By Grace Beckner
When Zachary Swafford, a senior vocal performance major, first heard the news, he was rehearsing for Trevecca’s production of the musical Freaky Friday.
“We were at rehearsal, and they had announced that [James Austin Johnson] was going to be a new face on SNL,” said Swafford.
One of Swafford’s professors told the group there was going to be a Trevecca alumni on Saturday Night Live, but Swafford had no idea that alum would be the first person he would see when the show opened–doing an impression of President Joe Biden, no less.
Johnson starred in the opening sketch of his SNL debut on Oct. 2. He co-starred in three other sketches that night.
“We just thought that [Johnson] would be some background person, but no, he’s right there in the front,” Swafford said.
James Austin Johnson, 32, graduated from Trevecca in 2011 and moved to Los Angeles in 2013 to pursue acting and stand-up comedy, said his father Michael Johnson, the director of alumni and church engagement for Trevecca.
Michael said people encouraged his son to go to a conservatory for acting after high school, but he wanted Johnson to go to Trevecca due to financial reasons and long-standing connections to the university. He said this decision to go to Trevecca seemed to add to Johnson’s hunger to pursue a career in the entertainment industry, and gave him time to develop confidence.
“[Johnson] said being around [Trevecca] really helped actually add to the hunger to move away someday and really pursue it,” said Michael. “[Johnson] said if he had gone away and it didn’t go well wherever he went, he might have come back home and settled for whatever.”
Johnson had a gift, but opportunities were hard-fought.
“While he really wanted to be funny, and has a natural gift for that, he also worked at being funny,” said Michael. “It is one thing for us to have a gift for something, but it is another to really work at refining the gift.”
Johnson did pretty well in Los Angeles, Michael said. He was able to get some commercial work, representation with talent agencies and secure auditions. When Micheal sees Johnson on the SNL stage, he sees the achievement, but he also “recognizes that he’s been told ‘no’ a thousand times.”
“When he was given an opportunity to show people what he could do, [Austin] did not shrink from the moment,” said Michael. “The moment was not too big for him, he was ready.”
Jeff Frame, a Trevecca professor of dramatic arts and communication, heard about Johnson’s role as a “featured player” on SNL through his daughters, who saw the announcement on social media.
“A part of me is not surprised,” said Frame. “He is like the perfect storm of intuition, hard work and creativity.”
Frame remembers having Johnson in class, specifically improvisation and film criticism, where he stood out as one of the best student improvisers Frame has ever seen.
“By ‘best,’ I mean he was intuitive. He knew what to do before he was ever asked to do anything,” Frame said. “He was original, he could come up with new ideas and new material spontaneously, and there was a sense in which he already brought so much to the table, that he was a true collaborator in that class.”
Saturday Night Live divides cast members into two groups. There are “featured players,” like Johnson, who are new to the show and usually take on background or supporting roles in sketches. “Repertory players” are the core cast members who already have an established presence on the show. Featured players can be promoted to repertory players.
“SNL is a way in,” said Frame. “If you are a cast member in any form, it is a foothold to do other projects in the industry.”
Swafford said seeing a previous Trevecca student who started out in a similar context reassures him that he might one day reach success in his own field.
“It is so inspiring and reassuring,” said Swafford. “If that Trevecca student can make it.”
What Michael wants people to take from Johnson’s rise to SNL is that he went through Trevecca just like everybody else.
“[Johnson] worked hard at developing what he had learned, and he was ready when given an opportunity to show what he could do,” said Michael. “It didn’t just drop into his lap, he was patient, he worked hard, and he was ready when the time came.”