By Chancellor Agard
January 19, 2021 at 12:30 PM EST
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Camrus Johnson didn't plan on sharing his animated short Grab My Hand: A Letter to my Dad with the public.

Written and narrated by the Batwoman star, who co-directed it with animator Pedro Piccinini, the poignant short chronicles his father's lifelong friendship with Johnson's uncle, who recently died. The five minute movie was supposed to help his dad grieve the loss of his best friend and really only meant for their family. However, after completing the project in 2019 and presenting it to his father, Johnson screened it for a few friends because he was proud of his and Piccinini's work and all of them cried.

"I was very surprised because none of these five best friends have met my dad," Johnson tells EW. "I didn't fully understand it because I was like, 'This story is so personal to him and my family.' And the more best friends that I showed, the more I realized this is just a story of grief and the beauty of relationships and friendships and the ups and downs of life."

That epiphany — and his dad's blessing — inspired Johnson to submit it to a few festivals and see what happened. Over a year later, Grab My Hand has won almost 20 awards, including Best Animated Short at NY International Children's Film Festival, which means it's now eligible for consideration for an Oscar nomination. In the wake of that success, Johnson is finally ready for everyone else to see it because EW is exclusively premiering Grab My Hand.

With this release, Johnson hopes Grad My Hand reminds people to cherish their loved ones and abandon outdated ideas of masculinity.

"I hope what people learn from this film is how beautiful it can be when men share their emotions," says Johnson. "Because in this society, it's sort of taught us men, especially Black men, not being there for each other and not being open and vulnerable is manly, but I don't agree. As you can see in this film, my dad and my uncle's friendship transcended all sorts of stereotypes about how men should be because it was gorgeous. They said all the things that they needed to every day of their life. So once my uncle passed, of course my dad was heartbroken, but not because he never got a chance to tell him."

Watch Grab My Hand above — and read our interview with Johnson about processing his own grief through the short, bonding over directing with Batwoman costar Javicia Leslie, another upcoming superhero project, and more below:

Credit: Jim Spellman/WireImage

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You made this short to honor your father and his friendship with your uncle. What inspired you take your father's story and turn it into an animated short?
CAMRUS JOHNSON: So whenever I was calling my dad to check in on the whole situation, because my uncle was in the hospital and he was driving back and forth from Georgia to North Carolina to check on him in the hospital room, I realized that we weren't really communicating. He was sort of giving me the updates on what was going on with him and his ex-wife and kids, but I could hear his heart breaking, but we never really talked about how he was doing.

And I realized that we never really talk about our emotions like that, maybe because of how society is sort of put together and we're taught as men that we don't have to check in on each other [and] we should just figure it out on our own. And although I wanted to ask, "Are you okay?" and tell him I was there if he ever needed to talk, I didn't know how to. So I communicate best through art, filmmaking specifically. And I decided that maybe just retelling how beautiful their friendship is and how beautiful it is to see these two Black men loving each other so much for all these years, without most people even knowing, I thought it was so gorgeous. And I thought him seeing how beautiful it was on screen might pull him out of some of that grief. So I decided to go for it.

What made animation the right medium for this story?
Well, it's funny because me and my animator, Pedro Piccinini, we were actually already working on a separate animated short film. We met when I was working at a restaurant and it was my last day on the job. And then when my uncle went into the hospital, I was just thinking about it every day, all the time and decided to write a short film version of it. I sent it to him and said, "Hey, do you know any other animators that maybe would want to make this with me while we are making our current project?" And he actually volunteered and said, "I would like to put our project on the side and make this instead."

My original idea was to have a completely different style. It was going to be a lot more Pixar, 3D. And he said that he thought it would be really interesting if we stripped it down completely and we just let the narration sort of drive the project. It's sort of similar to the legendary director, [Hayao] Miyazaki, how, in his films, I was told recently that he sort of lets the story dictate where it goes. He lets the animation dictate where it goes. And this was similar in a way where Pedro heard the narration and he animated to the words. Then very luckily, someone from high school and now a good friend, Frazier Smith, randomly reached out and said, "If you ever need music for anything, I would love to compose." And I was like, "I don't know if this needs music because it's not really like a film, it's more of like a gift," but he hopped on board and made this beautiful score for it, and then it became what it is now.

Obviously, you were grieving this loss, too. How did it feel to sit down and write the script?
I was definitely deflecting at first. I was like trying my best to focus on my dad and my uncle's family and how they were feeling. I didn't really realize how I wasn't dealing with the emotions myself until I recorded the narration at my friends Paul Skye Lehrman and Linnea Sage's house. I was just doing it kind of monotone and deadpan. I just wanted to sort of do it, and I was trying my best. Like I gave it some emotion, but when it got to the climax of the project when he's in the hospital room, I realized I wasn't giving it my all and was kind of afraid to. My friends Paul and Linnea were basically saying, "Hey, I know that you're trying to make this film and it's for your dad, but how do you feel? You should put how you feel in there, like really break down and open your heart up and stop protecting it so much." And then take after take, I actually couldn't even get the words out because I was crying so much, because for the first time, I was really honestly hearing myself and realizing how much it hurt me as well. It was sort of a healing process for me and my dad at the same time. Making this for him was in order to help him grieve, but I was actually, to my surprise, helping myself grieve at the same time.

Credit: Camrus Johnson and Pedro Piccinini

Did you let your dad know you were making this, or did you surprise him with it?
Yeah, it was an absolute surprise. I didn't even know if it was the right idea. I didn't know if it was invasive to create a project out of him and my uncle's story. So I made it in silence for a few months with Pedro and Frazier, and of course my actors and my sound people, and he actually came to visit me one day. Coincidentally, we finished the film while he was in town. And it wasn't the plan, it just sort of happened that way. So one day we were hanging out in the living room and we were laughing, and I was super awkward about it because I didn't know how to even say, "Hey, dad, I made this thing that's sad, but it's for you. And I don't know how to say it, so I wrote it, and here we go." He said, "Okay." And I hit play. And the entire time that we watched it, we didn't look at each other, we just looked straight. I looked straight because I was afraid of how he may be reacting. When it was over, I finally looked over and he wasn't moving for a while and he started bawling crying. And he just said, "That was amazing. That was amazing." And then we hugged and cried together for a bit.

How did the rest of the family react to it?
After we made it and sent it to my dad, I first sent it to my aunt, [and] she was afraid to watch it, which I completely understood. Then she watched it a couple of days later and she loved it, and then she actually sent it to my cousins and they also loved it, to the point where it inspired them to want to write a children's book and to start a nonprofit. And I said, "Wow, I didn't expect this film to inspire other forms of art. I was just hoping that it had a much smaller achievement where it just helped the grieving and made you feel good."

When I spoke to Javicia for our recent cover, she told me she directed her first two short films over the summer. Have you two bonded over filmmaking?
Literally our first day meeting. Whenever me and Javicia met in person, we grabbed dinner and we had a really beautiful talk, and then we went and we played some games and then we went back to her apartment. Her short films are still in the editing process and she wasn't quite ready to show me hers, but we talked extensively about her directing her projects and how she wants to get more into directing in the future. Since my shorts had been done at the time, we watched both of mine back-to-back.

I know you're interested in filmmaking in general. Have you started looking into trying to direct on Batwoman?
As far as directing, I am getting more into it. There's a lot of animated projects that I can't talk about quite yet that I have in the works. There is a feature that I have in the works that I can't quite talk about yet as well. And directing on Batwoman is definitely something that I want to do in the future. I'm not going to rush because I am still learning and I would love to do directing programs, but I will be shadowing a director this season. And hopefully with Grab My Hand: A Letter to My Dad getting out there and being seen by people, it'll convince CW and Warner Bros. to want to give me a shot early.

This interview was lightly edited for length.

Batwoman airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on The CW.

(Video provided by Camrus Johnson)

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