Josef Brown... the passionate vegetarian
Michelle Preston goes to London for some Dirty Dancing and meets a tanned, tall passionate man From the opening chords to the final curtain, the audience – a mostly female one – hollers with excitement.
When leading man Josef Brown steps on stage the place erupts in a cacophony of whooping, dreamy signs and exploding oestrogen.
“That was actually a quiet night,” says Josef the next day over lunch, surprised at my surprise.
Well, he has been playing the main character, Johnny Castle, since 2004. Set in the 1960s, Johnny is part of the entertainment staff at Kellerman’s holiday resort only he’s no Ted Bovis. Happy camper Frances (Baby) becomes infatuated with Johnny, helps pay for an illegal abortion for Johnny’s dance partner while filling in for her rigorous dance training they fall in love.
Josef, 38, has been a “passionate vegetarian” for 15 years after coming across an animal liberation stall outside a supermarket in Melbourne:
“I went out the store with my chops and my chicken and I started reading all the stuff they had there. Maybe I’d already been leaning that way but from that day on, that was it, boom! I went home and threw out all the animal stuff I had.” Viva!’s campaign claiming that being a man isn’t just about having meat and two veg couldn’t have hoped for a better advert – a tanned, tall, lean, muscley, compassionate, writer, husband, father. He’s also an amazing performer.
Like the character Johnny, Josef found his direction through dance. For the last two years of his schooling he attended the McDonald College of the Arts in Australia where classical ballet was compulsory:
“I just fell in love with classical ballet. I’d never even seen ballet – the first was on television when I got there and that was Giselle.
“I fell in love with the people who were doing it – young people like myself. I vaguely wanted to be an actor but wasn’t really committed to that. But then I met these kids and they had such a clear vision of their lives and what they wanted to do whereas I used to spend my days knocking off from school and running around the bush.
I think I got infected with their vision.” It just so happened he was quite good at it, too! “It gave me some discipline, a dedication, a passion. It ignited an obsession for me and it’s the same for Johnny. But I’ve never been a gigolo and I’ve never had to teach dance to elderly women who pay you for sex!” Reviewers have said that Josef ‘outdances Patrick Swayze’, who played Johnny in the iconic 1987 film.
Josef certainly has the physical credentials, as proved by the audience’s almighty groan in one scene when Josef, wearing only his boxers, puts his trousers back on.
It occurred to me that maybe I could auction off our lunch at the interval for the cause!
“Something happens when you’re in front of an audience…. It’s some sort of transformation that I find really interesting but don’t necessarily enjoy. I usually feel quite anxious. I never get excited performing but what I do love is the experience. I love being part of that community where you’re allowed to be a little bit different and quirky.” Josef started playing Johnny in Australia, moving to London last year when the show came to the West End.
To date he’s done over 800 performances. “I throw myself to the ground during fight scenes, I lift people above my head – you’re dancing, jumping off things and you do that every night. It does wear your body, your joints and your muscles.” Lucky he’s a healthy veggie then!
Sustaining him is a medley of porridge, carbs, wholegrains, fruit, veg, tofu, rice milk, Indian and Thai foods…and a few mineral and vitamin supplements on top.
“And I take an antioxidant so that I can stay young and beautiful,” he grins. As he’s the best in his field of contemporary dance and classical ballet, who’s going to argue with that? Get him on to the subject of meat and he’s clearly thought it all through – he’s no accidental vegetarian is Josef Brown.
“Why is meat so cheap? Why is flesh so cheap? You’re taking a life so it should be really expensive… “The industrialisation of animals means they have become a product – life has become a product. Society’s out of whack…
If you were to ask people, ‘If you could ease unnecessary suffering, would you?’ I bet 99 out of 100 would say yes. But tell them about vegetarianism and saving animals and they won’t make the shift. They’d rather live with this cognitive distance in their life, where things aren’t matched up. They’re not logical… It doesn’t make any sense.” It’s clear that by being animal-free Josef doesn’t feel any less-a-man:
“There’s this old saying, ‘real men don’t eat quiche’. I say, ‘real men don’t get told what to do to be real men’. For me, being vegetarian is core to being a real man because it’s me questioning the clichés and stereotypes that surround us. It’s me questioning and rebelling against the conditioning that I’ve been brought up with…
For me being a real man is having an original idea and having the guts and the commitment to stick by it. That’s what being a real person should be – woman or man.” I’ll drink to that – and did! Josef’s advice to men who are on the verge of going vegetarian? “Just do it! Women and slaves have been emancipated and men should be emancipated from their clichés and stereotypes.”
So does that mean we can add supreme chef to the list of his credentials? “Me? Are you kidding?! No I almost never cook. But my wife cooks – she’s really good!” Oh damn! But 99 out of 100 isn’t bad, is it? Josef Brown as Johnny in Dirty Dancing is at the Aldwych Theatre, London.