The JOHNSON FAMILY VACATION is destined for mayhem from the very start – if only because it involves the Johnsons, a high-spirited modern American family of opinionated individualists who know what they want and are always ready and willing to battle one another to get it. “The Johnsons are living out the American Dream,” says Eric C. Rhone. “They’re successful, loving and they mean well. And yet they still have to go through the struggles we all go through, they still have to juggle their values and their hopes for the future and their need to get along with one another. Only they do it in some pretty hysterical ways.”
At the head of the Johnson family – at least in his own mind – is Nate, whom Cedric The Entertainer describes as “a pretty conservative guy who thinks that success alone has made him a good father and a good husband – only he’s about to learn there’s a lot more to it.” When Nate commandeers a car trip to Missouri, it looks like it might just implode the family once and for all, but instead, at the end of the day, Nate grows closer to his son, gains new respect for his daughters and even rekindles the flames of romance with his wife. “I think a lot of the fun of this movie is watching Nate try to win his wife over and get his family back together. He goes on a real journey,” says Cedric.
For the cast and crew, working with Cedric was a lesson in the spontaneity of comedy. “With Cedric, every word that comes out of his mouth is funny,” says producer Wendy Park. “But he never gives the feeling that he’s putting on a show. He’s so real. And he wasn’t just the Dad in our movie – he was also the Dad figure on the set. He was always supportive, kind and an overall great guy.”
Adds Christopher Erskin: “Cedric is a guy who appeals to everyone. Whether you’re a truck driver or an executive, if you’re rich, poor, white or black, it doesn’t matter. You identify with Cedric because the way he approaches his struggles is just so incredibly Every Man. He’s a wonderful comic hero.”
Playing opposite Cedric’s quintessential Dad is Vanessa Williams as an all-American Mom, Dorothy Johnson, a loving but feisty wife and mother who has moved out of the family house in order to have the freedom to go after her own dream of returning to college. As Vanessa puts it: “Nate and Dorothy aren’t quite estranged but they are having a little ‘moment’ in their marriage. You could say that deep down, Dorothy knows Nate has a good heart, but she also sees that he’s just not paying attention to her or the kids, and that’s not good enough.”
Although she was excited by the film’s family-oriented spirit (she is the mother of five children herself with Los Angeles Laker Rick Fox), Vanessa was mostly drawn to JOHNSON FAMILY VACATION because the script had her on the floor with laughter. “I really thought it couldn’t get much funnier and when you add in working with Cedric, it seemed like a no-brainer to take the role,” she explains. “If you’ve ever been stuck with a family in a car anytime in your life, you know there’s going to be tension, adventures and drama along the way and this film has it all.”
Indeed, the film brought back powerful memories of Vanessa’s own family escapades. “I remember going to visit my grandmother, riding in our Econoline Ford van on an 8-hour trip, and the whole way I was in the bench in the back with my brother. I remember eating cold chicken in a brown paper bag, playing animal bingo and stopping at roadside shops for rock candy. We had our rough moments, but overall, it was a real bonding experience,” she recalls.
Says Eric C. Rhone of Vanessa: “She brings integrity to the role of Dorothy. Because she’s a mother of children about the same age as the Johnson kids, she had a very organic approach and a real instinctual understanding of motherhood and both the challenges and joys that go along with it. There’s also a tremendous strength in her. We see her fighting Nate for her independence, but never neglecting what’s most important to her, which is her love for the family.”
Nate and Dorothy’s kids are a lively crew who love their parents but are frustrated by the constant family in-fighting. Nate’s biggest rival in the family, apart from his wife, is D.J., his only son, who dreams of being a hip-hop artist despite being warned by his father that hip-hop doesn’t come with medical and dental benefits. To play D.J., the filmmakers cast real-life teen rap star Bow Wow, who first came to fore as a movie star in the hit family film “Like Mike.”
“It was a real coup for us to get Bow Wow,” says producer Rhone. “He’s become such a huge star with millions of fans around the world. But I think he’s also very much like this character – a kid coming of age before our very eyes.”
From the minute he came on board, Bow Wow seemed to have an electric connection with Cedric The Entertainer that made them perfect comic foils. “The chemistry between the two surprised everyone,” says Christopher Erskin. “With Cedric playing the funny man and Bow Wow playing the straight man it was like an old comedy duo, like a Martin and Lewis type thing. Their timing was dead on and it was magic every time they were together. I really believe this kid is going to be huge.”
For Cedric, playing father to Bow Wow came easy. “D.J. is supposed to be this kid who’s having a good time, who’s into the whole hip-hop vibe, who’s got his own ideas on how the world works and who you can’t tell anything to cause he’s going to do his own thing, anyway – and that’s really Bow Wow, so he was great,” he says.
Bow Wow sees his character as a “kid who just wants to get his parents back together, who just wants to be a family again.” But he’s also a kid on a mission. “D.J.’s trying to transform his dad by getting him to come over to the hip side,” he explains. “He wants to introduce him to hip-hop culture but his Dad just isn’t feeling it. D.J. really loves his father to death, but it bugs him that we’re in the year 2003 and his Dad is still listening to Eight Tracks.”
In the film’s finale, Bow Wow and D.J. finally get to do their thing when D.J. raps as part of the Family Talent Show – and shines like a true rising star. “That part was the easiest in the film,” says Bow Wow. “I just went out there and laid down my rap.”
Another high point for Bow Wow was getting to hang out with off-screen friend Solange Knowles, who plays his older sister Nikki in the film. Solange herself is the younger sister of superstar singer-actress Beyoncé Knowles. A rising multi-talent in her own right, Solange makes her motion picture debut with JOHNSON FAMILY VACATION.
“Until this script came along, I hadn’t seen any movie roles I really loved or wanted to do,” says Solange. “But this one was perfect, an opportunity to be involved with a great story and a fantastic cast. I mean what could be better than to make my first movie with Cedric and Vanessa and Bow Wow? And the fact that it’s a family movie makes it even more exciting for me, so I had to jump right on it.”
Solange could easily relate to her strong, savvy yet somewhat rebellious sixteen year-old character. “I see Nikki as going through that ‘mad at the world’ stage -- so you don’t want to mess with her!” Solange sums up. “But she’s a cool girl. She’s creative and artsy and I could really identify with that part of her. Plus I like that Nikki and the whole family discover that they can work together to solve their problems. I believe in that kind of message.”
In fact for Solange, there was only one seriously tough aspect to the role: keeping a straight face. “The hardest part of the whole movie was not laughing when there were so many funny people in every scene,” she admits. “I was always getting in trouble for cracking up!”
On the contrary, director Christopher Erskin says Solange was a delight to work with throughout the production. “Solange came into this, her very first movie, and turned in a marvelous performance,” comments Erskin. “She brought nuances that tap into things only 16 year-olds know about, and she brought a great sense of energy and realism to the role.”
Adds producer Eric C. Rhone: “Solange has a freeness and independence to her personality that fits with Nikki. I think she does a lot in the role to push Nate into respecting his daughter. Through her, he begins to see that it’s OK that his little girl is now a beautiful young woman.”
Finally rounding out the family is 7-year-old Gabby Soleil as the littlest Johnson, fittingly named Destiny. Says Eric C. Rhone: “We loved Gabby because she’s basically a 21-year-old in a tiny little girl’s body. That little girl practically ran the set. She’s a bundle of joy, but she’s also very smart and very talented, and she kept the entire cast and crew on our toes.”