The viral video fame that came from a particularly sassy dance recital performance to Aretha Franklin’s “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” not only launched 6-year-old Johanna Colón of Apex into the hearts of millions of people, it also put her on the radar of casting agents in Hollywood.
Since that 2016 video exploded into popular culture, Johanna, now 11, has embarked on a full-fledged acting career, appearing in two episodes of the acclaimed HBO drama “Euphoria” and now in the Amazon Prime original film, “Troop Zero.” She’ll also be in the new Sofia Carson movie “Feel the Beat,” set to premiere on Netflix this year.
In “Troop Zero,” Johanna stars alongside Oscar winners Viola Davis and Allison Janney, as well as comedy star Jim Gaffigan and young actress Mckenna Grace (she was young Tonya Harding in “I, Tonya”). The film is available to stream Friday, Jan. 17, for Amazon Prime members.
In the movie, Johanna plays Smash, a tough but lovable girl recruited by Mckenna Grace’s character, Christmas, to join a new Birdie Scout troop and compete in a Jamboree talent show that, if they win, could mean NASA would send their voices into space.
We talked to Johanna, accompanied by her mother Elissa, in The News & Observer offices on Friday and asked her about the experience of making a movie.
“It was super fun to make and I made new friends and I learned so many new things,” she said. “I learned that even though you’re not on camera you still have to focus and be in the character.”
Johanna even got to improvise, and her charm prompted the directors, a writing-directing duo known as Bert & Bertie, to tweak the character of Smash a bit.
“They said she was a tough girl and she was mean. And she couldn’t talk, so I could do any sounds I wanted to,” Johanna said.
Johanna did improvise all her sounds, but she also made the character more “tough but sweet” instead of “tough and mean.”
“When I came in I made her funny, tough, sweet and all the things they didn’t know would happen with Smash,” Johanna said. “She’s very loyal, and she’s very protective of all her friends. That’s what I love about her.”
In press materials from Amazon, the directors said that when Johanna walked into the audition, they knew that “Smash had arrived.”
Bertie: “She uses her physicality brilliantly. Smash is many people’s favorite character, and she was one of the last people we cast.”
The challenges of filmmaking — and dancing badly
“Troop Zero” filmed in Louisiana in 2018. Johanna said it was hot, and there was a lot of waiting around while the crew moved mics and set up scenes. But she made friends with the other girls in the film. They got to play and hang out in between scenes, but they had to stay in character. She said she also loved working with the adult actors.
Her favorite scenes to film were a food fight scene (“nothing can be more fun than that”) and a scene in the rain (“fake rain”). When the rain scene was over they let the kids run around and play in the rain, Johanna said.
There’s also a memorable dance scene in the movie. Johanna’s dance background actually made it more difficult: unlike her star turn showcasing Aretha Franklin, this time she had to be a bad dancer.
“I was upset,” she said grinning. “I said, ‘I want to dance like I used to!’ They said ‘No, you have to dance badly.’”
Johanna has seen the movie five times now and says,“it turned out way better than I thought it would be.”
The scenes are shot out of order and it’s hard to tell how it will turn out while you’re actually making the movie, she said.
“It’s super hard. It’s like, is this gonna end up good, is this gonna be bad? I don’t really know. But then when you see it and it’s all put together, it’s like, Oh my God, this is way better than I thought it would be!”
Johanna said she wants to keep acting (“It’s really fun”) and she is excited that her next movie, “Feel the Beat,” will feature her dance skills more.
But the experiences making “Troop Zero” will always be special.
“It’s inspiring,” Johanna said of the movie. “It teaches you that it’s OK to be weird — and don’t let the bullies get to you because they mean nothing.”