Friday, July 4, 2014

Exclusive Interview with Cherie Johnson (Family Matters,Punky Brewster) Grown Up Pt 1 of 2

She’s Out Of The Box Doing Grown Up Things

LENELL:  How are you doing?
CHERIE:: I’m great, never felt better.

LENELL:   For those that don’t know, Cherie you started your career at a very early age? How did you get started in the business?   How did you land the role on Punky Brewster as “Cherie?”
CHERIE:: Sure, Punky Brewster was a show that was actually created by my uncle, who thought it was cool to use my name. I didn’t understand how he was going to use my name and then go and give the job to another little girl.  It just didn’t’ make sense to me. So he had sold the show to NBC and I had to audition. They had auditioned girls in Los
Angeles, Chicago and New York.  After I had went in seven times, the president of NBC was like, dude give your niece the job.

LENELL: That is fantastic!!!!!!!! Wow.  Did you get treated differently on the set because you were the niece of the creator?
CHERIE:: ( Laughing) Absolutely not. In fact, they were probably harder on me because I was the producer’s niece.  As a child they would expect more of you than of any of the other kids running around just being kids.

LENELL:  Did you take acting lessons earlier on or did your parents put you in various activities to prepare you for that role?
 CHERIE::  Absolutely not! Literally, I think one of the reasons that I got the job and you know I didn’t realize it as a child, but now that I’m producing and I get a chance to sit on the other side of the table and audition children, myself, I think it was the organic feel of my audition.
Most little kids are trained and they come in, they sit in the chair and they state their name properly. Well, I didn’t do any of that. I didn’t know if that chair or mark in the middle of the room was even for me. My mom didn’t know.  All my mom told me was don’t touch anything and don’t fuss.  I said, “Okay”. There was no one to coach me through that.

I had this scene and I will never forget…There was this scene that I was supposed to do with Brandon the Dog on the show. So I went in and did my audition just like I had done it at home lying on the floor with my stuffed animals.  I took my stuffed animal in every time and didn’t realize that you don’t bring props in on the set. I was 6 and so I did it like I was at home.  I kind of rolled around while I talked to the dog. That was probably why the guys at NBC said, “She’s kind of funny. She doesn’t know any better.”

LENELL:  Well, it just shows that you have natural talent.  That’s all it took.
CHERIE::  Even now, while I’m auditioning children I tend to pick the ones that are less rehearsed and less practiced. It’s the ones that are just being kids.  That’s what we love about children, the honesty.

LENELL: The innocence, exactly.  Now, when you left the Punky Brewster show, it was maybe a 2 to 3 year gap between that role and Family Matters.  Did you have any roles in between or was Family Matters the next big opportunity?
 CHERIE: Oh no, when Punky Brewster ended, I did Days of our Lives. Then, I did a pilot with Martin Lawrence that didn’t go called, It Was a Bit Strange and then I went right into Family Matters. So, I’ve never gone a year without a job.

LENELL:  Awesome.  How was your experience on Family Matters?  We all know of the iconic character, Steve Urkel that has remained an American favorite, but what was it really like?
CHERIE::  My experience was awesome because the guy who played my boyfriend on the show, Waldo, was also my first boyfriend on Punky Brewster. So we had known each other since we were 8 years old. Jaleel and I knew each other from auditions. Darius McCrary, whom played Eddie had the same agent.  My agent was a kids’ agent so, we would see each other all the time at parties.  They would throw Christmas parties and spring parties. Darius and I literally played together at these parties.

Kelly was another close cast mate that was awesome. She became my friend and it really was like a family.  We kind of grew up together like we were siblings. There were days when we loved each other and then there were days that we hated each other.

LENELL:  Like a real family.
CHERIE::  Exactly; we fought, we loved and we stuck up for each other. We still stick up for one another. We still fight, we still love.

LENELL: You can’t ask for more than that
CHERIE: Yeah, because I see a lot of these kids now where they want them to act like adults and they treat them like adults. We weren’t treated like that, we were kids. We fought and played until they said, “action” and right when they said, “cut”, we would see who got the last lick in before they said, “action” again. (Laughing)

LENELL: You hear so many horror stories of child actors falling into somewhat of a curse where they become addicted to drugs, alcohol and other misfortunes.  How did you maintain to stay focused and actually remain relevant and working?
CHERIE:  I don’t believe in that curse. First of all, I don’t think people understand. With child stars there is only a handful of us right, but everyone goes to school with someone that ends up doing drugs, everyone goes to school with someone who ends up being a prostitute or who ends up being a stripper. 
It just so happens that with our lives everyone puts us under a microscope and think that we are supposed to be non-human. Once you humanize a celebrity, you realize that they are just people and certain people fall into certain situations. So that curse is ridiculous and it’s manmade and it’s a stigma that the world has put on us. But, if they go back and
just look at the people in their past, like maybe in their high school class, then they realize it’s just everybody. 

LENELL: Everybody faces that or knows someone who went through a horrible situation. That’s very true.
CHERIE: Regardless of what your path is just because you’re on TV doesn’t change who you are as a person. I just wasn’t going to be that person from my high school class who was going to be a prostitute, play on the pole or do drugs.

LENELL: What were some challenges that you faced in the industry?

CHERIE: The only challenge is that everybody still treats me like I’m 12; I’m 38 years old now. The world, I don’t know what it is; they fantasize or are obsessed with some sort of celebrity or a character that they have embraced.  They don’t want to let you outside of that box. I’ve heard and it’s unfortunate for me that casting directors are a younger generation that grew up watching Punky Brewster. They say, “Oh she can’t play a crack head.  That’s Cherie from Punky Brewster.”  I’m like are you kidding??? I can show you what a great crack head can be, but they don’t want to see that. They also say, “You can’t play a mother.” I have a 21 year old son people. I’m like, I am a mother. I’m pregnant now, but in their heads they just can’t grasp it.

LENELL: I can really see that stigma following Jaleel White too.  We’ve heard that casting directors really couldn’t see pass that one Urkel character.  Jaleel was type cast as Urkel to the point where they couldn’t see real depth as maybe him playing a leading role or even an action hero. That is unfortunate.

LENELL: Do you still keep in touch with ny of your old cast mates?  You mentioned earlier that you keep in contact with your cast mates from Family Matters; what about Punky Brewster?

CHERIE:  Oh yes, you put a couple of little girls together and one of two things is going to happen. One…either they’re going to love each other or  two… they’re going to hate each other. There’s going to be no in between. We absolutely adored each other. 

LENELL: What about peers? Did you have relationships or friendships with kids from other shows like let’s say with the Cosby kids? You guys kind of came up around the same time.
CHERIE: Sure, sure. I love me some Malcolm Jamal Warner.

LENELL: ((laughing) Who didn’t have a crush on Theo.
CHERIE: Malcolm gave me my first rap tape. He is going to kill me for saying this but he always would do something and say, “Don’t tell people I did that”. It’s hilarious now. When we were in Finland at an Andy Williams Christmas special, he gave me Doug E Fresh and Luther Campbell rap tapes.My mom eventually confiscated both tapes.
LENELL: I can see confiscating the Luther Campbell tape. (Laughing)
CHERIE: Luther is now one of my best friends in life. Yeah, my mom had a hard time with that for years. The man who he portrays, you know, the Uncle Luke character and Luther Campbell are completely two different men.  However, Malcolm will always hold a special place in my heart. Malcolm and I still communicate.  Even though I love Lisa Bonet, I love Tempest and I love me some Keisha there is something special about Malcolm. Malcolm also dated Michelle (Michelle Thomas) from Family Matters.  That’s probably why I have spent more time with him. He will always hold a special place in my heart. 

This is Part 1 of Cherie Johnson Interview Part 2



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