Atlanta-based actor Kevin L. Johnson is best known for his role on Netflix’s Ozark, where he’s recurred as ‘Sam Dermody’ since Season 1. However, Kevin has also appeared in other films and series such as One Tree Hill, The Resident and The 5th Wave.
In this Exclusive Interview, Kevin discusses how he first started acting, landing the role of Sam and working alongside Jason Bateman and Laura Linney, who play Marty and Wendy Byrde. Furthermore, Kevin also discloses which Ozark co-star he’d like to work with on another project, among other topics.
Thank you to Kevin for taking the time to chat with Courageous Nerd.
How did you get started in acting? Was it a hobby before pursuing a career?
Kevin L. Johnson (KLJ): Well, I started in college, I went to Clemson University. I went in as a Computer Science major and decided to switch to an English major because I realised Computer Science wasn’t really gonna be my thing. When I switched over, I decided to give acting a shot, just to try something new. I had to go see the main play of the semester, for one of my classes. I went to go and see A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and I’d seen plays before in High School but, you know, it’s a little more professional when you’re in college and it was just a really cool experience.
Like in High School, when you have to go and see a play, it was kind of a free day. You got three hours out of class to go to the auditorium and watch a play. In college, more professional, better set, bigger audience. So, I decided to audition for the next play that was coming up. I didn’t get a role in the play but I wanted to be a part of it, I did tech work on it. That’s how I met a lot of my friends that I still have to this day. One of my best buddies, he lives in New York, he’s an actor. Then I signed up for acting classes because I really enjoyed the audition process. I was like, ‘I wanna learn how to get better at this’.
Then, after that, I auditioned for the next play and I got a part in that play, it was a musical called The Burial at Thebes, which is based on the Greek tragedy Antigone. I did Henry… I always forget if it was Henry IV or Henry V, I played Bardolph [Note: a character in Henry V] and we did that in a Black Box theatre. I played Willy Wonka at one point, in college, community theatre. Then when I graduated, I started taking acting classes back home.
A lot of my friends were going to move to Chicago or New York when they graduated – the plan was to move to Chicago because that’s where everyone was going. I just didn’t have the money to do it so I was like, ‘Alright, I’m just going to go home, save up some money and then move to Chicago’. It worked out because I grew up in Lake Wylie, South Carolina right next to North Carolina. And I got home right when the boom was happening in the South East. Homeland was starting up and The Hunger Games was about to kick off. One Tree Hill was there already. So things were kinda booming in North Carolina with the tax incentive. I got my first agent, who I still have, my South East agent. Yeah, I guess that’s how it started.
What advice would you give to the younger you, starting to book his first jobs?
KLJ: I would say, ‘Be cool with rejection’. You know, it’s a tough business. If you’re booking, one out of every twenty, then you’re doing really good. They say, if you’re batting three hundred, that’s really good. It’s like, really incredible if you can do that. I would just say, get used to rejection because that’s part of the business.
You’ve had a recurring role on Ozark as ‘Sam Dermody’. How was the process of landing that role?
KLJ: I moved to Atlanta in 2015 and I got that audition in early 2016. It was a taped audition, like a lot of them are. Sent in the tape, felt really good about it. Found out they were gonna go with somebody older for the role. So I said, ‘Okay, you know I’ve been rejected before’. Like I said, it’s something you just get used to. And then, I was driving back to Charlotte where I used to live before I moved to Atlanta. I was driving back for a callback for a short film – my agent called me and said ‘Hey, they wanna book you for Ozark‘. I was just like, ‘Wow, that’s incredible’. You just never know how these things are going to happen.
As someone who is in Ozark, how has watching the series become a success been, internally?
KLJ: Oh yeah, it’s been wonderful. I just had this feeling when we were shooting that it was going to be a successful show. When you got Jason Bateman and Laura Linney attached to the show, you got some great writing going on, the chemistry was great on set. Everybody just gelled, we were like a big family. I just had this feeling that it was going to be a big show.
Speaking of Jason Bateman, how has it been working with him on a dramatic project when he’s very well known for comedy?
KLJ: Yeah, Jason, he’s great. In front of the camera, behind the camera. He knows what he wants as a director, too. It’s great to work with him. When he’s giving you notes, they’re easy to understand. Which is always good as an actor, when a director knows how to give you good notes. He goes in with a game plan, when he’s behind the camera.
It’s really cool when you’re in a scene with him and he’s also directing the episode, I had that happen a couple of times. One of my favourite episodes was in Season 1, I think episode 9, where I go and confront Wendy and Marty about getting my money back. And he was directing that episode. We were rehearsing it and he was like, ‘Yeah, that was good but let’s have it more internalised. Have it kind of bubbling inside.’ He wanted to protect my performance.
So yeah, he’s incredible and he loves playing the everyman, he says that in interviews a lot. He loves playing that kind of ‘every guy’ kind of role.
If you could pick anyone from Ozark to work on another project with, any genre of your choice, who would it be?
KLJ: That’s a good one too, wow. Oh man… they’re all awesome but Laura Linney would be incredible to work with again. You know, it was great getting to work with her a lot in Season 1. Again, they’re all incredible but Laura Linney would be awesome, I’d say that.
Other than Ozark, you’ve appeared in quite a few other projects. One Tree Hill, Prisoners, Banshee to name a few. Do any stand out in your mind?
KLJ: Ozark is definitely my favourite, it’s the one where I’ve gotten an arc which I’ve never had as an actor. Other than Ozark, I would say there’s a movie called Careful What You Wish For that I did with Nick Jonas and Dermot Mulroney – Elizabeth Allen was the director. That was probably my biggest role in a movie because I’m at the beginning, middle and end. I had something to do with the plot.
So that was a lot of fun, getting to work opposite Nick Jonas and Dermot Mulroney was really really cool. And Paul Sorvino, “Big Paulie”, he was awesome.
Which other actor would you say has been your biggest inspiration?
KLJ: I’m a huge fan of old school Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino. Dog Day Afternoon is my favourite movie of all time, I would say. I love Kramer vs Kramer, Serpico, The Graduate. Dustin Hoffman… if I could have his kind of career, that’d be amazing.
If you could pick any show that’s currently on or already finished to be on, what would it be?
KLJ: There’s a number on my list. I would say just because I think it might be the final season coming up, Better Call Saul. I binge watched all of that during quarantine because I hadn’t watched it. I was like, ‘why haven’t I watched this yet?’ Then I sat down and started watching it. That’s an incredible show.
So, hopefully, it’d be nice to get the opportunity if this is the final season coming up. If I had to guess, I think it would be because Breaking Bad went six seasons.
Has being on a Netflix show, with the reach that the streaming platform has, helped your public recognition in a substantial way?
KLJ: It’s definitely helped. You’re always still grinding as an actor but it’s definitely helped to have such a popular show under my belt. And to have a pretty big role on a show for like 3+ seasons. It’s definitely opened doors for more opportunities. It helped me get my manager and my agent that I have out in LA now. I feel good about what’s to come.
On that kind of note, your IMDB says that you’ll be in a episode of the new Walking Dead series, World Beyond. Do you have anything to tease at all about that show, from what you know?
KLJ: So, I did shoot an episode but my scene got cut. Which is okay, that’s gonna happen. It was bound to happen at some point. That way, I get to audition again for The Walking Dead universe. I would love to get an opportunity to be on any of them – Fear the Walking Dead, obviously the original Walking Dead. Who knows, maybe even a bigger role?
If you could say anything to fans of Ozark or people in general during obviously the pandemic, what sentiment would you have?
KLJ: I’d say just hang in there, I know it’s a crazy time right now. But I feel like the light at the end of the tunnel is closer than it appears. As long as we band together and you know, wear a mask when we’re out in public. Stay six feet apart, we’ll get out of this.
And thanks for watching Season 3 during this crazy time, a lot of people watched Season 3. I wouldn’t be where I am without the fans of Ozark, for sure.
Ozark is currently streaming on Netflix.