The dynamic and often philosophical Johannah Newmarch has played Molly Sullivan on Hallmark’s juggernaut, When Calls the Heart, since Season 1, Episode 1. The hugely popular series is based on Janette Oke’s Canadian West books and it is about life in a small mining town in the early 20th century.
If you are unfamiliar with the series, “A Telling Silence” (Season 1, Episode 3), is a powerful introduction that allows the backstory of Molly and her daughter Rosaleen (played by Mamie Laverock) to unfold with heart-wrenching beauty. The episode helps provide a firm foundation for a beloved character who is doing her best to keep moving forward despite the emotionally crippling challenges that have been placed in her path. It is a poignant story driven by hope and faith.
In the new Netflix family-friendly Christmas comedy, A Cinderella Story: Christmas Wish, Johannah gets to flex a different set of acting muscles when she plays an over-the-top villainess named Deirdra Decker. Deirdra is a conniving stepmother who goes to extravagant lengths to seize the life that she believes belongs to her. Deirdra’s ravishing style brings to mind a film noir femme fatale, but her many foibles and the colorful splash of a Cruella de Vil type presence, make her a fun, larger-than-life villainess that you love to hate.
Deirdra is 180 degrees opposite Molly,” Johanna told Entertaining Options. “It’s been really funny watching The Hearties response to this character because they are so used to sweet Molly.”
“I was really trying to strike the right balance,” Johannah continued. “This is a comedy, so Deirdra is a stereotype. But you don’t want her to be only one thing, you want her to have layers. You want to make sure that you’re hitting it on the right note because you don’t want her to be so awful that you wish she would just leave the screen, but if she’s not awful enough, then she’s not a decent antagonist.”
Deirdra’s initial impact comes from her look. When Johannah plays Molly in When Calls the Heart, she has a sweetness that is communicated through her wardrobe, softer colors, and her classic beauty. In contrast, Deirdra’s colors are bold, her fashion sense is haughty, and her beauty has an edge.
“We all like to think we’re highly nuanced, but storytelling has always been about archetypes,” Johannah noted. “There are people who more clearly fit one of those archetypes and the world goes, ‘Oh yeah, she’s the villain.’ Don’t get me wrong, as an actor, you must play a huge range of characters over the course of your career — you aim for that — but I’m happy to have a look that works.”
One of the best scenes in the movie is when Deirdra steals a moment alone with her stepdaughter, Kat (Played by Laura Marano from Austin and Ally). Up until this point, Deirdra has been relentlessly crushing Kat’s dreams, controlling every minute aspect of her life to make sure that she cannot succeed at anything she attempts. However, when the two sit down for a heart-to-heart, Deirdra confides in Kat and that’s when Johannah shines. She flips a switch and somehow manages to make the audience feel sympathy for this dastardly woman. But, as it turns out, Deirdra is merely manipulating Kat’s emotions so the final blow can be even more devastating.
“I’m not sure what it says about my personality, but I absolutely love playing the villain,” Johannah laughed.
Deirdra wasn’t Johannah’s first foray into the dark side. In Project Mc², she plays Carson Lazarus, the vindictive, pink power suited mastermind with black fingernails who is scheming to shut down NOV8 (pronounced “innovate”), a government organization that was founded to protect the world. The series revolves around four super-smart teenage girls who use their impressive science, technology, engineering, and mathematics skills to save the day, time and time again.
“Being the hero can be fun,” Johannah expressed, “the good guys win and that’s always very satisfying — we live in a complicated world, so we need some victory stories. But to play the antagonist and to try and really mess things up? I think there’s something almost childish about it, getting to behave badly is so much fun.”
“In my real life, I would be horrified if I lived by those values,” she added. “I would never try to mess with anybody. I’ve been playing villains on shows that are for a younger audience, so I haven’t been truly awful and evil. I might not be quite as enthusiastic about playing someone who is doing horrible things because that might actually be quite hard on one’s heart.”
Not all actors have the sensitive heart that Johannah does. Some might actually relish getting a chance to be unapologetically vile, reveling in every horrid deed their character enacts. If the right role came along, however, there’s a possibility that Johannah might be swayed into accepting it, but it would likely take a bit of convincing because her perspective is a little different than many other actors. In her early 20s, right when her star was starting to rise, Johannah walked away from it all.
“In your early 20s, you’re literally just figuring out who you are as an adult in this world. You’re clumsily trying to navigate your life path to try and figure out what matters and what doesn’t,” Johannah explained, recalling her own feelings at that pivotal age. “How do I make a living in this complicated world? How do I make a living doing something I enjoy in this complicated world? How do I make a living doing something I can live with in this complicated world? There are so many factors to consider.”
“I needed to grow up a bit. I needed to have some life experience. In that time, I became a wife and a mother and I lived abroad. I don’t know if you’ve ever had children, but that profoundly changes you. It’s a definite milestone of maturity that deepens your life.”
“So I went out there, I lived, and I got my butt kicked a bit… which is as it should be,” she continued. “Part of growing up is realizing how challenging life can be — sometimes, everything is going great, but other times, everything just falls apart. It’s that old-fashioned concept of character building. I learned how challenging life can be.”
One of the most important lessons Johannah learned during that character building period was, even though people around the world may all look different, speak different languages, and have different customs and beliefs, deep inside, everyone is the same.
“We all bleed red and we all just want meaning and happiness in our life. Some of us go about it in very different ways, but, in general, our ambitions are the same. That decade away really helped formulate not only my attitude towards this business, but my attitude towards life. I think those two go hand-in-hand because what you’re doing as an actor is trying to reflect humanity back.”
The conversational quality of Johannah’s tone ebbed away just a little as she delved deeper into the topic. Obviously, this was something she’d thought about before and had actually figured some of it out.
“One of the problems in society is that people don’t really understand anything from anybody else’s perspective,” Johannah presented. “We’re all living in our own little world of our own perspective. If you went and took five minutes to do someone else’s job, I’m convinced that a great deal of the world’s problems could be solved. If a young person could be an old person for a week, if an old person could go back to being a young person for a week, if Africans could go live in America for a month and Americans could go live in Africa, we’d all be able to better understand the challenges of each person‘s personal path in life.”
“I love the privilege of being an actor because it allows me to step into someone else’s life. Whether it’s a brief few days for an audition or a few weeks or months, if you book the role, you get to experience a different world view. It’s such an incredible way to learn about life and other people’s perspectives.”
When asked if she could talk a little about what it’s really like to be an actor, and to provide some insight or advice for other aspiring actors, Johannah happily obliged.
“Like any job, there are some really big peaks and valleys and there are things you love about it and things you hate about it,” Johannah began. “You’ll have great days and rough days. You will have great auditions and horrible auditions. You will have huge wins and huge losses. You will have accolades and total rejection. When you walk into a room to do an audition — sometimes a challenging and very emotional audition — you are walking into a room full of semi-strangers. Basically, your job is to put out your hand while holding your beating heart for them to see. You need to be completely vulnerable.”
“Then, you have to leave that room and put on a psychological suit of armor to endure the inevitable slings and arrows — to quote Shakespeare — and rejection. It asks a lot of a person to be that vulnerable and also that tough. It takes a pretty unique individual to endure this life.”
“It’s important to find your community, your fellow travelers in life, because without them, you might not survive in this business. I have a couple of really special friends whom I’ve called and said, ‘I just can’t do this anymore. It’s just too hard. It’s two demoralizing. It’s too unfair. It’s too painful.’ They listen and they commiserate and they empathize. Then, they build me back up and champion me and I live to see another month.”
On a much larger scale, Johannah believes that finding your community, no matter which path you take in life, is the key to finding true happiness.
“It’s all about trying to do something together that matters. You really need to hang onto that as an actor. If you’re having a rough month and you’re not getting cast, no matter how hard you audition, grab a group of friends and do some improv together in someone’s basement, sit down and write a short script and shoot it on your iPhone, find a way to take your creativity back and collaborate with like-minded people because that will always be a source of joy.”
One source of joy this holiday season is watching Johannah in A Cinderella Story: Christmas Wish on Netflix. It’s a wonderful, feel-good holiday movie that sparkles with magic. You won’t necessarily be rooting for Deirdra, but Johannah brings her to life so vibrantly that she might just become your favorite holiday villainess.