On Ozark: Kevin L. Johnson ’07

Alumni Profile: Kevin L. Johnson

Johnson left the shores of Hartwell Lake — not knowing how important another lake would become to him.

WHEN KEVIN L. JOHNSON LEFT the shores of Lake Hartwell after graduating, he had no idea how important another lake, the Lake of the Ozarks, might become to him.

The actor and Clemson alumnus has become a fan favorite on the critically acclaimed Netflix series Ozark. A sleeper hit last summer, the TV series returned for a second season on Aug. 31.

In Ozark, Jason Bateman and Laura Linney star as seemingly ordinary parents that move to a lakeside home with their kids in search of a simpler life. Blue skies, tall trees and the placid lake make things look picture perfect. But below the surface, it all gets darker. The Byrdes are no ordinary parents, and a nefarious past has followed them to their new life.

Johnson plays Sam Dermody, a real estate agent who finds the Byrdes their new nest in the Missouri Ozarks. Quirky and unassuming, Dermody appears oblivious to the criminal currents swirling all around him, pulling almost everyone into the wake.

“He’s a little eccentric. He’s a little naïve,” Johnson says of his character. Dominated by an overbearing mother, Dermody is working hard for respect and independence as the first season of Ozark unfolds.

Making a name

Johnson is an actor on the rise.

He landed a small part in the big film “American Made” with Tom Cruise in 2017. He also earned acting credits in the upcoming remake of the 1990 thriller “Jacob’s Ladder” and the independent heist film “American Animals,” which made its debut at the Sundance in January. Johnson also has a supporting role in the thriller “Don’t Look There,” now in post-production.

But his role as Dermody came with something new — recognition.

“I always use the word ‘surreal,’” he says. “It’s still surreal. Every now and again, people will recognize me at the mall.”

Though Ozark is set in Missouri, most of the filming takes place at Lake Allatoona in Georgia. Johnson, who is based in Atlanta, said the tremendous growth of filming Georgia has led to new opportunities: “There’s no reason to leave the Southeast right now, if you’re working on building a resume, in my opinion. It’s the best place to get started.”

Netflix has helped change entertainment in other ways, too. Each series episode has a cliffhanger, which tempts some viewers to binge watch an entire season in one or two days. The lack of commercials also allows more time to develop drama. “The content’s much deeper, richer, and you can do a lot more in each episode,” Johnson explains.

Speaking of episodes, Johnson comments on working with Jason Bateman, who directed some of Ozark’s episodes in season one. “As a director, he’s really down to earth,” Johnson says. “He’s a great actor’s director. He’s perfect at it.”

The second season started production in late November, and shooting lasted from January until May, according to Johnson. “It’s going to be lots of fun next season.”

Ozark: Kevin L. Johnson

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Orange and purple

At another lake in South Carolina, Lake Wylie, Johnson grew up in a Clemson family. “I bleed orange and purple,” he says. Early on, he knew Clemson was where he wanted to study. What to study was less clear. Starting out in computer science, Johnson ultimately graduated with an English degree, but he found a home in performing arts.

“When I got to school in the morning, I would always go to the Brooks theater,” Johnson says. “It was definitely like a second family.”

His path to acting began in a Clemson English class, when the students watched a play related to their curriculum. “I thought, ‘Oh man, that looks like a lot of fun,” he says.

Though his first audition at Clemson didn’t win him a role, Johnson still got involved in theater by working on a tech crew. Before long, he won the lead role as a different Sam — this time as the pickle-maker seeking a love match in “Crossing Delancey” — at the Clemson Little Theater.

In his first big musical role, Johnson starred as Willy Wonka in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” also at the Clemson Little Theater.

“I didn’t realize I could sing, really, until college,” says Johnson.

Johnson’s mother had been a country singer, but he hadn’t tested his own voice until he checked out a cast recording of “Urinetown” from the library to prepare for an audition. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute, why didn’t I know that I could sing?’”

Kevin L. Johnson on Ozark

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Major revelations

Looking back at his Clemson years, Johnson recalls how much his trajectory changed during college.

His advice for students is to keep looking for new opportunities and experiences.

“After you arrive and start taking your classes, if it’s not what you are looking for, then switch majors,” he says. “Switch it up. That’s what I did.”

Johnson definitely switched it up as a student at Clemson. His first, small role in a Clemson production, a bit part in Seamus Heaney’s “The Burial at Thebes,” changed his life forever.

“It changed my whole outlook on what was going to happen in my life.”

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