Mallori Johnson Is Bringing Octavia Butler’s Work to Life in Kindred
If you could travel back in time, what year would you go to? Often asked of acquaintances during a lull in casual conversation, it’s the kind of question that serves as a one-and-done personality test. Are you the type to drop acid during the Summer of Love or sip bathtub gin during the Roaring Twenties? Mad Men or The Gilded Age? Empire waist or the New Look? Of course, even when speaking in hypotheticals, time travel is a subject that can spark a touch of apprehension for Black Americans. If the long arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, as Martin Luther King, Jr. once told us, then the idea of stepping backwards in time—before so many of our hard-won freedoms were enshrined in law—is by definition an exercise in “grim fantasy.” Those are the words that author Octavia E. Butler chose to describe her novel Kindred when critics attempted to classify her time travel story as science fiction. Published in 1979, the book chronicles the horror that ensues when Dana, a Black woman living in Los Angeles, begins to be transported between present-day and a Maryland plantation in the year 1815 by forces beyond her control.
Kindred has long served as an unflinching look at the ways in which the legacy of slavery continues to reverberate through Black and white America. Despite being written more than four decades ago, its message is still urgent and relevant, which is why FX’s upcoming TV adaptation of the novel, which premieres Dec. 13, feels especially timely. “I didn’t really know how iconic Octavia Butler was until I read that book,” says Mallori Johnson, who stars as Dana in her debut leading television role. “I was like, ‘Wow, this story is really revolutionary.’”
Spearheaded by playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who serves as the writer, showrunner, and executive producer on the show, Kindred boasts a roster of blockbuster creative talent: Darren Aronofsky is an executive producer; the pilot episode was directed by Janicza Bravo. While Johnson is a relative newcomer to the scene–she has a theatrical background and landed a small role in Apple TV+’s WeCrashed–her performance throughout the series all but guarantees a quick ascent to stardom. As the emotional center of the show, her character navigates a near-constant torrent of grief, loneliness, and terror, oftentimes needing to tuck these emotions away at a moment’s notice as a means of survival. Johnson walks this tightrope with aplomb onscreen. “I feel like I really matured as an actor and as a person as the show went on,” the recent Juilliard graduate says.
Here, the burgeoning star talks about her time as a student, her love for Sally Field, how she approached playing the role of a lifetime, and what comes next when you debut on such a high note.
Have you always known you wanted to be an actor?
Yeah. I just always knew that this was what I wanted. My mom always tells me that when I was three, we went to go see my brother in The Wiz. He played the scarecrow and she was like, “That was the quietest you ever were as a child. You sat through that whole play and you never talked. You never moved. You were just focused.”
What are some of the shows or movies that made an early impression on you as a child?
My mom actually was the one who introduced me to so many amazing movies and television shows. I love her so much. She’s always supported me. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Sybil, but I was obsessed with that movie. I watched it so many times—at a very early age—over and over again. I’m obsessed with Sally Field. She’s my biggest inspiration. I wanted to have that power and that grit and really master my craft in the same way that I feel she’s done.
How did you go about studying your craft at that age?
I grew up in San Diego, and because I developed such an interest in it in middle school, my mom was like, “Let’s get you in a performing arts high school.” So I really started exploring my love for theater at the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts. I was a theater major and I got to do plays every quarter. I never knew that you could be educated in acting, so I’m really grateful to that school for giving me that.
And then came Juilliard.
I spent a year at Cal Arts before I went to Juilliard, and that was just such a crazy environment. I knew I could not stay there. When I got to Juilliard, I was just very unfocused. I wanted to go back because I missed my friends. You know, going to a predominantly white institution as a young Black girl is always gonna be difficult, no matter where you are.
When I got to Juilliard, my teachers were really hard on me because they knew that I could do better. By the third year, I really started to fall in love with where I was and what I was doing. The education started unlocking for me. I was like, oh my God, this is an entire different level of this love that I have for this art form that I never thought I would access.
Were you still in school when you began auditioning for television roles?
Our teachers were teaching us how to audition—we were learning what to wear and what people respond to, which was really cool. At the same time, we were also transitioning out of theater into film. They’d never touched the idea of film, so I had no experience in what it meant to be on a set. Everything that I knew was theater. So it was this whirlwind, like okay, now suddenly we’re doing an entirely different art form. I was trying to learn all that at once and then I ended up getting the audition for WeCrashed.
When my manager texted me about Kindred, I literally called my mom, like, “Mom, guess what I get to audition for?” Because she was the one who introduced me to the book. I was just excited to do it, to see the script for it. And then the further it went, the more calls I got for it, the more flabbergasted I was. I mean, I just never expected it. When I got the final call, I was shocked.
What was that call like?
It’s funny now, but at the time it wasn’t—my dog had just died, my dog of 16 years, and I remember I was actually crying. I was walking up the street to my apartment, and I was crying. I’d just graduated. I was a mess, I felt so weird. I didn’t know what I was gonna do next or what was happening with my life. I picked up my phone when my manager called and they were like,” How are you?” with this huge smile on their face. I was like, “Oh, my dog died.” But when they told me I got the role, my whole mood shifted.
When did you first read Kindred?
I read the book for the first time in my first or second year of college. I had actually read Fledgling first, the summer before my first year at Juilliard. I love science fiction, so my mom was like, “There’s this really cool science fiction writer that I think you might like.” Seeing a science fiction world that centered Black people, that was something that was really cool and really new to me. Everything I read as a kid was centered around a white narrative, so to have this main girl who was a vampire, that was so dope.
But then when I read Kindred, I fell in love. I didn’t really know how iconic Octavia Butler was until I read that book. I was like, oh, this is touching me on a whole different level, intellectually.
I love that it was your mother who put you on to both Sally Field and Octavia Butler.
My mom sparked everything for me artistically. My dad and my brother are like the math and science guys, and my mom is an author, so we’ve always shared that bond over love of art, which I’m so grateful for.
How much time did you have to prepare for the role of Dana?
I didn’t have much time, but I had enough time to kind of freak out. I was so scared. I had no idea what I was doing. When I think back on it, I don’t know how I got through that. I’m so grateful to have had the creative team around me that I had. Everybody was just so open, so willing to reach out a helping hand to me and be like, “Listen, we know it’s your first time on set. We got you. We’re holding you, we’re here for you.”
Particularly with the pilot, Janicza was an inspiration for me. I wanted to emulate her because she was just so powerful. She knew what she wanted.
How did you navigate the natural growing pains of leading a series for the first time while also dealing with the harrowing subject matter of the script?
Fortunately, we had Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins as our showrunner. I adore him. He’s one of the most responsible, intelligent and sensitive creative leaders I’ve ever met in my entire life. He created an environment in which we all felt safe, so we knew that at any time, we could step away. And we were so tight-knit as a cast. We were such a team on that set, and it was really all because of Brandon. He wanted to depict the truths of this historical fiction in the most respectful, sensitive way he possibly could, and I feel like he really succeeded in that.
There are a number of differences between the novel and the show, perhaps most notably the “present-day” time frame being updated from 1976 to 2016. As someone who already had such a connection to the novel, how did you react initially to these changes?
Oh my God, it was a lot of going back and forth between the script and the book. I was like, oh, okay, there’s a lot of differences, but I was really excited by the changes and understood where they sprouted from in the story. Eventually, there were two Danas in my head—there was Dana in the book and there was Dana in the show, and they were intertwined with each other. When I needed to draw from something, like a fundamental piece of who this person was and the way that this person would react or feel about something, I always went back to the book and I always tried to see it from that perspective. The book was like an encyclopedia for me to go back to whenever I needed to connect to something deeper than what I was seeing on the page.
What were some of the scenes that you found particularly difficult to film?
Everything. [laughs] No, I’m kidding. There were a lot of days where I was just really doubting myself. I was one of the youngest people on set, and I was also the most inexperienced person on set, and at the same time, I was there doing a scene every single minute of every single day. Endurance-wise it was difficult, but psychologically, I just wanted to give this show everything I had, and it was really hard on the days I felt like I failed at that. I was just coming out of school and I felt like I had to prove myself. That was the hardest part about this, and I feel like that’s gonna be the hardest part about me watching all of this back—remembering those days, remembering those scenes and just being like, “Oh God, I could’ve done so much better.”
And, I mean, the brutality and horror of some of the scenes were excruciating, but that’s just what the story required of me, I guess. The story kind of starts to have this insidious effect on you. I was feeling really disoriented and tired towards the end, like I had no idea what I was doing, where I was…but then I also had to remember that that is also what Dana is feeling.
On that note, have you ever found yourself exhausted by the brutality of slave narratives onscreen as a viewer? Before Kindred, did you have any predetermined notions on whether or not you wanted to be part of slavery-related projects as an up-and-coming Black actor?
I was just coming out of school, so I wasn’t thinking too hard about it, to be perfectly honest. At the same time, as an artist in general, it’s always been a hard rule for me that I never want to do anything that’s going to show my people, my culture in a negative light or in a light that is harmful or re-traumatizing. That’s never something I want to be a part of.
I knew Brandon, I knew some of Brandon’s work and I trusted him as a storyteller. Once I figured out that it was him, and saw all the producers that got this show’s wheels turning, I was like okay, these are smart and very aware Black artists who are trying to do something that is an homage to Octavia Butler, someone who was also smart and very aware and impactful. Her work was saying something beyond: This is what happened in slavery. It was a reflection of something much bigger and brighter, and I think that’s what attracted me to her story in the beginning. It looks at slavery with such fresh eyes, in a reflective way.
I also felt that I never want to forget what has happened historically. That’s just not my standpoint. Now I understand if other people don’t feel that way, I get that some people do not wanna see that on television. Some people have gotten to a point where, you know, they don’t wanna see the actual brutality and the exploitation of it and I completely understand that. If that’s how you feel, that’s how you feel. But personally, I don’t want to forget my history. I feel that every time I tell a story that is about my ancestors or might lift my ancestors up in a light of strength and endurance, I feel like I’m holding a candle for them, like I’m remembering what happened to them and how they have gotten me here.
With the release of this show, you’re about to transition very quickly from being relatively unknown to being well-known by the industry and audiences, too. How are you preparing for that?
I’m not thinking about it. Maybe I should be, but I just have never really wanted to have a huge presence online. Even though I participate—I have Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and all the things—at the end of the day I want my work to speak for itself.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.