I first speak with Kristen Johnston when she calls me from her private number, bypassing the snoopy PR people who usually listen in on such phone calls. Right away, I am captivated by this small act of bravery, an instinct Kristen has to cut to the truth uncensored and raw as it may be.
I know from reading her addiction memoir GUTS that Kristen has a sense of humor, especially about herself and also a searing honesty even in the darkest moments of her self-destruction. What I am not prepared for is her magnetic personality and tremendous empathy. Right away Kristen asks almost as many questions about me as I have about her.
At her book party, we end up chatting on the roof of 230 Fifth between drags of my cigarette. As someone who can recognize the addictive sides of myself, Kristen’s honesty is healing. In addition to writing a book and teaching acting at NYU, she has tirelessly fought for a sober high school in New York, an issue she will bring up when she co-hosts Anderson Cooper. I’m thrilled to be sitting in the front row for her hilarious performance and when she drags me backstage after, the chaos reminds me how hard she has to fight to find moments of peace in a life full of performance.
Walking down the street after, an old woman, near bent over her shopping cart sees Kristen and her face breaks into a beaming smile. “You’re a gift honey, a gift,” the woman says and immediately Kristen has gotten the woman to reveal that she is an ex-alcoholic who now attends Overeaters Anonymous. “Oh food was never my issue,” Kristen laughs, “It was pills. If you found one crushed up on the street, I’d still try it.” The revelation makes the woman smile even broader and Kristen and I both rush on, two tall figures fleeting in a city as fast as an addict’s instincts.
I spoke with Kristen a second time about freaks, what drives her, the flip sides of ambition and why there’s always more to learn.
ROYAL YOUNG: In your book, you talk about being a freak and an outsider and being made fun of by mean girls who seemed like they had it all. That propelled you to be a stronger person.
KRISTEN JOHNSTON: It propelled me to be an interesting person.
JOHNSTON: I think what you learn later and I wish kids who were bullied knew this is that you don’t want to peak in high school. People who peak in high school inevitably end up covered in zits, obese, walking in the mall with a muffin-top falling out of their jeans. Not that there’s anything wrong with muffin-tops. I think being tortured, being made fun of for me being me, things I couldn’t help, like my height, for being too much. I’ve always been told I was too loud, too big, too tall. I realized later, that despite having so much shame about being too everything, it’s exactly the part of me that makes me interesting and gives me whatever small modicum of talent I actually have.
YOUNG: Do you think going through a struggle, or tragedy is key in shaping a good person?
JOHNSTON: It is, I say in my book ‘Maybe I had triumphed after all, not because of dumb stuff like looks or fame or success or even lack of body odor, maybe I had triumphed because instead of crushing me, the persons who tortured me had unwittingly forced me to become someone interesting. A person who knows that the biggest curse in life is when it’s handed to you on a silver platter. Someone who knows it’s so much better to have to fight for what you want. Someone who understands that the more people tell you you’re going to fail, the more you’re driven to prove them wrong. And at the end of the day funny and interesting will always kick pretty and perfect’s ass.’
YOUNG: What is it about having to work hard or being told that you’re less than that makes you stronger?
JOHNSTON: It either makes you stronger or it crushes you. You either become Steve Jobs or a cat lady.
YOUNG: What drives you?
JOHNSTON: What initially drove me was certainly to prove everyone wrong and also I loved acting. I just did. The more people that said to me ‘You won’t get hired. You’re too tall, you’re too this,’ instead of letting it defeat me, I let it feed me. If you let shit defeat you, then get a couple cats and stay inside and talk to me on twitter @Kjothesmartass. But really, don’t do that. Let it drive you.
YOUNG: But there’s something about you where you made that decision.
JOHNSTON: I didn’t. It was subconscious. I had ambition. That is a driving force. I loved acting and I didn’t want to be famous, but I wanted people to say ‘She’s good!’ I wanted laughs. I wanted approval. But then, when I was 26 overnight, my ambition was ripped away.
YOUNG: What happened?
JOHNSTON: When I became successful, my ambition was ripped away. I don’t mean crazy, creepy Showgirls ambition, I mean the ambition of I gotta do this, I want this, I’m hungry! But how can you live a self-examined life whatsoever when you are driven by ambition? It numbs you to so many things. It’s only been since sobriety that I’ve started to get a new set of goals: writing, teaching, becoming a healthy person.
YOUNG: How do you feel ambition can be bad?
JOHNSTON: You’re an ambitious guy, not in a creepy way, you just are. You want to succeed, right?
YOUNG: Yes. Absolutely.
JOHNSTON: Absolutely. So, it can cushion you in a sea of I wanna get this thing, I wanna get that thing. But then say you write your first novel and you’re David Foster Wallace, then what do you do? You become a drunk, go to rehab and write a book about that and then you’re okay, but it’s a hellish path.
YOUNG: I want to talk more about success.
JOHNSTON: Success makes you more of what you already are. If you’re not solid in your skin, whether you’re 16 or 40, you go nuts. Look at all the miserable actors. If success gave you happiness, why the fuck does everyone do drugs and die? There’s obviously something disappointing about it.
YOUNG: Is it because there’s nothing left to strive for?
JOHNSTON: It’s because there’s no there, there. You think that once you become successful, all your problems will be solved, but in fact, none of them are. Your issues are still your issues. It doesn’t solve them.
YOUNG: Why do we think success will solve everything? I feel like everyone is taught that it will.
JOHNSTON: I don’t know. From the dawn of showbiz, it’s certainly been proven over and over that it doesn’t. For me, I thought that if I was famous or if I was lauded, then all of my troubles would go away. You can’t look at getting an Emmy like some life solving thing. You have to look at it and go, well, that’s nice.
YOUNG: At the end of the day it’s about doing a good job and being rewarded for it, versus becoming addicted to this level of attention.
JOHNSTON: Yes. I wrote an article for The Fix, talking about everyone giving so much praise for my sobriety and I’m going ‘Stop it!’ It’s not necessarily about recovery, it’s the minute I go, god I really have everything figured out is the minute I suck. The whole point is to keep yourself humble and open to new lessons. I teach acting at NYU and I have kids who are seniors and walk in like they are the fucking shit. I try to teach them, you don’t know anything and the minute you assume you do, you’re dead. Just be excited to learn.
YOUNG: I think it’s self-evident that the second you say you have nothing left to learn, you have everything left to learn.
JOHNSTON: Yes, and I think people in this society today are driven to learn it all. I just hope that wherever my life takes me in the next thirty years or probably a lot less, that I’m excited, I’m interested.
YOUNG: How do we avoid arrogance? How do we stay humble, open and recognize there’s always more to learn?
JOHNSTON: When people get a sheer dose of success, like having a smash hit book or overnight fame, you have to give them a good six months to just be a wiener. They’re confused, they’re weird, they’re self-involved, but then if they’re sane, they start going, ‘Wait, this wasn’t the answer and I’d rather just have dinner with my friend. That whole thing I’ve been seeking is not the answer. The answer has been here all along.’ It’s your brother, it’s your friend, it’s writing a good sentence, simple things.
YOUNG: Simple and also close. We’re talking about making strong what’s immediately around us.
JOHNSTON: Yes, versus focusing on out there or someday. The whole point of my book is: I’m already here. It’s today, it’s now, it’s talking to you and having my dog fart next to MY leg, that’s it. Maybe a sandwich in half an hour. That’s as good as it gets.
For more on Kristen’s hilarious, heartbreakingly honest memoir GUTS, visit www.gutsthebook.com. Her new series ‘The Exes’ is back for it’s second season on tv land starting June 20th.
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