Diva and Doppelganger

Singer flexes her acting chops as a teenager and her evil twin

The last time Alexz Johnson came to Victoria, Grammy Award-winning crooner Michael Bublé went down on one knee and told the rising singer-actress she sounded like a certain Quebec chanteuse.

The Vancouver native - often described as a "West Coast Celine" since she won an anthem-singing contest at age 11 - appears flattered if somewhat amused by the comparison as she reminisces on a Victoria movie set.

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"I'm not even French," laughs Johnson, flashing back to her appearance opposite David Foster, Bublé and Ed McMahon at a glitzy David Foster Foundation fundraiser here in 2002. Although opening the show with her soaring spin on O Canada was a "great gig," it made Johnson, 15 at the time, realize she wanted to be more than just a vocalist.

"It was David's and Michael's project and I realized just being a singer was not what my dream was," she says. "I just wanted to try my own sound. I love Paul Simon, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, and I knew I had to go a different way to do that."

Johnson, 22, came back to town last month to play Laurie and Lia - a San Juan Island teenager and the evil twin sister who tries to take over her life - in Stranger With My Face, a thriller based on Lois Duncan's bestseller.

The film, which co-stars Catherine Hicks and Andrew Francis, airs on Lifetime and Superchannel next fall.

"One is truly dysfunctional, borderline schizo," the blond, blue-eyed actress explains. "It's really challenging because I have to switch back and forth. I'm acting to myself, so I have to remember the way I acted in a scene."

She says she's lucky she has such a wonderful stand-in (Kim Clarke) who read her her lines.

"I love playing darker roles but this is crazy," laughs Johnson, who earlier in the day had to be pulled out of the ocean, "choking on water" and wearing a wetsuit for a scene in which Lia tries to throw herself off a cliff. "I've never done anything like it and I don't think I'll ever be able to again."

Although music is her biggest passion, Johnson's no stranger to acting.

"Acting's a great job and it gives me time to have eight months off a year to focus on writing," says the Gemini Award-winning actress who broke out with her role as Annie opposite Mackenzie Phillips in the Disney TV series So Weird.

Last year she also wrapped four seasons of playing Jude, an idealistic teenage singer coping with overnight fame after winning a Canadian Idol-like talent competition in the Canadian TV series Instant Star.

Johnson and her producer brother Brendan also wrote a number of the songs her character sings on that show.

"It was nice just being able to focus on acting for this film," says Johnson, whose other credits include playing Saturn Girl in Smallville, and guest roles in shows such as The Chris Isaak Show. On the big screen, she earned praise for her role as a goth chick with attitude in Final Destination 3.

One critic said she looked like "Parker Posey with raccoon mascara" - a description Johnson happily accepts.

"Because I think Parker Posey's awesome," she exclaims. "That's a pretty cool career. She's not super in the spotlight, at every event. She's just Parker Posey, and I really respect that."

Like her indie idol, Johnson is a pragmatist with a hunger for creative freedom.

Her musical ambitions were sparked at an early age. The New Westminster-born artist, one of 10 children in a creative family, started singing at the age of two. She took singing lessons at age six, followed by classical and opera training before she started writing songs, catching Foster's attention, working as a demo singer and launching her recording career.

Johnson also sang the national anthem at Vancouver Canucks and Vancouver Grizzlies games before she was a teenager, and performed at charity events, including a Variety Club show where she sang a duet with Bob McGrath.

Last year, after being courted by other labels, she signed a record deal with Sony's Epic Records.

Johnson, who landed Stranger With My Face after recording tracks for her upcoming debut solo album in Los Angeles, says she prefers traditional methods of music distribution but is learning to accept the dramatic delivery system changes.

"Songs being leaked online, I can't stand it," she sighs. "Epic put five of my songs on MySpace and at the time I thought, 'Really?'

"I'm the type who wants to go and buy a record and feel it and look at it, but the industry's changing."

Johnson even applies her retro philosophy in pursuing her dream of doing both music and film together. "I think it's being done in a not-so-quality way with a lot of artists right now," she laments.

"It's like, 'OK, I'm an actor so now I think I'm going to be a pop star.' I'm old school. I love Barbra Streisand and when it was done with really great films like Funny Girl. I'd like those kinds of roles to come into my life."

On the web: www.myspace. com/alexzjohnson

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