The two-time Emmy winner shares highlights of her career, her battles with drug addiction and depression and why she wrote her memoir Guts.
Actress Kristen Johnston
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Kristen Johnston to this program. The two-time Emmy winner and former “Third Rock from the Sun” star is back this month with a second season now of her latest project. It’s called “The Exes.” The show airs Wednesday nights at 10:30 on TV Land – love that channel. Here now, a scene from “The Exes.”
Tavis: For those who have not seen the show, who are these three guys across the hallway from you?
Kristen Johnston: They are my actual, my former clients. I’m a divorce attorney, and so I helped each of them with their divorce and I happen to – because this happens all the time – I happened to have a free apartment across the hall that I was going to move into at one point.
So I just gave them a place to stay, and each one kind of came at different times. Now all three of them live there together.
Tavis: So you’re not their mother, but you kinda-sorta are.
Johnston: Yeah, I’m their den mother, I guess, yeah. It’s kind of tragic, but funny.
Tavis: The attorney and the landlord.
Johnston: Yeah, yeah, and sort of their flirter and boss. I’m sort of – I get involved in all of their stuff, to their detriment.
Tavis: Is this how you dreamt of returning to television?
Johnston: Actually, do you know what? It’s really funny, I’m not blowing smoke – it’s the funnest I’ve ever had in a money job. It is just the best time. I’m ready for it now. TV Land’s so supportive. They’re an amazing place to work, they really are. They actually like television shows, which is so weird. (Laughter) Because I’m so used to people kind of going – but they’re actually just, they just love it and they come to every taping.
So it’s just this really fun experience, and Wayne and I getting to connect again, and I just love these actors. Basically the biggest jerk on the set is me, so you can’t beat it. (Laughter)
Tavis: And you’re (unintelligible) the call sheet.
Johnston: Yeah, exactly.
Tavis: Did you miss the television thing?
Johnston: Did I miss it?
Tavis: Did you miss it?
Johnston: You know what, I was done. When “Third Rock” ended, I was struggling.
Tavis: That’s what I thought I – yeah, exactly.
Johnston: Yeah, and I was just done with all of – I wanted to be a theater actress. I also kind of didn’t like at the time the whole alien thing and it just felt so weird to me and I wasn’t used to it. It took a long time to catch up.
So I went back to New York. I also became a voracious addict, but that’s a separate story I’m sure we’ll touch upon in a moment.
Tavis: We’ll do more than touch upon it. We’ll dig down into it.
Johnston: Yeah, I know, I guess we’re going to delve into it. (Laughter) But aside from that, I got back to New York and did plays and loved it, was so happy, and definitely was offered some very juicy television situations that I passed on because I wasn’t ready.
But then a few years ago I did a guest star on that Julia Louis-Dreyfus TV show, and I was like, “I’m home. This is what I do.” This is what I do. So I knew I had to come back.
Tavis: So I know this because I’ve read this a few places a few times, that you weren’t really ready for the success that came with “Third Rock.” It was a huge -
Johnston: It just was a shocker. I think television fame, you might have experienced this – the difference of -
Tavis: I have no fame.
Johnston: (Laughs) Come on.
Johnston: All right, well, you’re famous on my set.
Tavis: Okay, well.
Johnston: Anyway, in my own head you’re famous. (Laughter) No, it’s a very different thing. Maybe PBS is a little – but it is just a different animal. It’s like I could be in an airport lobby with Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts and no one would look at them because it’s the TV thing. It’s a familiarity and people will talk at you.
That’s her, that’s the girl from – I’m like, “I know, I’m here.” Sometimes negatively. One guy was like, “Ooh, she got big.” (Laughter) I was like, “I’m right here.”
Tavis: Yeah, “I can hear you.”
Johnston: Yeah, hello. (Laughter) It’s just television fame is really weird because you’re in their living room. There’s an intimacy that I was not prepared for. I had no understanding of it. So I’ve said this before, but honestly, the best way I can describe it is that it was as if my life was two blocks ahead of my for like five years. I just could not get there.
I ran so hard, but it just – I couldn’t ever get there, and I’ve got there, finally.
Tavis: I was being flippant when I made the comment about I have no fame.
Johnston: Well, of course you were (unintelligible).
Tavis: The one thing that I do appreciate – I’m only going there because you mentioned PBS – the one thing I do appreciate about the work that I do on PBS and for that matter public radio and the books I’ve written and things like that is that -
Johnston: Is this your show or mine?
Tavis: (Laughs) I’m being funny.
Johnston: Way to plug yourself.
Tavis: No, no, no. (Laughter)
Johnston: I’m just – oh, I’m kidding you, I’m kidding. Yeah, hold the book up, but hold the back.
Tavis: The wrong way, yeah. (Laughter) Turn it around.
Johnston: I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m kidding. Okay, you can -
Tavis: No, you can bust my chops any time. It’s your show, I’m just following you.
Johnston: Well, I will. (Laughter)
Tavis: I’m just making the point that I’ve talked to a lot of friends of mine who are famous actors like you, and the one thing I do appreciate is that when folk walk up to me, at least they walk up to say, “I appreciate your work.”
Johnston: Yeah, yeah. With respect.
Tavis: With respect. And you made me think, and that interview about so-and-so, man, I didn’t know. So I’m not trying to be snotty about it -
Johnston: No, no, no. No, I understand.
Tavis: But I don’t know that I could handle, to your point, people loving you because they see you, because they recognize you, as opposed to -
Johnston: And you’re an alien and sort of a sex bomb, in a weird way.
Tavis: And you’re an alien, yeah.
Johnston: The show presented it. So walking into – if you go to a hotel lobby, at the bar, they’re all of a sudden like if anybody’s drunk, it’s hell. “Whoa,” you know? (Laughter) It’s just – you can – oh my God.
But you’re absolutely right, and certainly like with what I was saying, like movie stars, there’s sort of a – they come up to them and they talk to them, but it’s still there’s a separation.
With me, and I think also the flamboyance of the character or whatever, it was very difficult. I walked around for years, like baseball hat, and now I don’t care.
Tavis: And you’re not too easy to hide. You’re tall.
Johnston: Exactly. No, I literally have been in full ski gear -
Tavis: That’s what I’m saying, yeah.
Johnston: – ski masks, ski everything. “Where’s the lift?” They’re like, “I love your show.” So.
Tavis: But you don’t regret the character, though?
Johnston: Oh, I don’t regret a minute of anything I’ve ever done in my whole life.
Tavis: Okay, got it. Okay, got it. Nothing?
Johnston: Nothing. Nothing.
Tavis: Not even the drugs?
Johnston: No. Everything – well, let’s subtly bring that in there. Don’t just clamp it on everybody. (Laughter)
Tavis: No, I’m raising that because -
Johnston: “Not just your crack.”
Tavis: No, I’m raising that because there is an authenticity and an honesty in that. I recall talking to Natalie Cole, who had her own drug issue, sat in this very chair, and Natalie said to me, “I do not regret.”
Johnston: Yeah, I don’t. Would I ever want to go back there?
Johnston: It was hell.
Tavis: But she said, “When I was high, I liked being high.”
Johnston: Well, no, it’s not even that. I didn’t like it very much for a long time. Look, there’s a reason you do it. There’s a good part of it. But then it’s quickly, quickly bad. But then you have to continue to do it to keep sane, to keep from detoxing. Pill stuff is really bad.
But to answer your question, the thing is – I don’t even know what I was talking about. Hold the book up again. There we go. (Laughter)
Tavis: What is so – and this is the right word, I think – what is so arresting about this text is that you rarely read anything where the author is being this honest. This honest, this authentic, this graphic, this much in detail.
Johnston: Thank you.
Tavis: You read this, you feel like you’re in the – on the bathroom floor with you.
Johnston: You’re in it. That was the point, thank you.
Tavis: Yeah, you nailed that part.
Johnston: Thank you.
Tavis: But why – so the title, “Guts,” is a perfect title.
Johnston: I designed the cover, too.
Tavis: It’s a great design, great title.
Johnston: That’s a picture an ex-boyfriend took of me, so I just did it for fun, because I’m not a writer. I was like, I’m a reader, so I didn’t want to do the fonts that they want you to do Roman numeral XII and turn in some sort of thing. I was like, “I’m going to write a book the way I want to see the book.”
So I did all these different covers and different ideas for titles, “The Towering Inferno,” and it went on and on. But then I just thought “Guts.” It has to be “Guts.”
Tavis: No, “Guts” works. But why spill all your guts? Why so open?
Johnston: There’s a couple reasons why. The biggest reason is that I’m so sick of the shame that surrounds addiction, and I don’t think that there should be shame. I think the only shame with addiction is if you don’t – once you have the knowledge you don’t self-care.
In other words, if you had leukemia and then you didn’t go for your chemo, then you’re an idiot. So if you’re an addict and you don’t take your chemo, whether it’s AA meetings, whether it’s therapy, whatever it is for you, then you’re an idiot.
But the disease itself is not my fault. It’s no one’s fault. I think it’s really brain chemistry, I think.
Tavis: You don’t think – I want to press you on that. You don’t think that any of the addiction has to do with choices that you made? It’s all chemistry?
Johnston: With choices that I made.
Tavis: If it is chemistry, you didn’t indulge the chemistry with the choices that you made?
Johnston: Ooh, you’re confusing me. I do – I believe it is absolutely brain chemistry combined with two events. You have to have this crossroads, I think. This is my opinion. I’m not a doctor, although I pretend I am all the time.
You have to have – it’s a crossroads between access – in other words, I have migraines, okay, and then your son dies, or you – whatever. Dramatic events, or a depression, which was in my case, and I had access. So those two things, I’m gone. I think anyone in the world could go there.
Tavis: This is a really, really simple question, and yet I know that people are as curious about this, because I get asked this question when I talk to people about guests on the program, which is how it is that someone of your success and your access could have been depressed.
Johnston: Could be miserable? (Laughs)
Tavis: Yeah, could be miserable. How does that work?
Johnston: Well, it is such an awful thing, because you know you should be happy, and it really, looking back on it, and I look at that person and I think what a great show and how cute she was and two Emmys or whatever. I can’t believe I just said that – that’s obnoxious. But you know – sorry.
Tavis: But it’s true, though.
Johnston: Anyway – it’s true.
Tavis: It’s very true.
Johnston: But it doesn’t make it less obnoxious. It just makes it true and obnoxious. But I did not understand. I tried to explain it in the book. It was like the rug was ripped out from under me and I had – I was like left alone in a closet with myself all of a sudden, because all my ambition was gone, because all of a sudden I was successful in a way I’d never imagined, and that had kept me kind of chugging along and not paying attention to who I really am and be a self-examined person.;
For that reason all of a sudden this thing landed in my lap and I just got overwhelmed with sorrow. I think I was grieving for the person I will never be again, which is the unseen.
Tavis: See, that’s the irony of – getting into your book – the fact that you acknowledge – I guess this isn’t that strange – you acknowledge that you wanted it, that is to say the fame and the exposure.
Johnston: I did when I was a kid, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah, you wanted it, but then when you got it -
Johnston: I was like, “Please, no, give it back. Take it away.” I just wanted to – as I say in the book, I loved everything about being a famous actress except for the famous part.
Tavis: Exactly. (Laughter)
Johnston: But you can’t say it ever to anybody because then it’s just oh my God -
Tavis: Now you’re an ingrate, yeah, yeah.
Johnston: This person works their butts off at a fast food joint and there are people with a lot more – but so it’s a champagne depression, I guess you could call it, but it was very, very real and it was, like, five or six years of real, true sadness.
Tavis: I didn’t get the sense, going through the book, that there’s anything that you think, and maybe there’s no answer to this, but I didn’t get the sense, at least, that there’s anything that you think that you could have done differently to prepare yourself for that. I don’t know that one can compare -
Johnston: No, you can’t.
Tavis: You can’t really compare, yeah.
Johnston: Being in the state of a famous person or whatever, it’s not natural, I don’t think, you know what I mean? I just don’t think that we were meant to have that, really, necessarily, have that kind of – well, what’s happening now, the fame that it is now, the magazines, the tabloids.
Tavis: It’s out of control.
Johnston: It’s out of control. I became famous right at the start of the madness, when there were, like, 20 million magazines or whatever. It just overwhelmed me. I just didn’t want it.
I thought what famousness meant was that when you wanted to be famous you could be, and then when you didn’t, you weren’t. Then it was a tough blow.
Tavis: Like a spigot you turn on and off.
Johnston: Yeah, exactly, whenever you’re in the mood. I want a nice table. (Makes noise) I’m a famous person. But unfortunately it’s all the time, and fortunately, but I have to be totally honest with you. I actually really enjoy it now, not in a creepy way.
I don’t want more and love it. I just enjoy it. I like people again, probably for the first time in many years. I love people, I love just – I just love it now. I love talking to different – and people are so nice.
A shrink said this to me, and this is actually kind of boils down. I don’t really talk about it in the book, but that one of the main issues I had around the “Third Rock” famousness was because I was a freak when I was younger. I was pretty much this height when I was 12, and so I thought of people pointing at me as look at the freak, instead of that’s – and it was kind of look at the freak.
So it made me feel like I was in high school or grade school all over again, being sort of made fun of and it being kind of malevolent. Instead, now all I see are its kindness and generosity.
Tavis: Where – well, I know where he was. Why didn’t you access probably is a more accurate way of asking you. I don’t know John Lithgow the way you do. I’ve only met him a number of times, but he’s been on this show a thousand -
Johnston: What a charmer.
Tavis: Oh, God.
Johnston: Yeah, great guy.
Tavis: He is one of the greatest guys.
Johnston: He is.
Tavis: I love John Lithgow.
Johnston: I love him too, yeah.
Tavis: So you’re on this show and there seems to be there’s a guy in close proximity to you who is as level-headed, who doesn’t take this stuff too seriously, has another life outside of -
Johnston: (Unintelligible) as well. No, it was such a great atmosphere for that. I didn’t know what was wrong, so I couldn’t – I wasn’t self-examined enough to say – everybody knew I was struggling. I was struggling. I was sad and moody and it was hard. It was a very difficult time.
I do have some guilt about it. But one of the greatest moments in my sober life was when I got to tell John that I was sober, because I saw him backstage at a play he was doing, and after we said our hellos in his green room and hugged and I said, “John, I’m two years sober,” or whatever, and he burst into tears and was just so happy for me and so relieved.
He said – it was really so touching. Then he said the reason why it was so difficult for me to get help which is that I was still functioning. You wouldn’t know it on camera. I’d show up, I’d be exactly this person. It was just afterwards I’d be like (makes noise).
Tavis: Are you one of those persons who believes that everything happens for a reason?
Tavis: So what’s -
Johnston: I only believe in karma and fate. I really believe that.
Tavis: So what’s the reason for you having to go through this?
Johnston: That. That book.
Tavis: This book?
Johnston: Because if you, like, look at the website, GutstheBook.com, the Q&A section, because I wanted there to be room for people to talk and sort of give feedback, the amount of people that have gotten sober just from reading it. So it’s worth it.
Tavis: I’m going to ask you a question that I know you’ll be honest about, because that’s how you are.
Johnston: It’s how I roll. (Laughter)
Tavis: This is the way we roll. Is it difficult for you to stay sober? Are you at that point now where you’re rolling now, or are you still -
Johnston: I’m rolling, but it’s something I have to watch for sure, especially in situations like this, where there’s a lot of press going on, lots of stuff, lots of being pulled different ways.
I have to make sure, and they are so respectful of me at “The Exes” and everywhere that I go – this is it. I can’t do this now. This is too much for me.
Tavis: And they know to pull back?
Johnston: They do. They’re very respectful of it. So that’s the key. For me, it’s just trying to keep my life in a way that it’s sane and not too crazy and not too heady. That’s the part where I get kind of lost.
Tavis: Tell me about this Slam project you have, because the goal of trying to get a high school – I was very impressed; I want to hear more about this.
Johnston: Well, okay. So when I got to rehab, basically I was drunk, which who isn’t. If you’re not drunk when you show up at rehab, well – that’s a joke. (Laughter) Okay. Is that him laughing? Oh, good, all right. (Laughter)
Tavis: I just wanted to throw you off just to see what – yeah, yeah.
Johnston: Oh my God, I was like, “Jeez, I’m really blowing it today.” All right, so I’m smashed. I get out of the car and I literally look around and I thought they had dropped me off at a summer camp. I was like, “I think they dropped me off at a summer camp,” or something.
Anyway, when I sobered up a few days later I talked to a counselor and they said, “No, this is what all rehabs look like,” and that freaked me out. Because almost every person there – there were quite a few terrified 35-year-olds, but for the most part it was like 25 and under, these kids. OxyContin, heroin, et cetera.
Anyway, so that sort of started it, and then I became dear friends with Joe Schrank, who is the editor and chief of an amazing recovery website called TheFix.com, which if anybody out there is struggling or has questions about anything, they should go there.
It reviews rehabs, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. It’s a really great, great website. Anyway, he’s a dear friend of mine and he said there’s this – they won’t – there are 35 sober high schools in the United States. There are four in the Boston area, and there are zero in New York City or state – zero.
So for five years I’ve been doing this and working to get it done, and it’s been very difficult. I could have made it a private school and just got donations, because people really want to help. But it needs to be public. It must be a public school. I insist. It has to be available to whoever wants it.
Here are the scary things. According to a Columbia University recent research, one out of every three teenage kids in America meets the medical criteria for addiction – one in three. One in 70 teens will go to rehab. If a teenager, if a kid goes to rehab and then goes to a regular school, you should have just flushed 40 grand down the toilet.
Tavis: They relapse, yeah.
Johnston: Yeah, 90 percent.
Tavis: 90 percent, yeah.
Johnston: 80 percent in the first month. But if a kid goes to a sober high school, 70 percent of them graduate drug and alcohol-free. It’s like a no-brainer. It’s really an amazing thing, so I started my own board, because I was on another one and that kind of fell apart.
So the last two years, and I’ve gotten together this amazing group of people, and if anybody wants information it’s SlamNYC.org. It’s a really great thing we’re trying to do.
Tavis: It is a great thing, and that’s why I wanted to make sure we talked about it.
Johnston: Thank you.
Tavis: I could do this for hours.
Johnston: I know.
Tavis: You are so fascinating to talk to.
Johnston: Thank you. So are you.
Tavis: My time is up.
Johnston: Is it already over?
Tavis: It’s over.
Johnston: Should we say “The Exes?”
Johnston: Is funny?
Tavis: Say it again. Where’s your camera. There you go.
Johnston: Where is it? Come on, huh? (Laughter) What more do I gotta say?
Tavis: And there you have it. (Laughter) Kristen Johnston -
Johnston: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: – is the author of the new text. It is a riveting read. There you go; see, we got it on the screen for you. It’s a riveting read called “Guts.” You’ll want to get it. The new show – not the new show; the second season of the new show -
Johnston: Second season.
Tavis: – is called “The Exes.” I love TV Land. I love TV Land.
Johnston: So I’m trying to recreate (unintelligible).
Tavis: There you go. So there you have it. That’s our show for tonight.
Johnston: Thank you, guys.
Tavis: Good to see you.
Johnston: You, too. I bet so many people are plowed right now, watching this. (Laughter)
Tavis: Until next time -
Johnston: I hope you can cut that out.
Tavis: – keep the faith.
Johnston: Keep the faith.
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