Austyn Johnson is a kid with a million dreams, but not just the ones she sings about alongside Tony winner Hugh Jackman in the original movie musical The Greatest Showman. Johnson is a young actor who made her Broadway debut as a replacement for Amanda Thripp (the high-flying victim of the Trunchbull’s human shotput) in Matilda The Musical—after playing the role on the national tour—and whose star only continues to rise.
In this past year alone, she’s played the on screen daughter of some of entertainment’s most beloved actors: Michelle Williams and Jackman in The Greatest Showman (nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song) and Sarah Paulson and Tom Hanks in The Post (nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture and Best Actress Meryl Streep). She had the chance to work with legendary director Steven Spielberg on the latter and daring newcomer Michael Gracey on the former. For a young actor who wants to create her own YouTube channel and continue acting, she feels fortunate to have had such experienced teachers so early on in her career. Here, as we head into Oscar weekend, she shares three lessons she learned from some of the greatest actors and directors of our time:
1. Never lose your acting coach.
As P.T. Barnum, Jackman played the man who revolutionized American entertainment, but he also embodied a father who wanted to protect his daughter (played by Johnson) from the judgments of society. “He gave us little tip here and there,” says Johnson. “He introduced us to his acting coach and said, ‘Never lose an acting coach. Always use one of those and always keep one in your back pocket.’”
2. Don’t be afraid to improvise.
Johnson had been told that Spielberg likes to improvise, and on the set of The Post she learned firsthand how to go with the flow. “I went in there with one line, two maybe, and I ended up with eight to ten lines,” she says of her role as Ben Bradlee’s entrepreneurial daughter. “I like how he trusted everyone in the room and it was all so natural because we weren’t sticking to a script—so he trusted me even though I was a new actor just coming into his set.”
3. Take time to be a kid.
Matilda leading lady Lesli Margherita always encouraged the kids to have fun. “People think I’m on set 24/7 doing all this,” says Johnson. But that’s not the case. During her time on Broadway, Johnson’s mother homeschooled her in the morning and she performed at the Shubert Theatre by night. But currently, Johnson attends public school; her teachers give her assignments to take on the road and tutors are often available on set when she needs to film for a day or two. “People think we’re so busy and we don’t have time to do anything fun. Why are we going to public school? But we do have time and we’re not better than anyone else at our school. We can still play basketball or play with Legos and have sleepovers, because we’re still kids.”
Ruthie Fierberg is the Senior Features Editor of Playbill covering all things theatre and co-hosting the Opening Night Red Carpet livestreams on Playbill's Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @RuthiesATrain, on Instagram @ruthiefierceberg, or via her website.