Wonderland.

MALIQ JOHNSON

The Grand Army on the importance of storylines that provoke uncomfortable, but necessary conversations.

Maliq Johnson wearing orange jumper

Jumper by DRIES VAN NOTEN.

Maliq Johnson wearing orange jumper
Jumper by DRIES VAN NOTEN.

Taken from the Autumn 2020 issue. Order your copy now.

Maliq Johnson has been acting ever since he can remember. Since starting out in commercials as a child he’s sustained a consistent stream of work, but it’s his role in Netflix’s captivating new show, Grand Army, that’s solidifying his path to fame. When we FaceTime on a hot summer afternoon the actor is relaxing in his hometown of New York, assuring me he’s a “simple dude” who lives a pretty simple life” — but that’s all about to change.

Based on Katie Cappiello’s 2013 play SLUT, Grand Army presents a compelling story about a group of high schoolers in New York, weaving in themes of privilege, race and sexual assault. “This is one of the rawest shows that you’re going to see on TV because it doesn’t sugarcoat anything,” Johnson says, emphasising it’s unlike any other YA series. “It’s not afraid to get in-between the mind and get into the nitty-gritty, and have those uncomfortable conversations that people don’t want to have.

Maliq Johnson wearing white jumper and gold chain
Maliq Johnson wearing white jumper and gold chain
Maliq Johnson wearing white jumper and gold chain
Jumper by DRIES VAN NOTEN.
Maliq Johnson wearing white jumper and gold chain

The 20-year-old plays Jayson Jackson, a funny, charismatic prankster on the road to becoming a saxophonist at Juilliard. “My high school experience compared to Jayson’s was very different, in the sense that I feel like Jayson had way more access to programmes and things like that,” he says, when I ask if he relates to his character’s school life. “I had metal detectors in my school and couldn’t even go inside [with] cell phones, so it was kind of crazy. I didn’t have a music class, music teacher, nothing.”

Johnson grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, which he tells me was a “pretty dangerous area” at the time. “Growing up in Bed-Stuy taught me how to be tough early and to have thick skin. Then also to adapt to any situation because you can be in a situation that you didn’t put yourself in, but you have to get yourself out of it,” he reflects. “You have to just grow up knowing how to navigate different crowds and how to act around certain people. I learned to listen first, talk second.”

“What drew me to portraying Jayson was really his outgoing personality and his blissful ignorance,” he considers. “I remember a time — even though I learned at a young age what it was like to be a Black man in America — I remember even the little moments where you’re having so much fun that those things are like, not even a thought to you. You’re in such a good headspace where you’re not worried about being a Black man in America at that moment. He clings onto his innocence for a long time, longer than his peers around him, which most of us don’t really get a chance to do.”

Maliq Johnson green t-shirt white trousers

Jumper by DIOR and trousers by PRIVATE POLICY

Maliq Johnson green t-shirt white trousers
Jumper by DIOR and trousers by PRIVATE POLICY

With everything that’s happening in 2020 — from the Black Lives Matter protests to the upcoming US presidential election — Grand Army’s release feels timely. “I feel like this is almost one of the most important times we’re talking about [with] the election about to happen, and with everything that we know, and how all of that ties into the show,” Johnson agrees. “The show was shot a year ago in 2019, about past things that happened, and it’s still so relevant now. I know that’s only a year ago, and we have had other things that happened even further back that [are] still relevant now, but that’s still crazy how we’re going through a cycle. This is exactly one of the things that the show was talking about.”

While Johnson stays coy about his hopes for the future of his career, he lights up when telling me about his experience seeing the first few episodes of Grand Army, and for now, is looking forward to the series release in October. “I just hope that the show sheds light on the different perspectives and different points of view that people can come in from different walks of life, and still be whatever it is they want to be,” he emphasises — “whether it be normal to you or not.”

Photography
Meghan Marin
Fashion
Margaret Galvin
Words
Caroline Edwards
MALIQ JOHNSON