Kevin L. Johnson on How ‘Ozark’ Is Going Out with a Bang

(Featured image courtesy of Josh Stringer, Hair and makeup courtesy of Kim Harley)

(Warning: This article contains some spoilers for the first three seasons of Ozark.)

As soon as Netflix announced they were developing a crime drama series with television megastars Jason Bateman and Laura Linney, it was obvious the streaming service was going to have another hit on its hands. However, over three seasons, Ozark has still soared past expectations to become one of the service’s biggest hits. A star was born in Julia Garner, and the world of the Ozarks has grown to welcome a host of eclectic characters, not all of whom have made it out alive. One who has managed to survive through every season so far is Sam Dermody, who originally helped Marty and Wendy Byrde (Bateman and Linney) move into their new Missouri home. Of course, the mild-mannered real estate agent is caught in their web of money laundering schemes, sending him on an unexpectedly sweet journey (sweet for the usually brutal series, at least) of managing their strip club and finding a fiancée along the way. Leading Sam through that journey is Kevin L. Johnson, who TV Wasteland had the pleasure of speaking with about his own path to the show and his endeavors beyond the Lake of the Ozarks.

Having played tennis and basketball growing up, Johnson didn’t discover his affinity for performing until after graduating high school. “When I got to college [at Clemson University], I wanted to try something different. I went in as a computer science major, thinking I could make video games.” After realizing that that major still wasn’t quite bringing him the satisfaction he was looking for, he transferred to the English department, where he discovered theater study. “Just to kind of break out of my shell, I decided to audition for one of the big plays during the year, and that was kind of how it all started.” His new career plan was met with support from his parents, although Kevin did joke that they made it clear that the money for his new acting classes wouldn’t be coming out of their wallets.

Johnson didn’t end up booking a role on that first audition, but he wouldn’t let that stop him from working on stage. “When you learn tech on a play or even on set, it’s kind of its own show, especially on stage.” Signing up to run tech on The Heidi Chronicles presented its own challenges, especially when coordinating how to transform entire sets in the few seconds lights were down between scenes, but that experience became essential to simply learning how the theater world operated. “I got to be there when rehearsals were going on, so I got to see firsthand what that’s like, because I had never been on stage before. I got to learn what upstage and downstage were, all the lingo that was completely new to me.” Kevin would go on to book larger and larger roles as time went on, his favorite being the romantic lead of Susan Sandler’s Crossing Delancey. “Shakespeare is always difficult. They say if you can tackle Shakespeare and Chekhov, then you’re doing pretty good.”

After college, Johnson began working out of Charlotte, North Carolina, auditioning for various television roles that often required a four-hour commute to Wilmington. “They didn’t have a lot of taped auditions at that time… You go to the audition, and then you stick around after your audition, you wait a couple hours or go grab something to eat, and then you wait to see if you got a callback. The callback is the same day.” Because of the heavy time commitment and the long drive, Kevin almost didn’t go to the audition that brought him his first recurring role: One Tree Hill. “I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know if I can afford the gas to go all the way to Wilmington and back.’” Nevertheless, he still felt a need to make it to the audition room that day, so he called his father and asked, “‘Hey, do you want to go to Wilmington? Are you down to go for the day?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ So I drove with my dad to Wilmington and went in for the audition.” While the casting call was originally for a basketball fan, the producers liked Johnson so much that they asked him to read for another part, a news cameraman who would be working with Lisa Goldstein’s Millie. “The lines were something like, ‘Three, two, one, and go…’ Even with my bad memory, I was like, ‘I can remember this.’” A few days later, Kevin had booked his first television gig. The character ended up returning for a handful of episodes, and even though he joined closer to the tail end of a decade-long run, Kevin has consistently been shocked by how well fans can recall his scenes. “It’s funny because when I tell people I was on the show, it’s like, ‘There’s no way they’re going to remember this. It’s a cameraman.’” Nonetheless, as soon as he describes the sequence where Millie was doing a news story on location in a chicken costume, the lightbulb goes off in their heads. Though Johnson did admit, “I guess it’s pretty easy to remember that scene. It’s somebody dressed as a chicken. That’s not really something you just forget.”

Between that breakthrough and Ozark, Kevin worked with Dune director Denis Villeneuve on the acclaimed thriller Prisoners. He recalls meeting Villeneuve at the callback, and though the director was lesser known at the time, Johnson wasn’t at all surprised to witness his meteoric rise within the science fiction genre from that point. “Everything he touches is just gold.” Being on set with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Hugh Jackman was an absolute pleasure for Kevin, who was thrilled to meet the iconic Wolverine. “That was a lot of fun.”

Even before stepping on the Ozark set, Johnson was already learning from the experience. “[Sam] started as a co-star role, and before I started shooting, it got bumped up to guest star. That’s how I learned the differences between billing, because even though I’d been auditioning for nine or ten years, I still somewhat didn’t know the difference between the billings.” A co-star usually only appears in a scene or two, but a guest star will appear in multiple scenes, usually helping to prop up the episode with their own character arc. From the get-go, Kevin sensed that Sam would end up playing a more significant role than the casting call initially indicated. “When I did the audition, I just had this feeling that he could stick around. He finds the house for Wendy and Marty, and then you find out in the sides that she’s going to come work for him. It was like, ‘I think this can have some legs.’” His intuition turned out to be correct, because only a few days into filming, writer Alyson Feltes told him that she wanted to include Sam and his mother in the episode she was working on. “I was like, ‘Okay. The character’s already growing right there. They’re not going to introduce somebody’s mom and not have that lead to more expansive stuff in the Ozark world.’ I just had a good feeling.”

Fans have consistently been grateful for Dermody’s large presence on the show, purely for the more positive energy he brings to the underbelly crime world. “The writers have told me that you need some lightness in the dark. Ozark is a dark show, so I think Sam brings a little bit of comedy to it.” Once Johnson gave in to the natural comedy of the character, he felt more comfortable disappearing into his character and improvising dialogue more. “I’m really partial to season one where I confront Marty and Wendy about my money, when I come to them after my mom has been hit by the garbage truck. I’m like, ‘Give me my f***ing money.’ You get to see Sam in a different light for a moment, and that was cool.” Right there in the moment, Kevin felt so in tune with Sam’s personality and motivations that he felt the sudden need to throw in a “please” at the end. “I felt like Sam would say ‘please’ at the end to kind of dial it back.” That one extra word ended up enhancing the scene even more and adding a moment of levity to break the tension and show that Sam was still as polite as he’d always been.

Another one of Johnson’s favorite scenes was his proposal to his stripper girlfriend Jade (played by Melissa Saint-Amand) in season three. They had filmed a similar scene in the strip club for the previous season, but it had unfortunately been cut for time. “That was a lot of fun, and we were a little disappointed when we heard it got cut, but we knew they were going to go back to it. I think the way we decided to do it was a good way to do it.” Though the scene viewers see at home has dance music blaring in the background, there was none playing on set, as recording the actors requires complete silence. Even though the scene was a blast to film, Kevin admitted that shouting to Saint-Amand made his professions of love that much more awkward.

(Image courtesy of Josh Stringer, Hair and makeup courtesy of Kim Harley)

After wrapping the second season, Kevin picked up a gig as an Uber driver to help pay some bills. As the show continued to grow in popularity, rides became guessing games for his passengers as they would try to figure out where they’d seen his face before. “They would get in, and they’d be like, ‘You look really familiar. Sometimes it’d be like, ‘Did you work at this restaurant so-and-so, or did we go to college together or something? I feel like I know you.’” After confessing that they’d probably seen him on their TVs at home, the recognition would click into place: “‘Yeah. Oh, that’s right, you’re that dude! The real estate dude! Hey, babe, that’s the real estate dude!’ Then it’s a great fifteen- or twenty-minute ride with questions…” As any ride-share driver or passenger knows, those long silences with strangers can be massively uncomfortable, so Johnson was grateful for a natural conversation starter that would make the time in the car go by in a flash.

Netflix producers have obviously taken note of Johnson’s work on Ozark, as he will be continuing to build his relationship with the streamer on their juggernaut of a hit: Stranger Things. When he found out he’d been cast as Victor Creel (alongside Robert Englund as the older version of the character), he was surprised. “I had auditioned for Stranger Things over the seasons, and I didn’t know if I’d ever get on that show.” He couldn’t have been more excited to join the ensemble on set, but that time ended up being much longer than he’d expected, and not for reasons as lucky as his time on One Tree Hill and Ozark. He had already gotten in a week of filming and was prepped to return for the next when the infamous original COVID-19 shutdown brought production screeching to a halt in March 2020. At the time, no one knew how serious the problem was. “It was like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to take a couple weeks off. We’ll figure it out.’ I called one of my good actor friends right when everything started shutting down, and I was like, ‘How long do you think this is going to last?’ I was thinking maybe a couple months. She was like, ‘Kevin. This is probably going to be like a year. I’m like, ‘Come on. There’s no way. That’s not true…’” Of course, that friend ended up being exactly right. Filming wasn’t able to start up again until much later in the year, and even then, filming was stop-and-start for a while as everyone figured out how to organize their previous commitments while operating under safety restrictions. “I’m sure everyone else was in the same boat, just not knowing what they were going to do.” Producers juggled schedules through 2021 until the season was finished, but the on-again, off-again nature of the production actually ended up making it more fun for Kevin to reunite with the cast and crew over time. “They’re pretty tight-lipped about everything, so I’m not even sure what season four is about. We only get our sides when we go on set. I only know what happens with my character.” Johnson can be spotted in the recent teaser for the upcoming season, and he encourages fans to continue theorizing about what role he and the other new cast members could play in the ongoing Hawkins mystery.

Despite work opportunities being inconsistent for industry professionals across the globe as a result of the ongoing pandemic, Johnson hasn’t let uncertainties slow him down from pursuing even more exciting parts. He recently wrapped another Bateman-produced Netflix series, Florida Man. “It’s about this ex-cop who comes back to Florida to find this mobster’s girlfriend.” Édgar Ramírez (The Undoing) and Abbey Lee (Lovecraft Country) star, and viewers can likely expect to see a premiere later this year. Kevin also had the opportunity to work with Ava Duvernay on DMZ. Based on the Brian Wood comics, the HBO Max miniseries is based on “the idea that Manhattan has been turned into a demilitarized zone.” Even though he was only on set for a day, he was impressed by the skills of the “awesome” Duvernay.

With the next Ozark episodes still a few days away, Johnson stayed mysterious on what Sam’s arrest at the end of season three means for the upcoming season. “What happened to Sam in season three drives him to do what he does in season four. That’s all I can really say.” With FBI agent Maya Miller hot on the Byrdes’ case, whatever information Sam decides to give up will likely have a huge impact on the case against the married couples’ schemes. Though no matter how things turn out, Kevin highlighted how lucky he feels to have worked on the series. “It’s been a dream come true. It was the first character I ever had that had an arc, and seeing that challenge from season one to season four and showing that growth for a character and still maintaining the essence of that character was a really fun challenge. I’m really excited to see what fans think of how we end things. I think they’re going to be pleased.” Since the pilot, showrunner Chris Mundy has envisioned a specific endpoint for the series, and “it was just filling all the blanks in between… I think we’re going out with a bang.”

To close out our talk, Johnson reminisced on bits of wisdom imparted by the greats that shaped his career and could hopefully inspire future up-and-coming actors. While on the seemingly endless road of auditions that ninety-nine percent of performers face when first trying to break into the industry, Johnson always returned to a Q&A with Bryan Cranston, where the Breaking Bad star said, “You’re not going to an audition to get a job. You’re going there to present what you do. That is your job.” For Kevin, “you’ve got to have something to latch on to,” so even when that road of auditions is filled with potholes of ‘No’s, simply presenting yourself and your talent is fulfillment of the job. At the end of the day, the love of the craft is what will drive success. In an Inside the Actors Studio interview, Dustin Hoffman paraphrased the words of Pablo Picasso: “If they took away all my paints, I’d use pastels. If they took away my pastels, I’d use crayons. If they took away my crayons, I’d use a pencil. If they put me in a cell and stripped me of everything, I’d spit on my finger and draw on the wall.”

However, if Kevin’s upcoming slate of projects is any indication, he’ll be using an entire studio’s worth of supplies to hone his craft. Beyond all the series mentioned above, he has irons in the fire in various stages of development. “You never know in this business, but I’ve got some possibilities… It’s really hard to book things in this business, so when you book things, it’s a blessing.” This year, he’d like to hopefully land his first role as a series regular, and when considering the trajectory of his career so far, we’re confident that Kevin L. Johnson will be headlining television’s next big hit in no time.

Make sure you catch up on Sam Dermody’s story in the first three seasons of Ozark before the first part of the final season drops this Friday, January 21.

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