When you’ve made a career out of being one of “those guys” in show business — the ones only the biggest IMDB nerds can sniff out during a cameo or a voiceover — you know you’ll never be well-acquainted with the red carpet. For longtime Falls Church resident Wes Johnson, however, being one of “those guys” allowed him to provide for his family, fulfill his soul’s yearnings and even ride shotgun to the Washington Capitals’ storybook Stanley Cup run. It’s all thanks to a combination of improvisational wit and indomitable will that continues to guide him through the helter skelter nature of showbiz.
“Improv is great because it allows you to not say ‘no’ when someone tells you something. I’ve used it in everything I’ve done in my life,” Johnson said while referencing his dreams as the rehearsal room where he refines his fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach to the business. “Even through failure and rejected auditions, I was either too stubborn or too stupid to give up, and pretty soon you’re too high up the ladder to let go, so you keep going.”
The performing bug bit Johnson as a kid when he helped out a magician during an act and found himself infatuated with how he could interact with the crowd. He would become enamored with entertaining when he took the stage in his first show, “A Deputy for Broken Bow,” at Marshall High School in his teens. He switched over to Falls Church High School as a junior where he met his mentor and beloved theatre teacher, the late George Robert Allen. Allen repeatedly told his students that he “would never wish a career in showbiz on his worst enemy,” but he privately gave Johnson his support to pursue an acting career.
From there, undeterred by the urging of his parents and others to take a safer professional route, Johnson began improvising his way into jobs.
He dabbled in community theater as well as stand-up comedy, learning how to engage with the audience, instead of just thwacking jokes at them as if he’s at the driving range. Stand-up comedy was his avenue into sketch comedy, starting with the group Gross National Product where he donned a spot-on (might I say) Ronald Reagan impersonation. Sketch comedy helped him get into radio. Whether it was doing improv comedy routines with Wolfman Jack live on the air or hosting a morning show on WXTR 104.1, Johnson was able to showcase his range as both a narrative voice and a voice actor.
It’s the latter that landed him gigs in the video game industry, notably at Maryland-based developer Bethesda Softworks, working as everything from miscellaneous characters to leading roles in the Elder Scrolls and Fallout franchises. He even found his way on camera in bit parts for shows such as HBO hits “Veep” and “The Wire” to an off-beat, NC-17 John Waters film “A Dirty Shame,” where he played the lovingly titled, Fat [Blank] Frank.
The portfolio may seem too eclectic to be intentional, but Johnson’s improv chops made his methodically mad progression in show business the most intuitive way for him to go about it.
“Every little bit of work informs other work. It doesn’t have to be the same thing,” Johnson added. “I used to be a cartoonist, so I’d do some cartooning and it’d lead to acting work. Acting work leads to voice work and voice work leads to film work — and sometimes, it’d lead to a reception desk if you had to do a temp job, so every little thing leads to another.”
Though Johnson’s gotten to work with some his favorite people in the industry, it’s been his now 19-year role as the Capitals’ public address announcer that holds a special place on his career mantle. That tenure was in doubt early on when his agents were trying to lure him out to Los Angeles over a decade ago since he could get more consistent work there. But the allure of a top draft pick by the name of Alexander Ovechkin — and of course, the comfort he and his family had with Falls Church — kept him intrigued enough to stick around.
It took 14 years, but Johnson was finally able to voice the karmic tour of a lifetime that was the Capitals’ Cup run in 2018. Beating a string of old demons — former New York Rangers coach John Tortorella in the first round, the dreaded Pittsburgh Penguins in the second, staving off elimination against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the third and defeating longtime Washington heel Marc-Andre Fleury in the Cup final — was a sight to behold for a man who’d been so wedded to the franchise.
In a way, to Johnson, the Capitals’ victory was a changing of the guard. The Washington Redskins had long been sports kings of Washington, D.C, but the franchise has squandered a surplus of goodwill. Meanwhile the Capitals’ championship was happily shared with the entire community by owner Ted Leonsis. Johnson witnessed the love for the team starting in the Eastern Conference Finals against Tampa Bay, when Capital One Arena was packed to rafters for free viewing parties during road games. While Johnson would normally serve as a dog futon at home or tweet out his trademark stadium calls whenever a player scored during the Capitals’ road trips, he was giddy to “Unleash the Fury” with thousands of fans during the Cup run and feel the affection the region had for the Capitals and the sport of hockey — despite the delicate balance that can come with working for the team he roots for.
“It’s a double-edged sword being a fan and a public figure discussing the team because sometimes you want to curse the hockey gods. As in go full Tourettes stream,” Johnson said cheekily, referencing the Capitals’ December home game against the Penguins where a blunder by an official negated a Capitals goal.
All this talk of how Johnson’s transformed his career from aspiring actor to respectable industry journeyman with a whim-like groove and the Capitals evolution from talent-rich underachievers to Stanley Cup champions, it’d be remiss not to mention his greatest act: the physical transformation he’s undergone in the past 18 months.
After years of multi-pill regimens, unhealthy attempts at dieting and being in such poor health he couldn’t qualify for life insurance, Johnson was mentally and emotionally ready to change his lifestyle. Following a gastric bypass surgery in August 2017, Johnson dropped from 360 pounds down to 170. It’s come with a wardrobe overhaul and some adjustments in eating habits as well as an ecstatic family (if only because their home is no longer the same temperature as a meat locker). Now the sinewy Johnson goes easy on the hearty “Wes Johnson” sandwich at Falls Church’s Celebrity Delly, much to the chagrin of the cheese-loving Sheogorath — one of his Elder Scrolls characters — whose portrait lines the deli’s high wall.
But in all seriousness, Johnson knows he has a role to play as the family’s primary breadwinner, whether at his day job as the chief creative officer for Rosenberg Media or in one of his many gigs in show business. And he wasn’t going to let the challenge of a transformation stop him from that or the spiritual-like calling he has to perform.
“You have two jobs in this world — one that feeds the body and one that feeds the soul. If you’re not feeding one or the other, you’re going to wither and die in some way” Johnson stated. “We all have our frustrations, but at the end of the day, I’m going to continue doing and pursuing what I love because that’s why we’re alive — we only have one life, so what am I putting it off for?”