• Image about Kristen Johnston
David Khind

People told The Exes star Kristen Johnston to give up her dream. Now she’s inspiring others to follow their own.

If you’re having a conversation with Kristen Johnston, fasten your seat belt, as it’s bound to be a whirlwind ride. The actress tends to dart like a hummingbird from topic to topic, free-associating thoughts until she stumbles upon one she wants to dive into.

The topic at hand (for the moment) is how several of her professors at New York University told her she’d never make it as an actress, in part due to her 6-foot-tall frame. How wrong they were. Not only did she make it, but she now also teaches acting at her alma mater.

“No one can ever tell you if you’re going to make it — look at Dustin Hoffman, or Philip Seymour Hoffman, or any other Hoffman!” she says. “I’ve been teaching seven years, and I get frequent emails from former students saying, ‘I just did a movie and I thought about this thing you said.’ It’s really fulfilling.”

Johnston credits the teacher of a screenwriting class with giving her the push she needed, right at a time when she was considering giving up her craft for good. “I’d just talked to my mom about moving back to ­Milwaukee,” she recalls. “I couldn’t take it anymore. But [the teacher] pulled me aside and said, ‘You’re really fantastic.’ He recommended I attend a summer intensive in Vermont with David Mamet and William H. Macy. I did, and I later became a member of their Atlantic Theater Company. It changed my life.”

Johnston, now 44, earned Drama Desk Award nominations for her stage work and two Emmys for her scene-stealing turn on 3rd Rock from the Sun. Now, she’s returning to the sitcom world on TV Land’s The Exes, in which she plays a divorce attorney who lives across the hall from several of her former clients (played by David Alan Basche, Donald Faison and Wayne Knight). Johnston describes the show as “the most fun I’ve ever had on a money job.”

With the new show, a new memoir called Guts (due early next year) and her teaching career, Johnston is living proof that following your dreams can ultimately pay off. “Only you have control over your fate,” she says. “Every single successful actor I know has been told by some idiot that they would never make it, so don’t listen.”