There’s some serious talent coming out of Scarborough right now. You’ve got brothers Stephan James and Shamier Anderson taking Hollywood by storm, and now Lamar Johnson is getting his moment.
The Scarborough native, who grew up alongside James and Anderson, stars in Brother, directed by acclaimed Canadian filmmaker Clement Virgo and based on David Chariandy’s 2017 novel. It’s a gorgeously-shot and superbly-acted coming-of-age drama that follows brothers Michael (Johnson) and Francis (Aaron Pierre) as they navigate growing up in a Scarborough housing complex in the early 90s.
The movie, and Johnson’s performance in particular, have people taking notice: Brother racked up 14 Canadian Screen Award nominations last month, including a Best Lead Performance nod for Johnson. TIFF named the movie to their Top Ten for 2022, while Sarah Polley used her newly-minted Oscar-winner status to give Brother a shoutout on Twitter. It’s the second breakout role for Johnson in the span of a few weeks, after he recently wowed as Henry on The Last of Us, officially minting the actor as a rising star to watch.
Complex Canada spoke to Lamar Johnson about why starring in Brother was such a “no-brainer” for him, the parallels between his own upbringing and his character’s, and the added pressure that came with trying to do his hometown justice on screen.
I feel like we’ve been seeing a lot of you lately! You got so much love for The Last of Us last month, now you’ve got Brother coming out. How are you feeling right now?
Yeah, it’s definitely been an exciting time. I’m feeling really good. Just really happy about the reception of The Last of Us. And I’m really happy that people now are able to experience Brother and see how beautiful this film is. It was such an amazing experience shooting it. Just to be able to tell the Scarborough story is really important to me.
This is the second year in a row we’ve got a buzzy Canadian movie set in Scarborough. You’ve got people like Stephan James and Shamier Anderson repping Scarborough down South. It feels like we’re starting to see it get more attention on a larger stage. Not just in the arts either. The New York Times just ran a story about all the great food coming out of Scarborough strip malls. What do you think seeing all that Scarborough love, and why was it important for you to be a part of that by making this film?
Scarborough is just such a special place. It’s just very diverse, very multicultural. Especially growing up in Scarborough and going to school, there’s a lot of first-generation kids that are in Scarborough. I know for myself, [being] a first-generation Canadian. My parents are from Jamaica. Same with Shamier, same with Stephan. We all sort of have that same exact experience. We actually grew up together, in Scarborough, which is why it’s so beautiful that now we’re all having this opportunity to not only get outside and be recognized on a larger scale, but to then also bring back the attention to Scarborough, which then segues into the importance of being a part of this movie… Because Scarborough is so near and dear to our hearts.
Even my grandmother, my mother, I went to the TIFF premiere with them and they were crying because of how much they saw themselves and how much it brought them back to growing up in Scarborough in the 90s.
For me to have the opportunity to lead a movie that is set and based in Scarborough—which is where I was born and raised—and to also share a similar experience of being first-generation, with Ruth being from Jamaica, with Michael and Francis being first-generation, same as myself. Having very similar experiences, not necessarily having a father, being raised in a single mother household, same as mine. There’s just so many parallels that I saw in this character, and in the community. I’m really happy that it touched on the music. I’m really happy that it touched on the culture and the food. The community and the parties and the camaraderie that comes with all of these things, I mean, that is Scarborough. That was my experience growing up. To read a script and be able to see yourself in that script is a really unique and rare experience. Reading the script, it was a no-brainer for me where I was like, “Okay, well, I need to be a part of this. I need to be able to tell this story.” I’m honored to be able to tell this story.
Did you feel any added pressure because of that personal connection?
Yes and no… I think the pressure, yes, of course—because I knew that people that are from Scarborough are going to watch this movie. So I really hope that we did it justice. When we were shooting it, and when it was finished, I was like, “I really hope that we depicted Scarborough in an authentic way.” And I truly believe that we did, because all of my friends, family, people that I grew up with have watched the movie, and they’re like, “Wow, I saw myself in this.” Even my grandmother, my mother, I went to the TIFF premiere with them and they were crying because of how much they saw themselves and how much it brought them back to growing up in Scarborough in the 90s. So that was really important for me. To feel and know that we did this justice, and we brought an authentic lens to Scarborough that people can be able to witness and experience and watch.
What was it like getting to go back in time for this movie? I know 1991 was before your time, but not by much.
Yeah, I was not born in 1991. [Laughs.] No, it was great to go back to the 90s. The wardrobe was really cool. The way that they dressed some of the sets, even the way that they dressed the family home, it really brought me back to being young. Obviously, I was born in 1994. So by the time that I can even recollect what I was doing in my community and what was happening around me, it was probably like, what, 1998 or something like that. So it was already kind of late 90s, but still, growing up, my mom, she would always play 90s music, like 90s R&B, 90s dancehall and hip-hop, and things like that. So I was very well-versed in the 90s culture, and to be able to step into it and bring it to life, it was really cool for me.
I did want to ask you about music, because it’s such an important part of this film, and in Michael and Francis’s life. What were you listening to when you were Michael’s age, in high school?
I was into a lot of rap. Also a lot of R&B. I’m a big R&B kid. I love me some R&B. You know, I actually started off as a dancer before acting, and Michael Jackson was such a big inspiration for me. And Chris Brown and Usher. They were big inspirations for me just because of their performance. I just truly loved performing. And to watch them on stage dancing and doing flips and all the kind of crazy stuff that they used to do, that was really inspiring for me. So yeah, I would listen to a lot of hip-hop, like alternative stuff, and R&B. I was really a big R&B kid. I still am.
We just saw this past Sunday at the Oscars more than one acceptance speech dedicated to the power of immigrant parents. This movie has a similar dedication at the end: “For our immigrant mothers.” Why do you think it’s so important to tell stories like this, and put a spotlight on characters like Ruth?
Because it’s honest and it’s real. It’s just what you said, there’s a lot of people that are in spaces of influence, and in spaces of creativity that it really came from their immigrant parents, seeing how hard they worked to create this life for their children. There are so many people who have that experience. I remember going to school with so many diverse kids. Kids that were from Sri Lanka, kids that were from the Philippines, kids that were from the Caribbean, kids that were from so many different places and so many walks of life and backgrounds.
So I think it’s just amazing that those things are now being depicted on screen. Because, again, it’s human experience. These are real things that people do truly experience, and at the end of the day, I think art should imitate life. That’s the whole point of it, to make people feel things that are very visceral and authentic. So to be able to tell this immigrant story, a lot of people are able to see themselves in this story—and not even just from Jamaica or the Caribbean—just as an immigrant in general. If you have that experience, wherever you’re from, you can connect and relate to this movie.