Interview: Cranston Johnson Talks ‘Naomi’ and Playing Zumbado

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Danny Delgado/The CW

On January 11, The CW debuted its newest series, Naomi. The show follows its title character Naomi McDuffie. When a strange event shocks her town of Port Oswego, Naomi enlists the help of her friends to discover its origins. Along the way, she confronts people who will be the key to unravelling an important mystery. One such person is used car salesman Zumbado, played by Cranston Johnson.

Prior to Naomi, Johnson has brought his talents to both film and television. He’s best known for his role as Detective Marvin Hanson the television series Hap and Leonard. Johnson also played recurring roles in shows such as P-Valley, Atlanta, and Filthy Rich, among others. His most recent foray into film is in Women Is Losers, streaming on HBO Max. Other film credits include The 24th, The Best of Enemies, and more. To celebrate the premiere of Naomi, we had the opportunity to talk with Cranston about the show and his role as Zumbado.

Note: This interview was edited for clarity.

Nerds & Beyond: First of all, I want to congratulate you on Naomi! I’m so excited to see this show. What has your experience been like working on the show thus far?

Cranston Johnson: Thank you so much. It’s been a dream come true, outside of the COVID restrictions, which have been a little restrictive. But, you know, as actors, we’re conditioned to kind of have these hurdles come in, and you find a way to get over them and continue to create.

But outside of that, cast, crew, being in Atlanta – I’m originally from North Carolina, so being back that close to home where I can see my family and everything, it just feels like everything… It’s kind of like a perfect storm. It’s been amazing. Very fulfilling work to play the character of Zumbado. It’s really like a family atmosphere with our wonderful cast. And I’m excited to be doing work with Ava DuVernay, somebody who I’ve looked up to for a while. It’s been an awesome experience. I couldn’t ask for more. I’m very grateful for it.

Nerds & Beyond: What drew you initially to the character of Zumbado?

Cranston Johnson: So, initially when I got the read, I usually first and foremost look over the sides, flip through the script, or whatever. But then you kinda see who’s attached to it, like who the writers are, who the executive producers are, or the director and all these things. And I saw Ava’s name on there – and I’m just piggy-backing on what I said before – she’s someone that’s really inspirational to me on a personal and professional level. I had the opportunity to audition for her for a couple of other projects, and for this thing to come around full circle and to be cast in the role was very exciting.

But initially, the fact that the character is written as an enigma is really, really exciting to me. I love playing characters that aren’t just cut and dry, that you can’t just pick out and tell who they are immediately. To me, that’s my most exciting work to do. So, when I saw that he’s this enigmatic, mysterious used car owner that is kind of lurking, you know. The audition scene was the scene from the pilot, the one where I have this interaction with Naomi in the woods. And it was just so well written, and there were so many layers to inject aggression, to inject vulnerability, to inject just this mystery of what you want to do. I was like, “Wow. This is amazing. I would love te play this character.” And just reading and doing research of the comic book and the origin of Naomi and everything. Her being a young, Black teenage superhero. All those things are just very inspirational to me. So, it was really exciting to be attached to the project and getting to do this wonderful work that I’m blessed to do right now.

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Ramona Rosales/The CW

Nerds & Beyond: And bouncing off of that, you do mention how – I mean he is this very sort of like mysterious character. Can you explain a little bit about how you really got into the headspace of playing somebody like him?

Cranston Johnson: So, when I began to break him down, the main thing that I wanted to focus on, of course, is to honor the text that you’ve been given. Honor the circumstances that you’ve been given. But you know, also trying to find these little Easter eggs, these little nuanced moments that you can bring to the character to make it – you need to make it exciting and fun to watch.

So, one of the things that I wanted to focus on was just kind of approaching him and playing him from a calm, relaxed, and in control type of character. Obviously, he appears to be imposing. He appears to be dangerous and all of these things. So, you know, there’s no need to be super aggressive with your vocal tone or any of that. Because to me, the scarier people are the people who will whisper something to you in your ear rather than the person who’s yelling at the top of their lungs about something that they’re gonna inflict this pain on you. To me, it’s always the scary guy that’s gonna whisper that and be kind of calm and relaxed. So, I really kind of enjoy being that creepy guy. [laughs] You know, the guy kinda lurking in the alley in the middle of the night. It’s kind of fun doing that, and I got a kick out of just seeing some of the fear that Kaci [Walfall] was projecting on to me. It was just really motivational to play that role. I really enjoy that. That’s exciting to me.

Nerds & Beyond: Yeah, I definitely think you nail it. I was a little creeped out by him in this first episode for sure. [laughs] So you definitely nailed it.

Cranston Johnson: Well, thank you. [laughs] Thank you so much.

Nerds & Beyond: And I also think what’s so interesting about this show already is how it subverts what we’ve become so accustomed to seeing with superheroes in film and television. Why do you think that’s so important for this show?

Cranston Johnson: Well, I think it’s important because, if nothing else, it’s just a fresh spin on something that’s been done. Comic books have existed for many decades, and there’s so many fans of these comic books and of these adaptations that come to film and to television. One thing that I was really excited about is that these people are in plain clothes. ‘Cause a lot of times when you think of comics, you think of the cape, or the tights, or you know whatever the costume may be. But I really enjoy that, at this moment, we appear to be every day, oxygen breathing human beings. And you know, what separates Zumbado from someone else outside of his creeping if he looks like just a regular guy. To me, grounding it in that reality makes it very interesting and special to watch, because then, when the supernatural things come in, to me it amplifies the intensity of the supernatural once you see what appears to be normal people doing these things. So, I really enjoy that, and I think that unique spin that – I’m sure it has been done, but I really like that avenue that the creators and the writers have taken for Naomi.

Nerds & Beyond: And sort of speaking of just superheroes in general, we’ve already seen how important Superman specifically is to Naomi. So, for you, what do superheroes in general mean to you?

Cranston Johnson: Well, superheroes to me, in general, I think, of course, Superman – my first experience, I think of any comic book characters – Superman, Wonder Woman – you know, they’re just very iconic. They’ve been around forever, and to me, they just represent… I guess just an escape from the everyday reality that we have. It’s just something fun to kind of get immersed into these worlds of the supernatural, and just asking yourself these questions of what if this was real? What if people did have these powers? I think it’s just a fun time to escape from your normal, everyday kinda reality and just kind of sit back and enjoy watching these characters save the world or go through their origin stories, as we’re watching right now with Naomi, because part of her is starting to dip her toe into that water of understanding what does this mean? Who am I? So, for me that’s what superheroes represent.

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Boris Martin/The CW

Nerds & Beyond: What do you hope viewers take away from this show in general?

Cranston Johnson: I hope that viewers take away from our show what the tagline is for the show – to not believe everything you think. And by that, get out and make your own discovery. Get out and experience life for yourself. Don’t take everything that you’ve been taught – whether it’s in school, whether it’s from your friends, whether it’s from whatever. Wherever you get your education from, don’t 100% solely rely on that and take that as gospel. Get out and do your own research. Get out and explore the world and ask the difficult questions that may make people uncomfortable sometimes but will give you just a better understanding of maybe who you are or why things work the way that they work. Because I think we fall into this comfortable mindset once we’re conditioned, whether if we watch the news and we’re just, you know, we’re like, “Okay. That’s what happened then.” Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t, you know. Just be curious. I think that’s what I want people to take from our show – to intrigue their curiosity.

Nerds & Beyond: Finally, my last question for you, what are you most proud of with your portrayal as Zumbado and also the show?

Cranston Johnson: Well, I’m most proud of the show [for] the fact that we have a young, Black female superhero. To me, that’s very empowering, being a Black man to see that we can be interpreted as superheroes as well on screen. I think it’s very exciting for my little cousins, my nieces. I’m so excited that I have some comic books that I got signed by the cast, and I can’t wait to get those to them just to show them and to liberate them – to let them know that you’re special, you know. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not special, whether they find inspiration through Naomi or whatever it may be. But I think it should show these images to show that there is no limit to what you can do in the world. And even though, like you said, we may look at the show as being supernatural and not reality, there are so many things in our show that are tied to realities. So, being a part of something inspirational like that… there aren’t many shows out there doing that. To me, that’s what I’m most proud of by being attached to Naomi and being in the Naomi family and the DC family.

As far as the personal with the Zumbado character, I think this is some of my best work thus far. I know for a fact that it’s the most fulfilling work that I’ve done, because as the season continues along, we’ll get to see some of the layers peel back from Zumbado, and we’ll get somewhat of an origin story a little bit. We’ll dip into that around midseason. So, it’s just really exciting when you get to play a very well-written, well-layered, complicated character, and that’s how I define him. That’s acting gold for me. And I’m just really proud first and foremost for everyone to see our entire cast and how talented they are, and just the wonderful things that they’re going to bring to the screen. But you know, selfishly, I mean I’m excited for my family, my friends to get to see this work that I’ve been doing. Hopefully people who haven’t seen me other things will enjoy the work and they’ll be interested in kind of seeing more that I have to offer. So, that’s all that I could ask for.

Nerds & Beyond: That is all that I’ve got for you today. Did you have anything else that you wanted to add?

Cranston Johnson: No, I just want to thank you for your time and your interest and consideration in the show. Thank you so much.

Nerds & Beyond: Of course! And thank you as well for sitting down to talk with me. It’s been great hearing what you have to say.

Naomi airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT on The CW. Keep up with our recaps and other ongoing coverage here.

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By Julia
Julia is a writer/editor/content assistant for Nerds who joined the team in 2019.
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