How One Portlander Went from Jefferson High to Hollywood

After roles on True Blood and Rectify, Johnny Ray Gill returns to the small screen in a new series about the Underground Railroad.

By Fiona McCann January 25, 2016 Published in the February 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: WGN America

A Northeast Portland native who’s landed roles in TV shows ranging from True Blood to Rectify, Johnny Ray Gill returns to the small screen in March with Underground, a new series from the writers of Sons of Anarchy about the Underground Railroad. We caught up with Gill about his star turn in the cable show, and how his success can be traced back to his Portland roots. 

When did you first become interested in acting?

I guess Jefferson High School is where it kind of started—I did some improv there. But I was a writer before I was an actor. I did an internship with screenwriter Mike Rich, who wrote Finding Forrester. Jefferson doesn’t have the best history, and when you come from that kind of environment, you have a chip on your shoulder a little bit.

Did that chip on your shoulder help prepare you for Hollywood?

In a small way. Dealing with the classism that exists in that part of Portland, dealing with the racism that exists—yes, it does give you a chip on your shoulder. It happens in Hollywood, too—certain people are relegated to doing certain types of roles. You just have to have the internal fortitude to say, “Hey, I’m not going to be defined by this,” and you have to find a way to get over it. 

Do you feel a connection with your character in Underground, Sam—a talented carpenter and a slave grappling with the concepts of courage and freedom?

Very much so. Even though the show is set in 1857, and they have this fantastic set and costumes and I’m in an actual cotton field, as someone who’s living in 2016 I’m aware of the full history that’s taken place since then. So when I’m shooting scenes, I feel like I’m being inspired by ancestors from different decades. Because I know about Thurgood Marshall. I know about Rosa Parks. I know about Malcolm X. I know about Barack Obama. And all of them have played a crucial part in getting me where I am today. And I also know about Trayvon Martin. That’s something that Sam isn’t privy to as a character from 1857, but I feel like all those voices were within me as I embark on trying to tell his story.

You’ve been an LA resident for a while. Do you still consider Portland home?

Yeah! I’ve still got a 503 number! When people find out where I am from, they say, “What about Portlandia?” and I’m like, “I’m not from that part of Portland.” 

When you’re back in town, where do you like to hang out?

I gotta shout out Jack’s Chicken on NE Ninth and Alberta. That’s the best chicken I’ve had on the planet; it’s the best fried chicken ever. Ninth Street chicken, baby—I’ll be there!

Underground premieres March 9 on WGN America

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