The curious climb of neurodivergent actor JJ Humphrey as he prepares for the biggest role of his career
BY ROGER MOONEY
TAMPA – Christopher Boone knows every prime number up to 7,057. He hates the color yellow. He loves trains. He does not like to be touched. He loves animals. He has a pet rat named Toby.
Christopher is the main character in Mark Haddon’s novel, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” Though it is never stated, it is implied that the 15-year-old is on the autism spectrum. Christopher lives a complicated life, and that life becomes even more complicated with a gruesome discovery that leads to several life-altering revelations and one epic journey on a train.
JJ Humphrey, 17, is on the spectrum. He is an actor who lives in central Florida and receives the Family Empowerment Scholarship for students with Unique Abilities. The scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students, covers his homeschooling as well as his drama and music classes.
For some time, JJ has wanted to play Christopher Boone in the stage adaptation of Haddon’s book, going so far as to say it’s on his “bucket list.”
“I really like the character and I can relate to him,” JJ said. “I want to see the world through his eyes for a little while.”
JJ’s wish comes true this holiday season when he stars in the Tampa Repertory Theater’s production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” (Click here for schedule and tickets.)
This is the biggest role of his young acting career. It is a significant role, as well, given that JJ is a neurodivergent actor playing a neurodivergent character.
“I feel like it’s important because not a lot of characters are neurodiverse,” JJ said. “There are more neurotypical characters in general. I feel a neurodiverse person playing a neurodiverse character is important, and I feel like that’s how it should be a majority of the time, if not all of the time.”
Emilia Sargent, the play’s director and the producing artistic director of the Tampa Repertory Theater, said there was a concerted effort to cast a neurodivergent actor for Christopher’s role. She asked Mickey Rowe for recommendations. Rowe was the first neurodivergent actor to play Christopher when he starred in the Broadway production. Rowe recommended JJ, whom he had met previously.
JJ nailed the audition.
“He was Christopher when he walked in the door,” Sargent said.
JJ has been acting in community theaters around Central Florida for nine years. He’s had small roles in two movies, “At the End of the Day” and “Wish.”
“It’s what he eats, sleeps, breathes,” said JJ’s mom, Michelle Humphrey.
He has played Young Shrek in “Shrek the Musical,” Max in “The Grinch who Stole Christmas,” Scut Farkus in “A Christmas Story,” and Olaf in “Frozen.”
How JJ became involved in acting is, as he said, “an interesting story.”
JJ loves all things Star Wars, and the family was at Star Wars weekend at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Ashley Eckstein, who voiced Ahsoka Tano in the Star Wars franchise, was the host of one of the shows. She asked for a volunteer to do a Chewbacca imitation. JJ raised his hand. His imitation and the confidence and energy he showed while performing it in front of a packed room so impressed Eckstein, she told the Humphreys she felt he should try theater.
JJ joined the Out of the Box troupe for actors with unique abilities at the Lakeland Community Theater and instantly found himself at home on the stage.
“I love to make people laugh and smile,” he said. “When you work hard on a scene and it’s a funny scene and the whole audience starts laughing, it is the best feeling to make people smile and know that you’re making them happy and that you’re entertaining him.”
Initially, JJ faced obstacles.
The physical part of acting could present a challenge. In one play, JJ was required to go from sitting on a stool to standing in one smooth move. He couldn’t do it without knocking over the stool. JJ was receiving occupational therapy at the time. He worked on it with his therapist. When the production opened, JJ could accomplish the move without knocking the stool into the orchestra pit.
McGowan said JJ comes without an ego. And, while some, if not most teenagers are not willing to make a fool of themselves in public, JJ is willing to if that’s what the script calls for.
“I think that’s really worked to his advantage,” she said. “He can see it for what it is. If it has to be funny, he’ll make it funny. It’s not intimidating to him.”
Dan Chesnika, executive director of Theatre Winter Haven, has worked with JJ for seven years and has shared the stage with him in several productions. He said it’s impossible to see JJ on stage and not fall in love with him. He said JJ is a “courageous” actor who can make a part uniquely his.
“He confirms what I think about theater, that it’s a home for people who march to their own drummer,” Chesnika said. “JJ’s on the spectrum, and he sees the world just a little differently than a lot of other kids, but that makes him better in a theater. I’m really proud that JJ thrives in this environment. I admire the kid a lot.”
Jordan Woods-Robinson is an actor who played Eric Raleigh in “The Walking Dead” TV series. Like McGowan and Chesnika, Woods-Robinson is one of JJ’s many acting coaches. He called JJ’s role in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” an “amazing opportunity.”
“I hope it opens doors,” he said. “I know he’s going to tackle it with great aplomb. I hope many people see this and want to continue working with him.”
JJ is a member of the Florida Youth Council and the Epilepsy Florida Youth Advocacy Council. He has worked with elementary school children as part of Chesnika’s group, Drama Time Live. He serves as an acting teacher and mentor with the Out of the Box troupe.
JJ said he would like to someday teach acting. Right now, though, he’s busy trying to forge a career in the medium he loves. Landing the lead role in a series on TV or for a streaming service is his goal.
At the same time, he knows he is an advocate for neurodiverse actors.
“I feel like me doing this is showing that any neurodiverse actor can do what I’m doing with training and putting enough work into it,” he said.
Christopher Boone wants to be an astronaut and soar among the stars, though he knows his fear of traveling will crush that dream. JJ Humphrey wants to soar among the stars, too. On Broadway. On TV. In the movies.
“Acting started out just for fun and it became a career choice,” he said.
Those who work with him say he is talented enough to have those dreams.
“If all the stars align,” Chesnika said, “why not?”
Roger Mooney, communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.