Even though most people would recognize Jay Armstrong Johnson as openly gay hacker Will Olsen on ABC’s Quantico, his professional career has largely been bookended by the work of Leonard Bernstein. One of his first professional gigs was a regional production of West Side Story, he made a splash as Chip in the 2014 Broadway revival of On the Town and made his opera debut earlier this year as the titular character in New York City Opera’s production of Candide. Broadway Records also released his debut album Jay Armstrong Johnson – Live at Feinstein's/54 Below in 2016. Both stage and screen keep Johnson very busy, but being gay and actually making it in show business is harder than it seems.
Early in Johnson’s career, he had a manager that advised him to keep the "gay thing" to a minimum. “I was dating someone else in the business, and I was being advised to not really show up at their stage doors and to not really be seen in public with them,” says Johnson. “I hired representation that was essentially putting me back in the closet for fear that I would be put in a box as gay, even though, at that time, all of the roles in my career had been straight roles.” The pressure to be professionally closeted took its toll on Armstrong, as he wasn’t able to authentically be himself. “The second that I started being vocal about being gay, that's when it [his career] really started taking off for me,” he adds. “That's where I am now—really embracing homosexuality, being an advocate for the LGBTQ youth—and while it's hard because there's still so much opposition, it's only made me stronger as an actor and stronger as a person.”
Armstrong was raised in Texas, and the survival skills he employed in the conservative state have helped him become the versatile actor he is today. “I had to put on this front of heterosexuality for 17 years,” he says. “I did pretty well. I dated girls all through high school, had sexual relations with girls, and it kind of prepared me for this life.” In On the Town he played the love interest of Alysha Umphress, in Candide he starred opposite Meghan Picerno, and in The Last Goodbye he was paired with Talisa Friedman. “These girls, they tell me, ‘You play straight really well,’” says Johnson. “That is a compliment, I guess, to a certain extent, but it's nice to play the gay roles too.”
First and foremost, playing openly gay Will Olsen on ABC’s Quantico allows Armstrong to be a mouthpiece for a very important message. “You can be an FBI agent. You can be gay and do that,” says Armstrong of the character’s importance on TV and in culture. Also, it is rewarding to Armstrong because the character hasn’t devolved into a gay stereotype. There was the steamy sex scene with Russell Tovey’s Harry Doyle, but the rest of Will’s storylines have continued to focus on his work as a hacker fighting terrorism. “I thought, ‘Oh for sure, they are going to have me be Russell Tovey's love interest, and it will be rainbows and lollipops from here on out,’ but it was just that one moment,” says Armstrong. “The rest of the stuff I've done has stayed very true to who Will was in the first season.”
Being on Broadway and ABC’s Quantico has also given Armstrong the opportunity to use his platform to touch the lives of other people. “I know what it's like to grow up and be hated for who I was and not even knowing I was gay. People just called me ‘fag,’ they called me ‘gay’ as early as third grade, and I had no clue,” he explains. “When you've been subjected to that kind of hatred, that kind of bullying, when you see it around you, you want to stop it as much as possible. That's just who I am. I'm fighting against it.” With this in mind, he has been politically outspoken and active. “I've been so vocal against the incoming administration for all rights, not just for gay rights, not just for black rights, not just for women's rights, for everyone,” he says. “I'm not going to tiptoe around the issues anymore, like I have been.”