For the second season of the ABC sitcom “Abbott Elementary,” William Stanford Davis, who plays the always-surprising school janitor Mr. Johnson, has been upped from a recurring role to a regular cast member.
What did he make of the character when he first auditioned? “Mr. Johnson was a little strange!” said Davis. “I was like, wow, this guy’s a little different from me, but I’ll give it a shot, I’m an actor. He’s just so outspoken and he reminded me of my paternal grandmother, who had no filter. That’s kind of the template that I used for him, to see if I could bring some of her ‘isms’ to him.”
Davis’ first screen credit dates back to 1995 on “The Bold and the Beautiful” playing — hang on, is this right: A custodian? “You’re right! It’s a full-circle moment.” His resume in the years since includes everything from “Ray Donovan” to “Snowpiercer” to an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” ”Abbott” is an obvious high point in his career. When asked about a worst moment, Davis recalled a memorably embarrassing audition for “NCIS.”
My worst moment …
“Actors, we want to get it perfect, we want to get it right. So I had really prepped for this audition. This was in 2002 maybe, and it was for a guest role. When you audition for ‘NCIS,’ it feels like there’s a thousand people in the room. It was at least 10. Even for a guest role, there’s that
many writers and producers and whoever else in there.
“Well, I forgot to turn my phone off. And it starts ringing right in the middle of the audition. You’re supposed to turn your damn phone off! So they were like, OK, let’s start over. And they gave me a smile, just to calm me down because I was upset about it.
“I had decided I was not going to wear my glasses for this audition, because this guy, this character, he didn’t wear glasses. So I left them in my shoulder bag, and I left that in the waiting room. So all I had on me was my phone, my wallet and my keys.
“But because I didn’t have my glasses on, I thought I’d hit the button to turn my phone off. But all I did was make it buzz louder, because whoever was calling me called again.
“So my phone’s rattling in my pocket and I’m flop sweating. And now I can tell they’re getting disturbed. I’m just sweating so much and my heart is beating so hard I thought that they could hear it.
“So I turn it off again — or I think I turn it off, but I don’t turn it off. And it keeps ringing and it’s a nightmare.
“Finally, I get through the audition, and then I just leave, I’m so embarrassed (laughs) . And I go out to my car and I’m banging on the steering wheel, I’m cussing myself out, I’m screaming. I’m crying, actually, because I know better and I prepped so hard for the audition and my phone kept going off.
“I drive home and only then did I realize: I left my bag at the audition.
“So I drive back, but this time the audition room was closed. And the only person that was there was the cleaning guy. I could see the waiting room and I could see my bag still on the chair, but the guy wouldn’t let me in! I kept begging with him: ‘Everything I own is in that bag,’ but he wouldn’t let me in. He was kind of like Mr. Johnson
(laughs). So I said, ‘Please, can you go and get someone?’
“He goes upstairs and he gets the executive producer of the show (laughs) and the executive producer comes down and I’m like, ‘I just want to get my bag.’ So he gets my bag and brings it back to the door and he looks at me and he says, ‘This just isn’t your day, huh?’ (Laughs) And then he just turns around and walks away. And I’m trying to fight back the tears because I felt so stupid.
“It was years before they brought me back to audition for anything else at that casting director’s office. And I think what’s happened since is that I mentally bring that story in there with me every time I go in — I think it’s like some kind of block. Because now I’m really trying to make sure I have everything right and the phone’s turned off and everything, I’m overcompensating.
“My phone went off on set yesterday and it took me right back to that moment. The only reason it didn’t bother me was because everyone was still setting up. But that’s the first time I’ve heard a phone ring on the set, period, and of course, it would be my phone!”
Who was calling Davis’ phone during the audition?
“It was my brother! And I can’t tell you how bad I cussed him out (laughs). You can’t print what I said to him, it was that bad. He kept calling and the reason why is because he wanted to borrow some money (laughs). Like, man, really? I can’t tell you what I said.
“He could have left a message, but no. And I’m like, ‘If I didn’t answer the phone the first time, how come you called me again?’ And he said, ‘I didn’t know if it was going through and sometimes you tell me you didn’t hear the ring.’ And I was like, ‘Man, look … how can I loan you money if I can’t get the job to make the money?’ ”
What was in the bag besides his glasses?
“My whole acting life was in my bag. I might carry an extra shirt in there if I had a second audition. My headshots. Markers and all other kinds of things that you use on your script, because back then it wasn’t all digital. So I kept all that stuff in there. And my glasses.
“I still can’t believe the executive producer had to come down to get my bag. I just wanted to disappear — that custodian could have brought anybody down, but the executive producer? (laughs)
And he had this look on his face that was a smile but also: You disturbed me for this? I wanted to shoot myself. It was like: Please God, just make me disappear right now!”
The takeaway …
“Always be prepared. Which I was. But anything that’s going to distract you from the audition, don’t take it in the room with you, including your phone. And if you wear glasses, wear your glasses.
The character could have worn glasses!
“And also: Own whatever is going on. I wasn’t trying to hide the phone or anything, but I was trying to make it disappear, I guess you could say. I was wishing for it to go away. But you need to address it, acknowledge it, even make a joke about it and try to lighten the room so you can keep going, regain your composure and make them forget about what just happened.
“And turn off your phone!”