Amy Jo Johnson talks directing Felicity Huffman in her last pre-scandal film role: 'She was a gift to the film in many, many ways'

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Felicity Huffman stars in Tammy's Always Dying, the last film she completed before news of the college admissions scandal broke. (Photo: Quiver Distribution)

Two years ago, Amy Jo Johnson was in the middle of raising the funds to get her second feature, Tammy’s Always Dying, off the ground, when she received an unanticipated gift: an e-mail from Felicity Huffman. The star of such popular TV series as Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers (as the Pink Ranger, Kimberly Hart) and Felicity (as the title character’s pal, Julie) had been in touch with the Emmy-winning actress about potentially playing the title role in Joanne Sarazen’s darkly funny script — an alcoholic who regularly makes trouble for her grown daughter, Catherine (Anastasia Phillips).

While Huffman seemed intrigued, Johnson didn’t expect that an Oscar nominee would agree to headline a low-budget Canadian independent film. But then that fateful e-mail arrived in her inbox. “It said, ‘I’m onboard,’” Johnson tells Yahoo Entertainment from her home in Toronto. “I got goosebumps when that happened. Everything really fell into place when she signed on. She didn’t know us, but she came to Canada and shot our little movie and gave it her all. She was a gift to the film in many, many ways.”

Tammy’s Always Dying was shot in Hamilton, Ontario in the fall of 2018 and debuted the following September at the Toronto International Film Festival. But Huffman didn’t join Johnson on the red carpet. In March of that year, her acting career came to a sudden halt when she was one of several celebrities implicated in a high-profile college admissions scandal. On September 13, 2019 — days after the movie’s TIFF debut — Huffman received a 14-day prison sentence, as well as 250 hours of community service and a $30,000 fine.

“We were in the editing room when everything went down,” Johnson says of when she first learned of the charges against the star of her film. “It was a bummer when it happened, but I am still forever grateful to this wonderful human being who came and gave her A-game to our film. The Felicity Huffman that I met and worked with was amazing and was very generous. Everybody has their stuff that they go through and deal with, and I'm in no position to judge.”

Tammy’s Always Dying was eventually acquired by Quiver Distribution, and as of May 1 it’s available to rent or purchase on VOD services like Amazon and iTunes. Johnson says that she remained in touch with Huffman during the editing process, and credits the actress with helping to shape the final version. “I would send her a cuts, and she would send notes back. In the past year, there has not been a lot of communication but she's very supportive of the film. From what I understand, she loves where I landed with the edit.”

Yahoo Entertainment spoke with Johnson about her own real-life parallels to Sarazen’s screenplay, directing Huffman on set and why she’s left acting behind permanently.

Amy Jo Johnson attends the Tammy's Always Dying premiere during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival at Scotiabank Theatre on Sept. 5, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)

Yahoo Entertainment: You didn’t write the script for Tammy’s Always Dying, but the film still feels very personal.

Amy Jo Johnson: I had such a cathartic reaction to Joann’s script. I think that people who have gone through situations like this or have someone in their life like Tammy will understand it very deeply and profoundly. My father suffers from depression and alcoholism, and my mom passed away with cancer and I watched her suffer. The last couple months that she was alive, it was really, really painful for her. I think the humor really was a huge part of what I could identify with the script and why I wanted to make the movie.

Even when my mom was dying of cancer, there were moments where my sister and I would start laughing about whatever it was in the moment that means nothing. That's what helped us get through such a painful situation of watching her pass away. Sometimes I think we have to find the humor that surrounds some of these really, really painful situations because it's always there. There's always some levity to everything if you just look for it, and there's a beauty to everything if we can find it.

Is there an aspect of alcoholism that you haven’t seen depicted in other movies that you wanted to feature here? 

I really think that Tammy is a male version of my father in so many ways. I love that man to death, I do, but there is some ridiculousness about him. My mom passed away about 20 years ago, and he really just never got over it. His alcoholism picked up after all of us were out of the house; it came from a depression and so that's been spiraling for the last five years for him. I think he was an alcoholic [when I was younger], but he was very functioning at that time. 

There are many films about alcoholism that focus on male characters; it’s rarer to find movies that deal with female alcoholics.  

I don't want to speak for Felicity, but I'm sure that's one of the reasons why she was drawn to the material, and why she wanted to portray this woman. We haven't seen a lot of films that are based on having the lead female character being the one struggling with the addiction.

What did Huffman bring to the role that wasn’t on the page originally?

She brought everything. When I met her in New York, she said, “We need to figure out if I'm signing onto this project because I need to prepare." This was like three months before we started shooting, and I thought, ‘What the heck is she going to do for three months preparing for our film?’ But when she arrived, she had physically transformed herself, and had done all the homework that you could possibly do to really dive into this role.

She's very fierce, and really brought her A-game. She would show up on set almost in character of Tammy, who can be incredibly intimidating; the other actors just had to rise to the occasion and really go at her pace and at her level. It was quite intimidating for me too, because it was my second feature and my first time directing somebody who'd been nominated for an Oscar! So I was very, very nervous and I had to really work through a lot of fears and I learned so much through it.

Felicity Huffman and Anastasia Phillips in Tammy's Always Dying. (Photo: Quiver Distribution)

What was the first day on set like?

There are two really great diner scenes in the movie with Felicity and Anastasia and we shot those on the first day. The way I like to work as a director is to have multiple takes, so we just turned the camera on and let them run through the scene until they're comfortable and we're ready to say, "Cut.” I just let them play and really warm up to each other. And then we also have a lot of options in the editing room to go through and carve together the right tone and pace to the scene. We had one week of rehearsals before filming, but that was their first moment on set and in character and I think those scenes came out great.  

Do you hope that viewers are able to judge Huffman’s performance on its merits?

That's my wish for sure, because a lot of people put their heart and soul into getting this film made, and I'm very proud of it. I think Felicity's wonderful in it, and Anastasia is wonderful in it, as are Clark Johnson and Lauren Holly. I think it's a movie worth seeing, so I would very much appreciate that. 

Would you work with her again if you had a project she was right for?

One hundred precent — in a heartbeat. She's doing tons of great work right now with The Teen Project. [Huffman is working with the nonprofit organization as part of her court-ordered community service.] She's doing what she needs to do. I think she's really great in this movie.

This summer marks the 25th anniversary of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie. Was making the movie a different experience from making the TV series?

Yeah, because we went to Australia to shoot the movie. That was a $35 million budget movie, where on the TV show, I think I was paid like $600 a week! [Laughs] So it was completely different. We spent six months in Australia, and it was so much fun. The movie tanked, but that's OK. People just wanted the campy TV show where you can see all those strings on the monsters and stuff. They weren't ready for the slick $35 million movie. But I loved every moment of it.

Amy Jo Johnson (center) and the other Power Rangers suit up in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie. (Photo: 20th Century Fox/Courtesy Everett Collection)

What was your favorite scene to shoot?

We worked with Mariska Hargitay as Dulcea, and I remember just loving her. Then suddenly she disappeared and then we had a new Dulcea! [Hargitay was fired from the film during production, and Gabrielle Fitzpatrick played the the part.] And Paul Freeman, who played Ivan Ooze, was wonderful. I also remember being at a giant tar pit or something. But honestly, what I remember most about that experience was just partying a lot and having so much fun. It was the first time I’d ever really left the United States, and I was with my buddies in Sydney. I was being paid for it, and I just had to put on spandex every now and then. Although those suits were not spandex. They were made out of tires or something super-heavy. [Laughs]

We’re also approaching the 20th anniversary of Julie’s final appearance as a regular cast member on Felicity — your last episode aired in October of 2000. Was it your choice to leave the show?

It was. My mom was diagnosed with cancer when I did the pilot, and she had passed away the year before Season 3, and I don’t think I really had the time to properly grieve. I was very much emotionally struggling, so I had a very deep and heartfelt conversation with [Felicity creator] J.J. Abrams, and we reached an agreement where I did five more episodes, and then left and went to Chicago and made a rock album. In hindsight, I look back and think, "Couldn't I have just gotten it together, and stayed on that amazing show with those amazing people? What was I thinking?” But there are no regrets.

Keri Russell and Amy Jo Johnson on Felicity; Johnson left the show for personal reasons early on in Season 3. (Photo: Warner Bros. Television/ Courtesy: Everett Collection.)

Were you happy with the way Julie was written off the series?  

Honestly, I don't even remember how that happened. I just remember that Keri cut her hair and that was the big news. Julie just disappeared! [Laughs] I did come back for the fourth season for a few episodes [during the time-travel storyline]. I was like, "What show are we in? I don't even know what's happening!” But I don't think anybody did. I did loving coming back — I was very grateful for the invitation.

How did your acting career inform the kinds of stories you want to tell as a director?

Being on sets for 20 years gave me this comfortability directing; it feels like home to be on a set and to work with the crew. When I decided to shoot my first short film [2013’s Bent], I suddenly knew what my passion was. So I'm not acting anymore, I'm fully focused on directing and writing. For me, it's about finding these painful, heavy subjects that we all deal with as humans, and then finding the humor within that. One of my favorite movies is Harold and Maude, and those are the types of stories that I'm interested in telling right now at this time in my career. With Tammy’s Always Dying, everybody has a Tammy in their life, or has dealt with some of the situations that happen in the film. Ultimately, I hope people can watch the movie and feel a bit normal. The movie is really about letting go, which to me is hopeful because once you do let go, there's a lot of hope that just floods in.

Tammy’s Always Dying is available on demand from Amazon, iTunes and Vudu.

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