Limerick’s Johanna Thea went from high fashion to adverts and, she hopes, to Hollywood
Irish actress Johanna Thea has achieved a fair amount in life but, by no means satisfied, she’s now looking to take on Hollywood, writes Adam Shaw.
A model since age 15, she has lived in Limerick, London and Milan, lending her talents to a number of high fashion photographers and designers. She has always felt a burning desire for debate and learning and subsequently undertook a degree in psychology. Oh, and she’s written an autobiography.
Writing, modelling and academia will always form part of her character but there are no questions about where her true passion lies.
Having moved to London in the early part of this century, she soon found herself surrounded by a group of thoroughly creative friends. Whether this was due to a natural gravitation or pure coincidence, the number of actors and directors in her presence meant she ended up on the stage.
“The feeling I had from being up there was surpassed all other feelings I’d had before,” she explained. “Acting is so emotional and it’s so much fun, there’s nothing like it. You can be working on something for five or six hours and you don’t even realise because you’ve just broken off from everything.”
It’s clear to see that performing has had a particular effect on Johanna but, as with most things in her life, it took her a while to finally figure it out.
“I entered a monologue competition in New York and, even though I got disqualified for repeating the same line over and over, I got a standing ovation and thought, ‘this is for me’,” she said.
A role in The Dark Lady Speaks – an exploration of Shakespeare’s supposed muse – whet her appetite further but, after coming to terms with the reality of job insecurity, she returned to study.
“I checked out the psychology course at Birkbeck [at the University of London] and was immediately inspired by all the stuff I didn’t understand,” she explained. “I thought a part-time course wouldn’t be as intense but I hadn’t factored in that I’d also be working.
“And I also found myself doing everything. I was a class rep, I was acting, I was writing for the paper.”
Her passion for performing wasn’t subsiding and, in spite of a knock-back from a proposed feature film role, it was all she wanted to do. “Things came up by getting out there and talking to people. I also spent some time in the English countryside and got some wonderful tips from a friend in the industry,” she said.
Then came Los Angeles. Two trips to Tinseltown and her goal was confirmed. London, and even Ireland if the work permitted, would remain a viable option but, when it comes to working in telly, she discovered that LA’s your best bet. Sitting behind Richard Gere while eating brunch or visiting a restaurant frequented by Quentin Tarantino weren’t the selling points, it was more the opportunity to work with the camera – a throwback to her modelling days.
“I love how vulnerable the camera makes me feel and all the little subtleties it can provide,” she explained. “When you’re in the theatre, everything seems big but I actually think there’s more of an emotional connection with a lens – it’s more inhibiting.”
This attitude, one of displaying your emotions and “learning to appreciate that we’re all a bit weird”, has been with Johanna throughout her life.
As a child in Co. Limerick she encouraged her friends to help her put together a magazine which would feature candid interviews with their parents. She expressed pride at being celebrated as a mixed-race Irishwoman, recalling how her new classmates applauded her when she was introduced to them. She has always felt a strong connection to churches, has taken up yoga and is a proponent of meditation.
All these feelings, all these experiences, found their way into her autobiography – a book composed in short-story form and entitled If Only You Knew.
“I felt it was important to talk about the fact that I had an eating disorder when I was modelling and make it clear that I think it’s not necessarily the industry but the fact that it exists in everyday society.
“It comes about due to a lack of understanding, a feeling of not fitting in or by compressing our emotions,” Johanna said. “I also wanted to write about love and how it’s something which should be celebrated – we should focus on the joys and awareness of how far we’ve come rather than the struggles.”
Everything, it seems, has led her to where she is now. Her portfolio is growing, more and more opportunities are coming forward and the next stage of her career is at the end of a clear, transatlantic path. One highlight was working as a body double for the upcoming sci-fi flick Ready Player One, directed by Steven Spielberg.
“It was incredible. I found myself doing double takes at times thinking ‘is that really him?’ It was very cool being involved,” she said. “He’s like a father on set and everybody wants to please him, even more so because he doesn’t do the whole power play thing and abuse his position.
“He really does get the best out of everyone and gets people on board which is so important because you can be on set for 14 hours at a time. The great atmosphere tells you all you need to know and, even if that stems from him, even if his name is at the top of the list, you truly get a sense of how much of a team effort films and television shows are out there.”
It is hardly surprising that Johanna is set out on a path, nor is the fact that she has been willing to alter it if things haven’t been going to plan.
“I need to succeed and to see things happening,” she explained. “But that doesn’t mean it has to happen straight away, I’m happy to give myself five years and then reassess things.”
She’s been on the scene for a while now; on screens and billboards around the world. Her hopes are to grow even more and whether it is in the classroom, on the catwalk or in California, there’s no doubt that she’ll be giving one hundred percent. As she described her attitude in life: “I just want to try and be happy and make sure I’m giving my all.
“Whatever I’m doing, it’s important that I’m putting in everything I can and being the best that I can be