“I have a little Greek in the bloodstream … and the Johns family is Greek...
the strong-minded, passionate personalities seem right at home for me.”
Ralph Macchio is an Italian-American (slightly Greek) actor, best known for his roles as Daniel LaRusso in the “Karate Kid” series, Billy Gambini in “My Cousin Vinny” and Johnny Cade in “The Outsiders.” Recently, he competed on the 12th season of “Dancing With the Stars” and was named one of People Magazine’s sexiest men alive in 2011. But he also works behind the camera, and is an executive producer of National Geographic Channel’s upcoming 9-part series “American Gypsies.”
Q: How did you get involved in “American Gypsies”? Explain your role and the journey so far.
A few years ago the son of a friend of mine was working on a project for film school — he showed me some of the rough footage and I immediately found the concept and characters fascinating. It was something that I had never seen before or ever thought still existed. I got very excited with its potential and wanted to get this story out there.
I had worked with Stick Figure Productions on another project and thought they would be the perfect partners to help shape and sell this as a TV series. American Gypsies has gone through more than a few incarnations over a long development road, but like many of the best projects, it feels all the richer for taking that journey. At its core, this is still the show we envisioned it to be.
Q: How would you describe “American Gypsies”?
American Gypsies is a docu-series that focuses on one of the most prominent Gypsy families in NYC — the Johns family. They have their own traditions and laws unlike anything we have been exposed to. This untapped subculture that exists right under our feet will be exposed to cameras for the first time as they struggle to uphold their Gypsy traditions while reaching for the American dream of today’s generation. It has character elements of “The Godfather” and “The Sopranos” in its passionate family dynamic.
Q: What are people going to be surprised to learn about “American Gypsies”?
People are going to be surprised at just how relatable the individuals are. How even though the lifestyle and customs may differ from “the norm,” — this family is dealing with much of the same conflicts and dilemmas that we all do. They are passionate in their beliefs yet caring for one another overall. There is a respect for their family that goes against many of the Gypsy stereotypes.
Q: What do you think the reaction to the series is going to be?
The reaction to the series is going to be one of fascination and excitement. These characters are compelling and colourful. Even when we are struck by their unorthodox choices, we cannot help but be drawn into their stories.
Q: You just did “Dancing With the Stars” and have worked on a wide range of projects over the years. Is “Gypsies” different than anything you have worked on before?
It is different for me in that we are shooting real people. I come from the scripted world, so the documentary element is new. However, it is all storytelling, and that is very familiar and comfortable. It always needs to be rooted in character for me, and from the actor’s perspective — we are still focusing on that. If you don’t care for the characters and personalities, you have no show.
Q: Do you prefer in front of the camera or behind, and why?
I get inspiration and joy from both. As I mentioned, the storytelling element is what connects the two. Whether I am playing a character or helping guide a character, the process of building the story is similar. I am certainly “at home” in front of the camera, whether it is acting a scene or dancing the dance ... but throwing on the baseball cap and not having to sit in makeup is so awesome!
Q: You are an Italian American. Do you see any similarities with the Romani, or Gypsy, culture?
Actually, I have a little Greek in the bloodstream as well (my Dad is half Greek), and the Johns family is Greek So I would say the strong-minded, passionate personalities seem right at home for me. Family comes first, and the importance of traditions being carried on is a similarity as well.
Q: Your most beloved American Gypsy personality?
It is tough to say for sure at this early stage. Bobby certainly is our window into the world — and a sympathetic parental individual. Nicky and the other brothers create excitement in their diverse opinions. Tina is colourful and eccentric. Val, Chris and Sable provide the energy of the younger generation. Okay — I don’t have one yet.
Q: Favourite scene you’ve seen so far?
I recently looked at a scene in a hospital waiting room after Bob Sr. (Father) had a stroke and the family comes together — it demonstrated the conflict, passion and love this family has for each other. It exposes their concern for non-Gypsy medicine and the fighting between the brothers on how to address a dire situation as the clock ticks. Yet it shows the undying care for the well-being of their father and Tina (Mother) and how they come together. It was dynamic and relatable on a human level.
Q: Most interesting thing you’ve learned from or about the Johns family.
How much they care about how they are represented. They truly want their heritage to be portrayed accurately. As well as the arranged marriages, their Gypsy court system, the psychic shops, the home-schooling (or lack thereof) AND that they know of my movies and thought I didn’t suck on DWTS (who knew I had a thriving Gypsy fan base?)!
AMERICAN GYPSIES Q&A WITH BOBBY JOHNS
It is important for me to be progressive, but at the same time
it is important to uphold the Johns name,
and every day is a struggle to do so.”
Bobby Johns is a member of one of Manhattan’s most prominent Romani, or Gypsy, families. He is the second-oldest son of Bob Sr. and Tina. He has four brothers: Eric (the oldest and next in line to lead the family), Nicky (who has a short fuse and is always fighting), Joey and Jack. Of the brothers, Bobby is considered the most business wise. His five children include Sable, Chris, Sean and two youngest daughters, Amanda and Vivian, who both wish to be actors.
Q: What made you decide to tell your story for the first time and allow cameras into your lives?
I wanted people to know what Romani were really like, and break the stereotypes.
Q: How difficult was the decision? Describe the complexities to get everyone on board.
The decision was very difficult because I knew I would have a hard time with my family and other Rom due to the secretive ways of my culture. I wasn’t even sure if I could get it done but I knew this would be a great opportunity for all Romani, especially my daughters Amanda and Vivian.
It was difficult to get people to open up on camera because the Roma have been taken advantage of and discriminated against by the gaje (non-Gypsies) for centuries. Roma don’t trust anyone, and all my peers said it could never be done.
But I knew that now was the time to go against the grain and convince my people to open up, because I saw the younger generation was more open to change than the previous generations.
Q: What does being a Gypsy, or Rom, mean to you?
It means everything to me, it is who I am. We have existed for thousands of years without a country, a place to call home, and were still one of the closest-knit communities in the world. To uphold these traditions, community and family ties, means everything to me, it is in my blood. I do feel our thousand-year culture can be preserved while we move forward into the modern world.
Q: What does being a Johns mean to you?
My family is a very well respected family in the Romani community. My father, Bob, has helped Gypsies all over the United States and has kept the clans together through his negotiating skills. All Gypsies in the United States know who my father is and what he has done for the community. He is respected and feared.
It is important to me as a Johns to uphold the standards my father has created; he set the path for my family to follow and I wish to follow in his footsteps. It is important for me to be progressive, but at the same time it is important to uphold the Johns name, and every day is a struggle to do so.
Q: What do you hope people will take away after watching the series?
I hope people will realize that Gypsies are much more than the stereotype makes us out to be. I want people to learn something about our tightly knit community and how we operate so that maybe people will realize that Gypsies are just like everyone else and we just have a certain way of doing things.
While our ways may seem foreign due to our highly secretive nature, we ultimately follow the same values as any other culture: We are all about family. Over the years, especially recently, Gypsies fear assimilating due to the negative stereotypes and discrimination they face from the outside world. I hope the series will break those stereotypes.
Q: What are you excited about and what do you fear when it premieres?
I am excited to see my father’s dream come true. My father, Bob Sr., really wanted this series for his children and grandchildren. He wanted opportunities to open up for my family. I hope this series does open up opportunities for my family and other Gypsies in our community.
I fear that the American people may misunderstand our ways and not completely accept it at first, but at the same time I hope the public will eventually realize that we are a culture and a race of people that have existed for thousands of years and our ways are the only way we know — we are proud of who we are.
I also fear that many Romani will not understand that my family is doing the series to help my community progress and become more accepted. People fear what they do not know.
Q: How would you describe yourself in relation to your brothers?
I am the second-oldest brother and considered the most business wise out of all my brothers. They normally ask me for my final approval on most business deals even though my brother Eric is the eldest and next in line to be head of the family after our dad.
I get along with my brothers but at the same time we fight all the time. Even though I am not next in line to take over the family, I receive the respect as if I was next in line.
Q: You seem willing to slightly push or bend Gypsy rules — why is that?
I am willing to bend the rules, mostly with assimilating into American culture, usually whatever will give my family the most opportunities. Romani are very secretive and tend to avoid any contact with outsiders; this is where I feel Rom are not being progressive. In order to move forward, the Rom have to realize they have to learn and grow with the people surrounding them.
Q: Do you have any regrets in the way your children have been raised?
I have no regrets in how my children have been raised; they go to school and I give them a choice on how to lead their lives. While we are a very closed-off community and our ways tend to be the way, I try my best to educate my children. I also feel that the way I have been raised is good for my children; there is nothing wrong with being Rom and staying Rom. I love my community and want my children to love what I love about my community as well.
Q: What are your goals and dreams for your children?
I want my children to follow their dreams and not feel tied down by any of the negative connotations that come along with being Rom. I want them to aim for the stars and get all they can out of life. Amanda and Vivian wish to become actresses and I support it 100 percent. I will do anything to have my children’s dreams come true.