Rebekka Johnson is one of those rare, brave souls who have dedicated their lives to making people laugh. A force to be reckoned with in the world of improv comedy, she began to forge her own path in the entertainment industry as one-third of the critically acclaimed comedy trio, The Apple Sisters (ECNY Best Musical Act, NYIT Outstanding Original Music), she’s spent the better part of 11 years performing to sold out crowds all over the country. Along the way, The Apple Sisters have opened for the likes of Ingrid Michaelson, Dead Man’s Bones (Ryan Gosling & Zach Shields), while also appearing at the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal, as well as on “Conan” for TBS and in the feature film “Bridesmaids.”
Rebekka captured the hearts of fans around the globe as part of Netflix’s critically acclaimed, award nominated series “GLOW.” Executive Produced by Jenji Kohan, the show follows Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie), a struggling, out of work actress in Los Angeles in the 1980’s, who eventually goes on to help create the first women’s wrestling TV show. Rebekka shines as Dawn, one part of the hilarious “Beatdown Biddies” wrestling duo: Edna and Ethel Rosenblatt, and lover of all things glitter and spandex. Rebekka was most recently nominated two years in a row for 2018/2019 SAG Awards with her co-stars for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series for the first two seasons of the show. The third season of “GLOW” premiered to rave reviews on Netflix on August 9th, 2019.
In addition to her dazzling work on stage and television, she continues to wow audiences with her work as a writer and filmmaker. Her latest project, “Consent, a Short Comedy About a Serious Subject,” is a captivating short film that she both wrote and stars. Inspired by the debate about the difference between sexual assault and a bad date, the short film follows a fan who is put in an awkward situation when a singer (Johnson) won’t take no for an answer. The short shows the emotional journey of a victim in a unique and humorous way, and is currently making the rounds at festival circuits, recently winning first place at the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal and the film was also accepted into the 2019 HollyShorts Film Festival in Los Angeles.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Rebekka Johnson to discuss her passion for the arts, her evolution as an artist, and the challenges of bringing her latest film to the screen. Along the way, she offers up an inside look at her unique career, the spectacular 3rd season of Netflix’s “GLOW,” and what she has in the works for the near future.
You’ve become a familiar face over the years with role on Netflix’s “GLOW.” Before we get to that, I wanted to go all the way back to the beginning. How did you get involved in the arts early on in life?
I actually started by doing church plays. My parents kind of gave me a choice — I could either audition for community theater, where I’d get a tiny little part or do these church plays where I could get a bigger part, get to sing and do more performances. So, I chose the bigger parts! [laughs] I think they were just trying to discourage me from going a more professional direction! [laughs] I took dance classes when I was little and when I was 5 years old, I would say that I wanted to grow up and write commercials of all things! I have always been attracted to comedy in many different forms.
What went into finding your creative voice as a young artist?
I always liked making people laugh. I went to school in New York City. Once we hit 4th grade, which is where they incorporated theater, they would let us do a play. We didn’t have that much arts education at that time. We did the play “Free To Be You and Me.” I got a part where I played a bratty girl. I remember coming in from the back of the audience and I sauntered down with my snotty little attitude and said my dialogue as I was approaching the stage. Everyone was laughing and it was the best! [laughs] I’ve always been attracted to making people laugh and sometimes I would do that in inappropriate situations when I should have been being serious or listening in school. Eventually, I started doing improv comedy when I was in college. I haven’t stopped doing comedy since!
At what point did you know comedy and acting was something you wanted to pursue professionally?
When I was applying to college, I knew that I wanted to go to school for acting. My parents were supportive but very practical, so they would encourage me to major in teaching and minor in theater or major in computer programming and minor theater. I just kept insisting that I wanted to major in acting. I auditioned for BFA programs and ended up going to Montclair State for acting. At the orientation, I saw an improv comedy group perform. They were called Possible Side Effects. I saw them perform and it was the funniest thing I had ever seen! So, as soon as I got to school, I went to all of their shows and sat front row. I was like, “I want to be in your group.” They were like, “well, we’re not adding anyone.” I was like, “Oh, you’re going to add me one day!” About 3 months later, they added me, and I still perform with them to this day and they are some of my closest friends! [laughs] We started performing once a week and then eventually moved off campus and began performing in a theater. When the UCB opened up, we all went into New York and took classes there. Eventually, we got on teams at UCB and I became a teacher at The People’s Improv Theatre. That’s where I met Kimmy Gatewood, who is my comedy partner on “GLOW,” along with our other comedy partner Sarah Lowe. The three of us started The Apple Sisters in 2007, which is our 1940s musical comedy group. That kind of changed the trajectory of my career. Once we had an act that we could do in festivals all over the country, we started doing that and eventually got to Montreal for Just For Laughs, which led to getting managers, which led to them saying “Move from New York to LA.” So, we did and 10 years later, I got on “GLOW”! [laughs] It either took 20 years or you can call me an overnight success! [laughs] Either way!
I’m glad you mentioned The Apple Sisters because I recently went down a YouTube rabbit hole and discovered a ton of great stuff. How did the concept for The Apple Sisters begin to take shape?
With The Apple Sisters, when Kimmy, Sarah and I were talking about doing a show together, we were feeling like we wanted to do some sort of variety show with the three of us. We knew we liked to sing and dance, but we were also at a place where there were less females doing comedy than there are now. It was sort of a big deal to take a stand and say “We’re going to do what we want to do. We aren’t reacting to male comedy. We’re just going to be our true artistic selves.” So, we picked the 1940s and decided to create a weird, bizarro version of The Andrews Sisters. We started doing a show for Valentine’s Day and the next month we wrote a new one and the next month we wrote another new one! We just kept writing new shows based on whatever holiday or theme would come up that month. It became the conglomeration of everything we love! We were all fans of Carol Burnett, Tracey Ullman and Pee Wee Herman, so we were able to incorporate those styles and also write our own original songs, do slapstick comedy and look at things that were happening politically in this day and age but through the 1940s lens. That allowed us to do political satire as well. We sort of made it everything we dreamed it to be and we still perform! Mainly, we do a stage show and then we also have some online content and a several albums. We just were doing it because that’s what we were passionate about and we were really doing it for the art of it. That was a really exciting time. Now, I’m just withered and old and all about money! [laughs]
You look so at home in front of the camera and on stage. That doesn’t happen overnight. When do you feel you came into your own as a performer?
I think The Apple Sisters really made me comfortable on stage. We would have this scripted show, but we would always have these weird food props, or something would go wrong. We do one song where we eat corn and we’d spit it in each other’s faces! [laughs] Something would always go wrong and when things would go wrong, we’d improvise and make the best jokes out of it. I feel like I’ve been able to use those writing/improvising skills in conjunction in so many different facets of my career since then. It’s super fun to plan out all of the jokes ahead of time for a scripted show but I’m also quick on my feet and comfortable if it doesn’t go quite as planned. I’ve really been able to use that on “GLOW” because we are wrestling, and you never know what’s going to happen even when it’s totally planned. There have been so many times when I’ve gotten to make something funnier because of a mistake and then it makes it into the episode!
What were some of the other lessons you learned early on in your career that impacted your trajectory?
I just learned to be persistent and believe in myself. There were so many times where I held myself back. For example, right when I graduated college, I had a BFA showcase when I graduated. A couple of different agents asked me for my headshot. At the time, I was like, “Oh, let me lose about 10 lbs. and I’ll get a new headshot and send it out.” It was like, “No! They saw me in a showcase! I should have just sent the headshot I had.” I would think, “Oh, I’m an improviser and an actor, not a writer.” A couple years later, I was like, “No, I am a writer! If I’m able to improvise and come up with all that stuff, then I am a writer.” Now, I’m equally writing and acting as my career. Believing in myself and not letting anything hold me back has been key for me. If I could, I’d go back and tell my younger self, “Just do it! Don’t let your insecurities hold you back!” It’s important to keep going at all costs! Some of the girls on “GLOW” started to get successful when they were much younger and some of them were like, “How did you keep going?” I said, “I don’t know. Something inside of said you can’t stop! We are doing this!” [laughs] Being able to do improv and sketch shows meant that I was feeding my creativity and I wasn’t just sitting home waiting for a job. I was performing live, eventually writing shows, making videos, making my own work and also, every once and awhile, checking my phone to see if I got an audition! [laughs] I didn’t spend my whole life just staring at the phone!
Through the years, you seem to have kept many irons in the fire. Was it difficult to find balance?
Yeah, I think there was a point in time, a couple of years ago, where I was truly making a living producing, directing, acting and writing. I was also teaching improv and I also have a child! I don’t make a living having a child, of course, but it’s something I also have to think about! [laughs] I had to sort of focus. I did some soul searching and said, “Ya know what? What I love most of all is acting and writing.” I really tried to focus on those things instead of pursuing more professional producing opportunities and several professional directing opportunities. I decided to double down on acting and writing. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the other things or would completely turn away from them. If the right project came up, then it’s something I’d explore but I really started focus on acting and writing and it’s been great. Once I got “GLOW,” that really elevated my acting career. For writing, Kimmy and I recently sold a pilot script and I’m writing on a Netflix kid show right now. It came down to looking at myself and saying, “What is it that I really want to do?” “GLOW” made it possible for me to be able to focus on those two things without having to wait tables on the side, which is what I had to do for so many years! [laughs]
Speaking of “GLOW,” Season 3 is now upon us! It’s been a wild ride and I’ve loved every minute of it. How did you get involved with the project early on and what spoke to you about it?
I watched ‘G.L.O.W.’ when I was a kid, so I knew exactly what it was when the audition came up! It was so fun because Kimmy Gatewood and I got to audition together. For the audition, there was half a page of scripted dialogue and then they were like, “Make it your own! Ad-lib!” So, Kimmy and I go together for several hours and wrote out a bunch of bits and came up with all of these fun characters that we could play. We went in, improvised a bit and had a bunch of jokes written. We put on a whole show! Liz [Flahive], Carly [Mensch], Tara [Heremann] and Jenji [Kohan], who were all producing the show, just talked to us for about 20 minutes and got our dynamic! We finish each other’s sentences all the time and are really bubbly and over the top! I think we fit what they wanted for those characters, so then we got the role. It’s been a dream come true to be able to work with my best friend and be on this kickass women’s TV show.
The series continues to grow in popularity. From your point of view, what is it about “GLOW” that resonates with the audience?
I think that this series is very empowering! When “GLOW” came out, “Wonder Woman” had just come out as well. I remember watching that and feeling this overwhelming joy of seeing these women fight, be strong, and be in charge. I feel “GLOW” gives you a similar feeling of watching these women be in charge and use their bodies in ways that we don’t normally see. It’s exciting to see us wrestle but there are also 15 female characters and we all have complicated, layered, interesting personalities. That’s rare as well! Even today, I went in for an audition for a who girl has her hair up. When she takes her hair down, the guy realizes how attractive she is. I was like, “Man, that’s been a trope since they started writing things!” So, it’s so cool to be on a series where you get to play layered, detailed, interesting characters and follow the journey of an underdog. You really get to root for them!
What can we expect from Dawn and Stacey in Season 3 of “GLOW”?
This season you find out a little more about how we feel about some of the other girls. You really see how sheltered Dawn and Stacey are. Even though they are party-animals, they are still around people who are just like them. You see that they are a little bit ignorant and maybe even a touch homophobic! [laughs] You find out that they aren’t just these clowns but people with layered feelings. It was really a challenge because we, Kimmy and I, have to portray something that is against what we personally believe. That was a little bit difficult but then our characters eyes get opened up through the friendships that we have and experiences that happen on the show. That was cool to be able to play with that. There is also an episode where we all go camping and it’s really emotional between all of the girls. In the script, it said, “All the girls are crying.” I was like, “Oh, okay! Here we go! Put a wig on me! Draw some lines on my face!” That’s where I’m comfortable but I asked myself, “Crying? Can I do this? I haven’t had to do this in a long time in front of a camera.” The girls we are playing opposite are so brilliant that all I had to do was just look at them. They were so in the moment that tears just flew out of my eyes and I cried for six hours! [laughs] It was exhilarating to be able to have that catharsis and to be able to work as an actor in that way. It’s so different than the work that I’ve had to do on the show and outside the show! Those are a couple of fun things that are coming up!
That’s really cool to hear. One of the things I love about this show is the bonds that you have all formed outside of the series. I always see you gals interacting on social media. It’s really exciting and, quite frankly, uplifting in this day and age.
It’s amazing that we are actually friends outside of the show. I feel like some of these girls are now some of my closest friends. It’s crazy but you spend so much time together on a set. It’s time that you’re taking care of each other’s bodies. You’re making sure you are keeping them safe and they make sure they keep you safe. It’s like doing a bunch of trust falls! [laughs] It really does work and it makes you trust each other! I trust these girls so much and we’ve spent so much amazing time together! Kate [Nash] is in Serbia shooting a movie and I was just texting with her. We text on the two hours we are both awake because of the time difference! [laughs] She was asking, “How was the premiere?!!” I text with her a lot and hang out with a lot of the girls, so we really do enjoy each other’s company!
You also have a very interesting project that was recently released — “Consent: A Short Comedy About A Serious Subject.”
Yes! I wrote the short film to talk about the issue of consent and to show the emotional journey of a victim of sexual assault or sexual coercion to start a conversation about the topic but to present it in a comedic way. To do so, I decided to use an allegory. So, I follow that journey but instead of any sexual act, it’s music. I play a musician and there is a fan at my show, and he compliments me, so then I start singing to him. He doesn’t really want me to sing to him, when I’m not on stage, but I don’t get it, or I don’t care what he wants, and I continue to sing to him, and it gets more heightened and blown out from there. It was really gratifying! I really care about the issue of consent and I think it’s something that should be taught in a better way to our children, so that when they grow up, they totally understand that respecting consent is just a given. I also taught myself how to play the ukulele and wrote three songs for the movie. I got to star in the movie and brought along friends to star in it along with me, and Kimmy Gatewood directed it. It’s in a bunch of festivals now and we just won first place at Just For Laughs in Montreal, which was very exciting. It’s really cool to be able to now work on a project that I wrote and that is really close to my heart.
How did your initial vision for the project differ from the final product, if at all?
It ended up being fairly similar to what I started with. I pictured this specific bar that actually let us shoot there at a nicely discounted rate! Because I was producing it and working with Kimmy, her and I would run every line through this little test of “are we still respecting the issue? Is it funny enough but not too absurd?” It had to be realistic and really fit the allegory perfectly. There were only a few things that changed. For instance, I had a couple more locations but, on the day, when we were running out of time, we were able to fit in lines from another potential location into the scene we are shooting. That was easier than moving to six other locations. Really time and budgetary constraints led us to make some changes. We had complete creative control! We had complete control and we got to do whatever we wanted to do. Well, almost complete control. I wish I could be ten years younger, but I can’t control that! [laughs]
It’s great to hear you have picked up an award and the film is connecting with audiences. What are the plans for “Consent: A Short Comedy About A Serious Subject” moving forward?
Pretty soon we are going to put it online and hopefully debut it with a splash! Right now, I’m writing a feature that has to do with similar issues. It’s also a comedy, so I’m hoping I will be able to get that made. If people got to www.consentcomedy.com or visit my social media channels, you’ll find out when it’s online. It’s only 13 1/2 minutes, so I think people can watch it, laugh and think. I’d love for people to let me know how they feel about it!
How have you evolved as an artist over the course of your career?
I think I’ve grown in confidence in my own voice and even just feeling like “I have something to say that people want to hear.” That’s really cool! Making “Consent” was such a big turning point for me in a way because it was proving to myself that I, on my own, can write something that is really important, that resonates with people and makes them think. It’s encouraging me to continue to do that, to not try to fit in a box that I thought I had to fit in, or feel sad that I’ll never fit in. Now, I’m able to embrace who I am, keeping my head down and keep working!
What do you look for in the material you are taking on these days?
I really like comedy but comedy through a feminist lens. I tend to gravitate toward projects that have a deeper meaning and aren’t so surfacey, as well as projects that subvert traditional narratives. I think it’s really important that we have diverse voices telling stories and leading stories. My ultimate goal, several years in the future, is to have a production company where I amplify those voices, help them make their projects and send them on their way! I want to get my hands into a creative zone and I’d like to be the type of person who can help make the entertainment industry more inclusive and also be laughing the whole time!
I’m sure are going to be hearing a lot more from you in the near future! Thanks so much for your time and thanks for the inspiration!
Thank you, Jason! I appreciate it!
Follow the continuing adventures of Rebekka Johnson on social media via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Check out the trailer for ‘Consent: A Short Comedy About A Serious Subject’ below and visit the official website for the film at www.consentcomedy.com.