I did a movie with Alfre Woodard playing her daughter in The Mary Thomas Story (1989.) Sister Act (1992) came not long after that with Whoopi Goldberg. So my career blossomed in terms of content, but I just wasn't interested in doing a couple scenes, so I turned it down.” 

    If Sharane was a part of the follow ups, Johnson says Sharane's storyline would include her character as “a successful businesswoman, owning a clothing store boutique or being a hip-hop fitness dance teacher- still ghetto and still in the projects, but a savvy business woman because she just didn't take any sh*t.”

  5. In 1994, Johnson portrayed Heather Lee, the scorned, heavy-hearted wife of Harold Lee, played by Morris Chestnut in The Inkwell, alongside Larenz Tate and Jada Pinkett-Smith. One of the film’s most harrowing scenes included Heather confronting her faithless spouse, which received breathtaking responses from the cast and crew. Despite Johnson’s staggeringly amazing first take performance, Johnson’s father suggested she film the scene again, but this time, thinking of the ex-lovers who had broken her heart.

    “I know what you've been like when your heart has been broken. I remember when you got lied to by your boyfriend when you were in Spelman,” her father declared. “I just didn't believe you because I know what you're like when you're devastated.”

  6. He went on to mutter two words, “Anthony Granberry," the name of an ex who had shattered Johnson’s trust, and whose infidelity sparked the demise of their relationship.

    “I took a deep breath. And I know that I welled up and my dad told Matty [Rich] to roll the camera, and I could hardly talk. And I remembered that particular time of my life when I've been lied to and cheated on, and I've never been through that before. So, I recalled that and that's the performance you see.” 

    Aside from Granberry, she named a world-renowned boxer who broke her heart once upon a time, who her father also mentioned to help her deliver the now memorable heart-quenching performance.

    “I dated Evander Holyfield when I was a senior at Spelman and he was just turning pro out of the Olympics. While he and I were dating, he had a kid or two outside of our relationship. Now that you know the truth, go back and watch that scene; the lip quivering, I couldn’t even take a breath, I couldn’t even say, ‘Get out’ or ‘You're a liar.’ I couldn’t even get it out because that wasn't an act. That was real.”

  7. From filming at Martha’s Vineyard to the mean streets of South Central, Johnson portrayed Juanita in John Singleton’s Baby Boy (2001.) Now a fan favorite film inspiring popular memes, Johnson admits the role was difficult to initially grasp.

    “It wasn't fun for me, because I was so engrossed in understanding and learning who I needed to portray her. Here I am; the Spelman grad from New Jersey. I took the responsibility extremely seriously playing this young mom from South Central who was making decisions flying by the seat of her pants, no-years older than her son, trying to just navigate life right.”

    To help her assume her role, Johnson pierced her nose and added a golden blonde streak to the front of her dark brown mane. “John [Singleton] was instrumental by introducing me to a lot of his female friends in South Central and helping me spend time in that arena of LA so that I could really get to know the vibe and the language.”

    One light-hearted memory from the set included Ving Rhames, Juanita’s ex-felon boyfriend, and an off-script ad-lib that has become one of the movie’s highlights. 

    “One light moment was when Ving actually goes into the kitchen to make breakfast, and he asks Tyrese if he wants breakfast and he's naked. That wasn't planned,” Johnson remembers. “None of us knew he was going to do that. He didn't even tell me. Nobody knew he was going to do that except Ving and John. But once John yelled, “Cut!” the set exploded in laughter!”

    Now, 30 years later, Johnson is now Stephanie every Thursday on UMC’s Stuck With You. Aside from acting, the beauty balances a fulfilling life both on camera and off-set.

    A certified fitness trainer, life coach and wellness advocate, Johnson not only talks the talk, but walks the walk. In an era where Hollywood longevity is unparalleled and infrequent, Johnson’s career, and testimony, only proves what she knew all along; She’s a star, with the resume to prove it.  

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