Kelley Davis-Johnson can’t remember what she and her husband were watching.
They had just put their daughter, Madison, to bed. The two of them collapsed onto the couch together, watching something on television they weren’t into, and half paying attention.
Kelley turned to Wendell during a commercial and said to him:
“Would you ever consider moving?”
“Where?” Wendell asked.
“All right,” he said.
“I had just booked a Tyler Perry show,” Kelley says, thinking back on it during a Skype call from her home in Canton, Ga., in between voiceover sessions at her home studio, “and we thought, that’s a hell of a commute, from Virginia to Georgia.”
Kelley and Wendell had been signed to an exclusive voice-over roster in Virginia Beach for 14 years, but she’d recently signed with an Atlanta-based agent for film and TV, and as her acting jobs brought her more and more often to Atlanta and to further-flung locations, it made more sense to go where the work was.
And also to where the airport was.
They left behind everything they knew: family, friends, work, their long-time home. “We basically held hands and jumped off a cliff. We left our house, we left this company, we built a voiceover studio in the closet of our master bedroom. I think there was a whole month we went without working; our income plummeted.”
As if the universe wanted to reach down and bless the move, though, Kelley almost immediately booked a featured role on A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, the “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” biopic starring Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper, and oh yes, Tom Hanks.
The premise of the movie is based on this Tom Junod article from 1998, which will teach you, among other things, what Mr. Rogers says when he needs to pee.
Aside: Did you know Koko the Gorilla took Mr. Rogers’ shoes off when she met him? Because I did not know that.
Who but Tom Hanks in our modern era would we (could we) trust enough to play Mr. Rogers? As a YouTube commenter to the official movie trailer says: “The nicest person in Hollywood playing one of the nicest people in the world. Give him the Oscar. Give him ALL the Oscars!”
There’s a moment in the movie where Susan Kelechi Watson’s character, playing the girlfriend of Matthew Rhys, the interviewer, murmurs “Lloyd, please don’t ruin my childhood.”
Nothing could be more relatable.
But he doesn’t, and Kelley Davis-Johnson is not about to ruin yours either: Tom Hanks is, of course, just as lovely in person as you would hope.
Kelley’s effusive about everyone she worked with on the film, and actually, throughout her career. She says she’s lucky to have worked with a remarkably high “caliber of human.”
I ask if she thinks it’s got something to do with the type of person she herself is, that she attracts kindness.
She deflects that point, just as I imagine Mr. Rogers or Tom Hanks would do.
“The set was surreal,” Kelley says. “My very first day, I’m talking to the director, Mari, who’s amazing. She so stunning and so kind. I had originally auditioned on tape, and then I went for a callback and we mostly talked about our kids. And I’m talking to her, and I feel someone next to me, and it’s Tom. I had expected to have this thing happen like ‘Holy shit, it’s Tom Hanks,’ but it was so normal. The environment wasn’t pretentious at all.”
Kelley also got to experience what happens when you are FaceTiming with your partner from the Mr. Rogers set and Tom Hanks walks up and asks who you’re talking to, which is that Tom Hanks then starts talking to the person also, and that’s how her husband met Tom Hanks. Daughter Madison also got to chat with him, though Kelley says Madison was more taken by her chat session with Daniel Tiger.
The film was shot in Pittsburgh, in the real studio he used to shoot his show; Joanne Rogers, Fred’s wife, made several visits to the set while they were filming.
“I got teary-eyed a couple of times,” Kelley said. “I felt really dorky at first, until I noticed other people being the same way. Having this theater background, it was mind-blowing, but I mean, we grew up with Daniel Tiger.”
When Kelley talks about growing up, she means all of us, generationally, but she also might mean us, personally; she and I lived in the same town when we were young and went to the same high school.
We met again in college when we both, as older students, enrolled in undergraduate-level classes at Christopher Newport University.
We’d both been self-described college dropouts. Kelley had worked as a bartender, I’d been a waitress.
I learned only during our conversation we also both felt like fish out of water when we were growing up. “As a kid, I always felt like I was different-minded,” she says. “I was searching for a place where I fit in.”
It’s funny what you can know about people and also never know. When we were younger, Kelley seemed to have it all: outgoing, popular and well-liked, which in small-town high schools is not always the same thing. Kelley says she did sports during high school because she thought it would be expected of her, but says she was always searching for something, a missing component.
Her artistic bent was that component.
I remember Kelley introducing herself during our very first acting class. We were sitting in the greenroom of the old Shoebox Theater; it was fall of 2000. Kelley spoke about her reasons for coming back to school, and she was so genuine; she spoke with so much humility and grace that it left everyone slightly speechless. Our professor, Jeffrey, waved his arm toward her, and he said “Now this… this is the kind of person you want to have around you as an artist.”
I remember thinking: yes.
Before going back to college, Kelley had been sexually assaulted. And she went through a truly harrowing experience during the criminal trial.
She says that her time at CNU, in addition to helping her settle into her artistic mandate, her place to fit in, and finding something ineffable that she’d been seeking since childhood, gave her back her sense of self.
And she found it in an unlikely place: in professor George Hillow’s scene shop, working with her hands, wielding power tools.
“I was there for performance,” she says, “but I would be in the shop ‘til late. I would be building stuff, and feeling like I was finally a part of something, and that give me a sense of control. In terms of how weak I felt inside, having those things, helped me find my inner badass, because I really needed it then.”
George also hired her to come and do some work on his house during school breaks. Kelley laughs in some awe about this still: “he could’ve asked anyone!” but says she did a variety of projects at his home. She redid the ceiling in his bathroom, put up crown molding, and refinished some furniture, among other handywoman tasks.
“I remember feeling so strong,” she says. “I was so broken when I went back to school, and I’d been through so much, but to have someone see the strength in me… I’m not sure he realizes, even to this day, how much that meant.”
The moment was defining for her. Kelley’s a believer in the idea that everything a person goes through helps shape the person they become, and it can either be a destructive or a creative influence: breaking down or building up.
“Being where I am in my career now,” Kelley says, “I often think, ‘Gosh, I wish I would’ve started acting when I was younger.’ But I came to it when I did, and I was going through something so difficult. And I finally found my path at the same time.”
“It made me stronger, and it made me a better actor. So I think it all came together when it was supposed to.”
Kelley Davis-Johnson is an actor living in Canton, Ga. and proud mom to Madison. You can catch her in ‘A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood,’ in theatres now.