BH Interview: Kristen Johnston on Recovery, Redemption and Loving Old-School Sitcoms
Actress Kristen Johnston is best known for playing Sally Solomon on the hit series “3rd Rock from the Sun,” a role for which she earned two Supporting Actress Emmys.
The show ran for six seasons in the late 1990s and launched not only her Hollywood career, but also that of co-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("The Dark Knight Rises").
She has a new series airing Wednesdays on TV Land called “The Exes,” in which she plays a divorce attorney who convinces three recently divorced clients, played by Wayne Knight ("Seinfeld"), Donald Faison ("Scrubs") and David Alan Basche ("The Starter Wife"), to move into the apartment across from hers. The show is a well-written throwback to multi-camera sitcoms and a true “situation comedy.”
In the time between these series, Johnston worked steadily in Hollywood while also continuing her theatre career in New York. She also worked hard to hide an addiction which nearly took her life while performing in London for a play. She details her near-death experience with brutal honesty and a good dose of humor in her recently released book “Guts: The Endless Follies and Tiny Triumphs of a Giant Disaster.”
In the book, Johnston takes readers through her journey from being a childhood “freak” growing up in Middle America (where her father was a Republican State Senator), to overnight fame and success with “3rd Rock” and through her addiction, near death and recovery.
Non-addicts may be concerned that such a book would only appeal to other addicts, but it is such an interesting story, and so well written and funny, that even a non-addict like me couldn’t put it down.
Johnston spoke to Big Hollywood about her book, her recovery and her second successful sitcom, “The Exes.”
Most people know you as Sally Solomon from “3rd Rock from the Sun,” but you’ve also had quite a stage career. Which do you prefer?
If you made me choose, for sure theatre. Without a doubt. But I also love doing sitcoms. They’re fun. After “3rd Rock” I did 10 years of mostly theatre. People think because of my addiction, that’s why I kind of faded out of sight, and that’s not true at all. I chose to move back to New York and really simplify my life. I just was not having a good time being a super-famous person in LA and having paparazzi. I just wasn’t into all of that. I just never liked it. I liked everything about being a famous actress except the famous part. So I moved back to New York and intentionally downgraded my public profile so that I could just catch my breath and I could start just doing theatre again.
Of course, my addiction then reared its ugly head more than it ever had. I managed to keep it very much in check during “3rd Rock.” It just got really bad afterward. I really chose, and I’m so glad I made the decision, to leave LA at that time and just sort of breathe.
What inspired you to write the book now?
A couple things happened. I was never going to talk about it. No one knew that I was struggling with it except for close friends and I was struggling monetarily after 10 years of doing theatre which pays two hundred bucks a week. I thought “what if I write a book?” The main reason I initially was going to write a book was to make money. But the main reason I ended up writing the book was because I’m sick to death of addiction being shameful. I would love, someday, to see the day where going to a meeting or telling someone that you’re an addict has the same amount of shame as “I have leukemia.”
Only hot messes write books about their addictions, people who famously crashed and burned. So I thought, wouldn’t it be kind of great, and maybe helpful to people, to hear from somebody who didn’t have to tell her story. Somebody who was actually was like “look, I don’t have to tell this, but I’m going to because I want to help.” Then I tried to write the book I wished I had had when I was struggling, which was truth.
A lot of people don’t tell the truth, especially addicts. I’m sure that won’t surprise you. It always made me laugh so hard when Oprah got so upset about James Frey lying for “A Million Little Pieces.” He’s an addict! It’s like when people got freaked out that Kate Moss did coke. She’s a model. Addicts lie. Models sometimes do drugs to stay thin. It just happens. So it was a really interesting thing to tell one hundred percent, absolutely, completely the truth.
And you didn’t have help writing it, this was you.
This was me one hundred percent. I’m a lover of books, from way back. I love reading and I love storytellers. I wrote it with the utmost respect from years and years of reading. Any kind of book you put in front of me, I’ll read it. I don’t care. I think I wrote it from that view point. I don’t want to mortify myself. Then, all of a sudden, it just started writing itself in a weird way.
Unfortunately, it didn’t write itself very quickly. It just had to be told the way it wanted to be told. Me and my two fingers had to get out of the way.
(At this point Johnston shared with me the new forward she had just written, to be included when the book is released in paperback. It included a very touching story of someone who was given her book in rehab, who then personally wrote her a letter thanking her for saving his life.)
Going in, did you ever imagine you’d have such an impact?
Never, ever. I thought maybe addicts would like it. The Q&A section of my website is pretty amazing. It’s like people saying “I just finished your book, I’m 42 years old, and I’m going to my first AA meeting.” Like, what? I’m not that person. I’m not a lecturer. I’m not a “you should do this” person at all. I think that’s why it reached so many people. It’s not written by a clinician. It doesn’t involve any sort of “you’re bad. You better get clean, or else.”
Before the incident in London, were you aware of the damage you were probably doing to your body?
Every now and then I would go “this can’t be good.” In the book I talk extensively about the incredible heartburn, the incredible bloating. I looked like death. I looked horrible. I looked like a bloated, hot mess. I wanted people to understand the land I was in, that I’m not crazy. You’re just completely convinced that you live in this town I called Schultzville, where things like vomiting into your date’s mouth are okay, or just a funny, witty story to share with the boys, instead of scary. Or falling, on your face, you’re just like “oh my God, I fell.” That’s the world you live in instead of “God, I’m worried. I just fell and almost poked my eye out for the tenth time this year.”
There was one point, right before I got sober, where I broke my ankle because I was rushing down the stairs in my apartment in New York and I fell and broke the outer bone in my foot. It’s not a big deal, but you can’t really get a cast. It sucked, kinda. I had to go out to LA for something, so I’m out in LA and because I’m drunk and I’m also favoring the broken foot, I end up falling off a curb and breaking my other foot. And that’s the moment you kind of go “I wonder if something’s wrong?” But then you just have a drink and it goes away. You go back to Schultzville.
I’ve never heard of a “Sober High School,” which is your current project. What does that entail?
About three years ago Columbia University did a study and they discovered that one in three American teenagers meets the medical criteria for addiction. One in seventy American teens today goes to rehab. If a kid is lucky enough to go to rehab, and then goes back to a regular high school, they should have just flushed that forty grand down the toilet. Ninety percent of them relapse, eighty percent within the first month. If a kid goes to a sober high school, seventy percent graduate drug and alcohol free.
There are thirty-five sober high schools in the United States. There are four in the Boston area alone. There are zero in New York State. I’ve been trying for five years. I’ve never worked harder on anything in my life. I’m doing it because it should exist. I’m doing it because when they dropped me off at rehab I thought they had dropped me off at a summer camp. I was like “where’s the rehab?” And my counselor told me this is what rehabs look like today. It’s ninety percent kids. Kids! Terrifying. And a lot of them are medicine cabinet from mommy and daddy addicts.
New York is really having an epidemic and there’s no help for them. If a kid wants to go to a sober high school they have to go to Boston. A sober high school entails lots of counseling, lots of one on one interaction, lots of meetings available, and lots of older kids who are sober now coming in for interaction. But it’s also the same classic curriculum. I want people to be able to go to the army or go to Harvard after. We want it to be a top-notch school. And the kid has to want it. The kid has to write us and say “I choose this.” It’s a regular high school, there’s just tons of extra help available. We want to have it become a community school where the community is really involved in helping these kids stay sober. I just want addiction to become less stigmatized.
Were you hesitant to go back to acting as a sober person?
I actually said to my counselor in rehab kind of dramatically one day, “maybe I just shouldn’t be an actress,” expecting her, of course, to say “what are you talking about? Of course you have to be an actress.” And she was like “good. What else do you want to do?” I couldn’t believe it. She said “well, maybe you won’t be an actress. Who knows what you’re going to do?” It gave me such freedom. I was relieved. I don’t know why. I was released from this onus of “I’m just an actress.” It gave me this release that I could do anything I wanted to, even though I’m unskilled in every way.
That really was the inspiration and the beginning of the road to the book. When I got out of rehab I did ninety in ninety, ninety meetings in ninety days, scared shitless. Then somebody from my Atlantic Acting School, which is part of NYU, called me up and said they had a last minute opening for the main acting teacher, do you want to come? And I said yes and became an acting teacher overnight. And I found out I’m excellent at it. I just love it. I’m sure maybe one or two kids might disagree, but I think for the most part I just want kids to be as good as they can be. So many acting teachers are like “be like this” or “be like that.” I’m just like, look, stay who you are but just be better.
I was told when I was in acting school, that I was not going to make it, that I was too tall, that I would never get hired, by teachers in the classroom. And also I was told, this is the worst, by a teacher I really respected, “you know, Kristen, the best you can ever hope for is maybe a sketch show like SNL.” Which, at the time, I had just finished doing a scene from like O’Neill or something, so I wanted to be the opposite of that to my students. I don’t care if you have a hare lip or if you’re fat or if you’re thin or ugly or pretty. I don’t care. You’re all being treated the exact same and I’m just going to get you to be as truthful as you can be.
Was I scared? Yes. I was so scared. The first play I ended up doing, six months after I got out of rehab, I was offered this play called “Scarcity.” And it was hardcore, down and dirty, no funny. I played an alcoholic who beat her kids. And it was fantastic. It was the greatest experience. It was my first experience sober. It was my first experience where the play was the thing instead of where we go afterward was the thing. I reconnected with my love for it.
How did you become involved with “The Exes?”
This is a great lesson in “never be a dick, ever, to anyone.” I got a letter two years ago from Mark Reisman, the creator of the show. He said “you probably don’t remember me. I wrote on 'Frasier,'” and all these other shows, “and I met you ten years ago outside of a place where we were both getting a facial and you had this green mask on and were smoking a cigarette and we had the most delightful conversation and ever since then I wanted to have you in one of my shows.”
I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. Then I read the script and I was so excited at the concept of a woman and three men, who aren’t sexually involved, at this stage of their lives, at this age. What happens to people that are trying to start over or have a new life or are getting divorced and they have to learn new things? It’s such an innocent kind of fun.
I just also think the writing is magnificent. I couldn’t be prouder of it. I really couldn’t.
The cast includes Wayne Knight and Donald Faison. That’s some serious sitcom cred.
That’s just a bonus. First of all, there are literally no written shows anymore, certainly not comedies. There are what, three or four? So the fact that TV Land embraces comedy, loves it, thinks it’s kind of an art form in its own weird little way, and really continually is developing and trying to keep it alive, I just really love that. They’re so supportive. It’s honestly, no bullshit, the best time of my life. It’s just good. It’s really, really good.
It’s such a throwback. TV has changed so much that it really takes you back.
It’s a four camera sitcom, where now they’re all single camera so they’re basically movies, but there is something about it. It’s so old school it’s almost new school. Look, I just want it to be funny and that’s all I care about. Everybody can say whatever they want about it, it’s good, it’s bad, but I just want it to be funny. Did it make you laugh? I don’t want it to make you think, I don’t want it to make you cry, I just want it to make you laugh. And if it made you laugh, then I won.
If that’s the criteria, then she certainly has won, indeed.
New episodes of “The Exes” air at 10:30 p.m. EST Wednesday nights on TV Land. “Guts” is available wherever books are sold.