Canadian, actor PJ Johal has worked with some very impressive Hollywood icons. It’s a consecutive list of interesting experiences which would seem simultaneously cool and nerdy to both actors and fans. On the set of Cheats Mary Tyler Moore was screaming at him during one scene (he recalls, “I remember thinking ‘Mary Tyler Moore is yelling at me full volume and I think her spit is on my face!”). In between takes of his scenes on TV’s “Dark Angel” he discussed the art of Chinese meditation balls with John Savage of Deer Hunter fame. He has also found himself in discussion on set with Jessica Alba. Not all experiences have been so unusual and positive but that’s part of the deal when you travel in Hollywood circles. Opportunities have been gained and some lost; when you have a career as enduring and eclectic as that of PJ Johal you take each day as it comes and be thankful for what it allows you to take into your next role.
Johal was just a teenager when he was cast in the 2002 feature film Cheats of New Line Cinema. It was his first experience being on the set of a major Hollywood film production and he credits his interaction with a Hollywood icon from this time as providing him with vital information. PJ recalls, “Cheats gave me the chance to work with Mary Tyler Moore. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t intimidating, I may have trembled a bit when she first approached me. She’s Hollywood royalty. She basically yelled at me the whole time during one scene. As an actor, she had a way of engaging and appropriately reacting. She knew how to win the scene and I learned that from her. She had an obligation to both her character and her objective and would accomplish it at any cost; that’s what living and being the character is. She didn’t tell me with words but rather she exhibited it in her approach. She was very active and seemingly breathed the character in full commitment. It felt that if she would’ve been required to jump into a tub of mud swimming alongside crocodiles, she would have done it. She was engaging and demanded attention and boy was that amazing to witness! Her loss was a sad day and I was very happy to have been lucky enough to work with her.”
While situations such as the former have allowed Johal to grow as an actor, others have come from within. PJ’s role as Mark in “7 to 11, Indian”, one of two brothers trying to make it in Hollywood, used comedy to illuminate the fact that even this seemingly liberal mecca is focused on appearance and race. The film ridicules the stereotypical roles in film and TV offered to minorities, in this case those of Indian heritage, which restricts aspiring actors. Frustrated by the roles they are offered, Mark and his brother create a sort of experimental theater in their family’s convenience store and take on hyperbolic characterizations of America’s view of people of Indian descent. This 2003 production was one of the early films to do so in such a manner. In the story, a documentary crew captures the journey of the brothers who commit even to the point of the women they fall in love with. Mark eventually bails on the project as it becomes too much for him to stomach. It’s been said that in every bit of comedy there is pain and PJ confirms it noting, “I’ve fought very hard on this front and have turned down numerous projects because of it. One’s integrity is far more important than a paycheck or a credit. Unless I feel it’s relevant or progressive to the story I just won’t do it. I’ve turned down calls from directors because of this. I have been fortunate to get roles that haven’t been all about ethnicity and I’ve auditioned for roles that were meant for “other” types and booked them! It really should come down to ability and the person who can best give the character dynamic. The truth that flows through them resonates and an audience can relate to this because it’s authentic and dynamic.”
With decades of experience and a vast list of credits to his IMDB, Johal has achieved what all actors dream of, a lifelong career working alongside famous (as well as those not yet famous) in film and TV. The early days of “making his bones” are long in his past but he views the career of an actor as one which is a lifelong exploration. His talent allows him to present characters ranging from a best friend to the type you’d do best to avoid. His vocation allows this to inform others but the process simultaneously informs him, which is why he continues to take part in it. It’s this actor’s contention that seeing the world through another’s experiences, perspective and viewpoint has made him a better person, friend, brother, son, and human being. Yes, acting is something he loves to do but it has the added benefit of displaying the experiences of people who have had different lives than himself or those who view his work. The world can seem like a disparate place & the arts have always possessed the ability to unify. PJ doesn’t consider his motivation to be one of complete altruism but if he can love his job and simultaneously make you think and be entertained…he considers it time well spent.