Take one look at the IMDb page of Johnny Jay Lee, and you’ll see the steady stream of TV credits he’s booked that includes titles like CBS’ NCIS: Los Angeles, ABC’s Station 19, and Peacock’s new Ed Helms-led comedy series Rutherford Falls. But when Lee sat down with Casting Networks, it was his most recent, recurring role that was on the table. Keep reading for a window into how the actor got cast in the new HBO Max revival series, Head of the Class.
It’s good to see you, Johnny. What can you tell us about your role as Griffin in Head of the Class?
The series is a reboot of the ‘80s sitcom of the same name, and it also centers on a group of high school students and their teachers. My character, Griffin, comes into their world in episode three. He’s one of the coolest kids at school, and everybody kind of wants to be him. Griffin’s a “dreamboat” by description — those are not my own words. [Laughs] It was funny to get the breakdown and read that about my character. Griffin also gets all the lead roles in the school plays and is the star of an original alien musical that one of the teachers wrote. Miles, a fellow student and main character on the show, wants to audition for the musical but is intimidated by his crush on Griffin. After his teacher, Ms. Gomez, encourages Miles to give it a try, he goes for it and does an amazing job. I’ll add that Adrian Matthew Escalona plays Miles and just has this incredible voice. So then Griffin ends up intimidated by Miles’ talent and quits the show. I won’t say anything else and spoil what happens, but everything wraps up in a way that my character is established within the show’s universe. Then when Griffin appears in the finale, it leaves open the possibility of a potential relationship with Miles. We’ll see what happens with the show getting renewed for season two and if they bring me back for it. Regardless, I loved the character, and I got to work with such a fun group of people. Isabella Gomez, who plays the character of Ms. Gomez, is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met.
It’s always great to hear that a show’s lead is just a genuinely nice person. And I’d love to hear more about the casting process that led to you booking the role.
I’ll preface it by saying that as an actor, it feels pretty fortunate to get a couple of auditions a week. But when I got the self-tape request for Head of the Class, it was one of twelve auditions that I had over a span of four days. So I was doing approximately three auditions per day, and they were for a variety of different types of projects. Some were for heavy dramas, and then there were some for indie movies, single-cam sitcoms, and commercials. The auditions were just all over the place, but the one for Griffin was by far the easiest for me to do. I understand the character, which made it a quick process. My wife read with me for the self-tape, and we did it in 20 minutes. I remember I got the audition on a Wednesday and submitted my tape the same night. I found out I was on hold the next morning, and by Thursday afternoon, I’d booked the role. It was kind of a crazy turnaround, especially since sometimes it takes weeks or months to find out you got the job. Plus, we went right into rehearsals the following Monday. It was my first time working on a multi-cam show, and I found the process to be very exciting. We rehearsed for three days, and the script underwent changes constantly during that process. Two of the writers and also co-creators of the show, Seth Cohen and Amy Pocha, were just so incredibly kind. After watching a take, they’d tell me it looked great and then give me more lines. That was my first time working with writers in that way, and it was great. So after three days of rehearsal, we started filming on Thursday, just eight days after I auditioned for the role.
Wow. That’s a quick turnaround. What was it like being directed by Phill Lewis?
Well, he is prolific in a number of industry roles, and he’s directed episodes of many of the major multi-cam comedies in recent years. So it was great to work with him, especially because Phill is an actor’s director. Meaning, he very much wants you to do your best in bringing what you have to the role rather than trying to force something out of you as an actor. I think the latter doesn’t always produce the best results so I really appreciated Phill’s approach. He’s just super kind and would pitch the writers new lines for my character. Phill also cut the traditional multi-cam rehearsal day in half with a really smart process that got everyone home sooner, which was incredible.
He sounds like a dream director. And I’m taking it back now to when you got the job. Has booking it impacted your career?
I’ll say that the same week I self-taped for Head of the Class, I also auditioned for the season five premiere episode of Snowfall. I ended up booking it, too, which was just great to experience a lot of momentum at the same time while getting to play two very different characters. I can’t say too much about my role on Snowfall, but the character parties a lot and does cocaine, amongst other things. I filmed that in between my two episodes of Head of the Class so it was a big change to switch from Griffin to that character and back again. [Laughs] As far as impacting my career, this is my first role where the recurring part was exercised. I technically have a reoccurring role as a young Chris O’Donnell [who plays G. Callen] on NCIS: Los Angeles, but I haven’t been asked back yet after my first episode so we’ll see. And getting recurring credits on your resume opens up opportunities for bigger auditions. I’m very grateful for my management company, Kreativ Media Partners, and my agency, The Carry Company. My rep really ran with it after I booked Head of the Class, and I’ve been auditioning non-stop since then thanks to them.
Before we wrapped, Lee also gave a shoutout to the Head of the Class series regulars. “It was one of my favorite filming experiences,” Lee noted. “Every cast member introduced themselves to the guest stars before rehearsals even started, and that was different than any show I’ve worked on in the past. Usually, people are in their trailers doing their own thing, which is totally understandable, but it made working with these actors so special.” Those who want to know more about Lee’s experience filming Head of the Class can check out his Instagram page, which includes some behind-the-scenes photos from shooting the series.
This interview has been edited and condensed.