It wasn’t long before Thomas Q. Jones realized that acting was a lot like playing football — something the 42-year-old did extremely well for 12 seasons.
Jones, a former Pro Bowl running back and 10,000-yard rusher, saw the similarities between the preparation it takes for both being a professional football player and a professional actor as well as the general camaraderie that shared both in a locker room and on set.
“When I was in the locker room, I’m Thomas Jones, just a normal everyday guy, and then all of a sudden you put your pads on and on the field you’re No. 20,” Jones told AOL.com. It’s this whole different personality and you are literally exposing your talents to the world and people get to see if you’re successful or not. I really seamlessly transitioned because it felt very natural. I’m used to being in front of the camera, doing interviews, being a leader in the locker room and on different teams.”
Jones broke into acting in the early 2010s, getting bit parts in “Shameless,” “Straight Outta Compton,” and a 5-episode stint on “Being Mary Jane.” Despite moving to Los Angeles and fully committing himself to his new career, Jones found that his football stardom was something of a drawback when meeting with casting directors.
“When I went to get cast initially, it would be ‘Hey, he’s a former football player, so let’s cast him as an athlete, or as a stereotypical character,’” Jones said. “I really took that personally. I wanted to play characters that I could really connect to. Obviously, I played football, but I don’t want to be a football character, I did that for real. I want to act like somebody else, not who I actually am. It’s the same thing with some of these characters that you see on TV shows. They enforce negative stereotypes about Black men and I didn’t want to play those roles. If I did play those roles I tried to bring some humanity to those characters. That forced me to actually create my own content. I didn’t want to play those roles and if I didn’t want to be at the mercy of the casting directors and the studios, I needed to create my own content and show everyone how I wanted to be seen.”
Despite the need to create his own content, Jones landed a major role in Netflix’s Marvel series “Luke Cage.” At the same time, however, Jones had met Deji LaRay and the two hit off, so much so that LaRay showed Jones a project he had been working on that would eventually become “Johnson,” the new Bounce show the two actors are currently starring in.
“When we met, I saw the project and fell in love with it immediately,” Jones said. “It was right around the time when I realized I didn’t want to play certain roles that I was getting cast for. This show spoke to my truth as an actor and as a Black man. It was perfect. For us to be able to create this type of content, showing us the way we want to be seen and showing all of the different layers of us, not just these one-dimensional characters, but as humans, as Black men. Some of these stereotypes are really damaging to our community and Black men in general.”
“Johnson” is a drama-comedy TV series that centers around four friends who grew up together and all happen to share the same last name — Johnson. While most traditional sitcoms focus on often zany scenarios, “Johnson” aims to be based more in reality and each episode doesn’t wrap up tidily like viewers are used to seeing in shows like “The Big Bang Theory.”
Rather, “Johnson” looks at real-life problems facing both men and Black men in particular. The show’s first episode introduces Jones’ character, Omar, as a newly separated man who is going through divorce proceedings. During a meeting with his lawyer, Omar’s previous record is brought up.
In episode two, Derrex Brady’s character, Jarvis, is racially profiled by a white couple despite being a successful realtor as well as dealing with expectations of being a married man in an inter-racial relationship.
These layered dilemmas add authenticity to “Johnson” that allows the audience to find something relatable in the drama. The hope for Jones and LaRay is that seeing a show centered on male friendship will help destigmatize certain conversations surrounding mental health, relationships and race.
“This show isn’t just for Black people,” Jones said. “This show is for people and it just happens to have Black characters. When I watch Braveheart or I watch Titanic, I can connect with the characters and there’s not a Black character in either one of those. I can connect to the characters there because of the scenarios and we create that emotional bond.
“Sometimes, I think when it comes to Black movies, Black TV shows, they are just written off as one-dimensional or just for Black people. That’s why I said we have some satirical moments where you realize that these are human beings that are going through conflict that might be in a different setting but the emotions are the same. This show, for Black men, is trying to show us in a way where we are sensible, honest, vulnerable and we are trying to say ‘Hey, give us the benefit of the doubt.’ When it comes to Black men though, we’re all lumped together and we’re tired of seeing that.”
The show also has Jones and the cast working alongside comedy royalty, as Cedric the Entertainer and D.L. Hughley are onboard in an executive producer and acting capacity, respectively.
“Cedric and DL, Earthquake, these are legendary actors and comedians,” Jones said. “They bring so much nostalgia and authenticity with their brand. They love the content too. It’s having all of these Black men that are successful, have stood the test of time, are still friends, still love each other, it’s literally what the show is. It’s the epitome of what they represent.”
Although LaRay conceptualized the project four years ago, the timing of “Johnson” could not come at a more crucial time. While issues of profiling and inequality have plagued the Black community for decades, last year’s protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing sparked a renewed push and attempt to change race relations in the United States.
“Honestly, perfect timing also could have been 10 years ago, but based on what has been going on with the whole George Floyd thing, police brutality and all of these issues, a lot of the time these things happen because of these stereotypes,” Jones said. “People assume that a Black man did something, they assume that he was wrong, they assume that he didn’t comply, they assume that whatever happened to him is justified. A lot of the time, it was not justified but those stories don’t get enough attention or respect."
“A show like this, showing four different Black men and their situations and honest conversation opens up the conversation outside the show, which is needed. People shy away from conversations and you can’t connect if you can’t communicate. Even deeper than that, when it comes to issues in the Black community, Black people have a very specific experience that a lot of people can’t connect to. You can understand it, but you can’t really get it. It’s not anyone’s fault, but the reality is that we have to live it and we deal with some of that in the show.”
Despite being just three episodes into the first season, Jones says the early response has been overwhelmingly positive. The messages that have resonated most with Jones, however, are the ones that say that “Johnson” represents something that has been missing in popular culture.
“The biggest compliment that we have gotten is that it’s needed. I think people are ready to see something real when it comes to us and our storylines. You may see people on other shows where you know a few people like that, but in ‘Johnson,’ the majority of people you know are relatable to these characters. It feels like those guys haven’t been represented on TV the way we are now, so people are relieved and excited.”
“Johnson” airs on Bounce every Sunday at 8pm ET.
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