In NewsWhistle’s weekly question-and-answer series, Clara Morgan speaks with some of her favorite influencers and finds out more about their lives and careers. This week, Clara speaks with actress and media consultant Suzanne Johnson.
Suzanne has extensive experience in the marketing and advertising fields. After graduating with a Bachelor of Science Degree from College of Communications, UTK, with high honors in 1985, Suzanne was hired and promoted as the youngest Account Executive in the history of Ogilvy & Mather Advertising, at that time. Throughout her career, at leading Fortune 500 companies and as a consultant, Suzanne has had the privilege of creating and building relationships and associations that celebrate America’s most important traditions, revered artistic festivals, and prestigious events from MTV to the NBA, the Centennial Olympic Games to the Election of President Obama, Billboard Music to Questlove.
Suzanne’s main current career focus is acting. As a freelance SAG-AFTRA actor, Suzanne can currently be seen on Amy Poehler’s new comedic episodic “Difficult People,” Hulu’s breakout hit, “The Path,” and Showtime’s Emmy Award-winning show, “Billions.” Suzanne has been in over 100 broadcast, Internet, and theatrical productions. She studied acting at the Alliance Theater and the Atlantic Theater Company in New York City and is also a former dance company principal and choreographer.
Suzanne also has leveraged her professional experience in order to help charities and non-profit organizations, including domestic violence prevention for women and children, environmental causes and solutions, historic preservation, and several fundraising and awareness initiatives for various life-threatening diseases. An active community volunteer, she has been a committed domestic violence legal advocate, Meals on Wheels volunteer, NY Council Member for the Natural Resources Defense Council, and WNYC Public Radio Fundraising Committee member.
Suzanne is also passionate about architecture and design. She studied art and design at the College of Art and Design and Atlanta College of Art and ran her own successful design business prior to moving to NYC, where she continues to design for herself and friends.
Courtesy of Peter Hurley
1. When and how did you first realize you wanted to work in the industry and business that you are currently in?
From childhood. Though the goal of actually becoming a working actress seemed absolutely outrageous to me, as a child. My parents had been “Mad Men” here in New York in the late 1950s and 1960s. Despite our home being filled with stories of friends in the entertainment business, there were also references of “casting couches” and “unhappy endings” used to describe the fate of being an actress.
I began taking professional acting classes after college once I was living on my own. Only then did I begin to realize what a deep and vast ocean the craft of acting is. But it remained “a curiosity” (and a secret) to my family, which I tried to fit in behind my emerging career in advertising and my performance schedule as a member of a semi-professional dance troupe.
It was only after my then-new husband and I moved to NYC, in my 30s, that I had the freedom and courage to fully embrace this dream. Based on the positive reactions and strong encouragement of the casting directors I took classes with, I actually booked my very first commercial audition, a fun comic role for the Food Network. It was then that I realized I could in fact be a working actor. Despite starting an acting career when most actresses feel they are aging out, as the expression goes, it’s never too late to be what you might have been.
2. Any celebrity clients or memorable stories related to your business you want to share?
I actually have a great deal of memorable, “I can’t believe this is happening” stories with celebrities – or rather, with great artists, brilliant political minds, and global influencers like Robert Redford, Barack Obama, and Deepak Chopra, thanks to my work and primarily my husbands. But here is one especially memorable story…
When I was first exploring working as an actor here in NYC, it was suggested to me (by a friend at a party) to explore getting in a film she knew was shooting in the area. I tried not to be offended that the film she felt I’d be perfect for was the remake of The Stepford Wives. I didn’t know how to get in the film though, and neither did my friend. Fueled by sheer will, but with no guidance or contacts, I went down to a film casting office that I had located through my research.
Quite unexpectedly, on arrival, the casting directors fought over me; there were two films in consideration and despite the fact I had apparently done the unspeakable – I had come into a major casting office uninvited – like a piece to a missing puzzle, I was booked on sight and two days later was on set for the film The Manchurian Candidate.
My very first morning on location, amongst hundreds of experienced union actors, the director of the film, the amazing Jonathan Demme, much to my complete shock, chose me with a welcoming “hello” to come to set for the first shot of the day. More to my surprise, I was hand-picked to work opposite Liev Schreiber in a scene with Meryl Streep and Jon Voight. I had no idea it was the only scene that included all three lead actors. (Most non-union actors seldom, if ever, get invited to set over union actors). Even more shocking, I ended at lunch with Liev and John who came into the production lunch tent and asked if they could join me. It was an unbelievable experience for me, and without a doubt, the most “unheard of” first day for any first time, non-union extra, so I’m told.
3. What is a typical day like for you? And what do you like to do on a day off?
A typical day is fairly untypical. As a freelance actor, I live fairly “on the ready” for an audition. If I have an audition, that is the priority. Like everyone, I have projects, responsibilities, and social engagements outside my career as a freelance actor. Sometimes those take priority but I try to do something every day for my acting whether it is admin work, researching new classes, reading a play, reconnecting with my agents – honestly, the list is endless.
A true “day off” is a day that I have “booked out” with my agent(s). My most favorite thing to do on days off is travel. I love to explore new places and visit friends in familiar ones. If I have some days off, I’m often packed and heading to the airport with my husband. If it’s just a day or two, NYC is the ultimate staycation and taking in an exhibit with friends in Chelsea, cruising the shops in Nolita and hitting the Open Center for a yoga class… just a few things of so many that I love to do on a day off in NYC.
4. What is the next big thing in your industry? What are people doing differently today, compared to 10-15 years ago?
Advancements in technology and the “Power of Me” is the most significant change I have seen that has profoundly influenced not just us actors but all of the entertainment industry. Stating the obvious, there is not an industry or citizen unaffected by the zealous and pervasive impact of the digital age.
Technology is influencing, empowering, and bringing together individuals and groups outside the standard “channels” of our entertainment world. With this will continue to come more access, more control, and more responsibility for the actor. How much an actor can remain on the crest of the wave of all the technological advancements is crucial to advancing one’s career. Or just maintaining one’s career. Those with the ability to translate these changes and trends into action are influencing business and our industry of acting; this is a vague answer and I wish I had a crystal ball to tell you what the next big thing is.
Regarding a comparative look, I think all one has to do is look at the work produced over recent years. Serving up two mainstream examples, the mini series “American Crime Story” and the more “safe and predicable” network show “Madame Secretary”– one can see the rise in inclusive, issue-raising entertainment that highlight unexpected heroes (aka flawed women) and lifestyle choices (aka gay marriage)…just two examples of many that show advancement from 10-15 years ago.
Courtesy of Peter Hurley
5 & 6. What are your three favorite restaurants and bars in New York?
I’m not a “favorites” person, but certainly what defines “a favorite” many times depends on the occasion. Here are a few “pairings,” or examples, of a few bars and restaurants that I really enjoy:
Romantic (expensive) dinner: La Grenouille
Drinks before or after: Bar at the Baccarat Hotel.
Broadway Theater night:
Drinks pre (or post): Bar Centrale
Casual neighborhood night:
Dinner and great drinks: Danji
Dinner and sake: Blue Ribbon Sushi
7. What are your three favorite locations to visit in New York?
This is tough question. No, it is an impossible question, but here goes. I would say going to Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle for champagne and live jazz, most especially in December when the snow is falling. I would say browsing books at Three Lives & Co. bookstore after lunch in historic Greenwich Village on a lovely autumn day. And walking through Central Park with my husband and our dog Rosie on any day, but most especially in the spring when the cherry blossoms are in bloom.
8. Which three events on your annual calendar will you absolutely not miss?
Here in NYC: Fashion Week, the Armory show, and the Westminster Dog Show.
As long as these annual events continue to empower art, culture, and business here in NYC, I’m happy and don’t always need to go. To attend them is part of the joy of living here though; each event is eye opening, but if I have to miss, I’ve noticed life goes on quite undisturbed, though perhaps a little less enriched and fun.
But here are three annual events in my life that I try never to miss:
The JDRF Walk (Juvenile Diabetes Research Walk). We do this every September with many friends.
NYC annual Christmas lunch-brunch with my girlfriends.
Ciliegiolo: the villa of our dear friends in Umbertide, Italy. Mark and I join friends, old and new, every August.
Robert De Niro and Suzanne Johnson; Courtesy of Suzanne Johnson
9. What was your best/worst New York moment?
One of my best of many favorite moments here in New York City was when my husband Mark and I were settling into our first apartment on the Upper East Side. We were unpacking boxes in our living room after a very long day of moving. With music playing and in clothes I felt like burning, we stopped packing when we heard one of our favorite songs, “Love is Here to Stay” by Frank Sinatra, and started to dance.
As we danced, we could hear loud cheers and applause. Much to our complete surprise, through the back window, there was a large group of people in the apartment across the alley watching us while they clapped and cheered. A moment I’ll never forget.
On this I’ll be brief. It was flying over the burning remains of the World Trade Center. Mark and I were on one of the first planes allowed to return to JFK after being diverted to Ireland; we were on a flight that left London bound for NYC on 9-11 and we returned home to NYC on my birthday 9-14.
10. What is something that people do not know about you?
I am an identical twin.
11. How would you describe your personal style?
I think being at ease with one’s body is a great blessing; one’s carriage and energy can exude a confidence and beauty that transcends anything you are wearing. That’s a big part of style to me.
I don’t shop according to trends or labels, yet I am aware of what’s in style. I enjoy looking at and playing with fashion, but I buy what I like, what I need, and what works for me – neither spending a fortune nor wasting time hunting the biggest discount.
I truly dislike the lack of personal awareness and expression that comes with buying what’s in style. I guess if I had to define my style, it would be effortlessly elegant, current and spot-on, appropriately mixed with a little something unexpected.
12. Who is your style icon and where do you find style inspiration?
I don’t have one. But if I were to choose an inspiration for style, I’d like to radiate Christiane Amanpour’s focus and depth combined with Christy Turlington’s effortless natural beauty, much of what comes from within.
13. Who is your favorite artist?
I am not a “favorites” person, I enjoy and respect far too many, but here are some selects and why…
Johann Sebastian Bach
Example: Concerto for Two Violins
Why? An example of a timeless, beautiful piece of music enjoyed and passed on from generation to generation. Accessible. Performed by young students as well as the greatest of violinists.
14. What is your favorite…
Outfit: The Dolce Gabbana gown I wore to client/friend David Foster’s beautiful daughter’s wedding in Bel Air, CA.
Perfume: Jo Malone’s Grapefruit Cologne. Simple, clean, and my go-to fragrance in the summer. It’s my favorite because I love the smell and also because it reminds me of going to Saks Fifth Avenue to buy it whenever my dear mother is visiting; Saks is close to our apartment and it’s one of our many cherished NYC outings when she’s here.
Movie: Loving all sorts of movies, this is truly impossible so I’m choosing one that is playing now: Manchester by the Sea. It’s an honest, painful but beautiful story about the cost of unintended mistakes and loss. See it!
TV Show: Homeland. Two words: Rupert Friend.
Book: Far, far too many to pick. I’m about to re-read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.
15. What is your favorite restaurant in the world?
I will describe an evening I’d like to recreate:
A lovely summer night at the Colombe d’Or, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France with my husband Mark and other loved ones. Dish: Their sole with a glass of cool viognier, a warm baguette and local cheese.
16. Favorite vacation spot and hotel?
I am lucky to have traveled a great deal over the past 25 years, so this is quite impossible to answer for me but here’s a story of a very special place at a very special time: Ravello, the Amalfi Coast, Italy at Hotel Palumbo.
Mark and I started planning our summer trip a bit too late for high season in southern Italy. It was the late 1990s, over 20 years ago, and at the time, to book a hotel suite or room, one could only place a phone call, if you spoke Italian, or send a fax, assuming the hotel had a fax machine.
I did my usual research, reading European magazines and New York Times articles in order to create a marvelous adventure for Mark and me throughout Italy. We fell in love with this intimate hotel in Ravello set above all the craziness of the Amalfi Coast called the Hotel Palumbo. I wrote the proprietor of the Palumbo stating our desire to stay, quite aware the hotels rooms were all booked that season. (I had called and found out). I faxed the letter, written half in English, half in Italian (as best I could), explaining why we wanted to stay there.
I can still remember the sound of letters coming through the fax machine from our home office in the middle of the night from Italy, waking us from our sleep. Magically a room became available at the hotel and once we arrived at the lovely hotel Palumbo in breathtaking Ravello, meeting my pen pal was like reuniting with an old friend, only one I had never met. Mark and I were treated like family and the experience could never be replicated. Our time at the Palumbo and throughout the Amalfi Coast was indescribable.
I tell this story because I am so happy to have traveled during a time, before the Internet, before cell phones, with Mark. I never could have guessed at the time how simple and free those days were and how obsolete they’d soon become.
Courtesy of Peter Hurley
17. Which three items can you not live without?
My reading glasses, my smart phone, and a ponytail holder.
18. What song, meditation or mantra can you listen to on repeat and why?
Despite having been to many sacred, historic Buddhist cities and temples throughout the world, I actually do not have a set meditation or mantra that I listen to, though I truly admire that practice.
I do read, every night, the prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi:
Make me an instrument of Your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon,
Where there is doubt, faith,
Where there is despair, hope,
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love;
For it is giving that we receive and it is for pardoning that we are pardoned.
I read this as a prayer and aspiration: to me, the ultimate example of selflessness, inner strength, and peace.
19. If you could meet anyone in the world, who would you like to meet and why?
I’ve got many….here’s three:
Gloria Steinem, Pope Francis, and writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, because I admire each of them for what they have accomplished, many times against great odds–how they have stuck to their beliefs, worked very hard, and enriched and inspired my life.
Picture of Robert De Niro and Suzanne Johnson courtesy of Suzanne Johnson; All other Images courtesy of Peter Hurley.