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From Poplar to Hollywood: Former Northland resident lands part on NBC TV show

Eric Michael Johnson, who grew up in Poplar, Wis., recently appeared on two episodes of the NBC show "This Is Us." Johnson moved to Los Angeles in 2015 to pursue an acting career. Photo courtesy of Eric Michael Johnson

The drumming fitness instructor on two recent episodes of the NBC drama "This Is Us" may have looked familiar to local viewers.

Eric Michael Johnson, an actor who grew up in Poplar, Wis., made his national TV debut leading a drumming class on the Jan. 24 "This Is Us" episode, followed by a second appearance as the instructor on the Feb. 7 episode.

The process to book the role as the instructor began last November, said Johnson, who moved to Los Angeles in 2015 to pursue a career in acting.

He's been a drummer for more than a decade, and his agent asked him to record an audition for a role teaching drumming fitness — a mixture of calisthenics and Zumba — on an episode of a primetime NBC fall hit, he said, noting that it wasn't difficult to guess the show was "This Is Us." Knowing that scores of actors would be auditioning for the same role, Johnson said he wanted to set himself apart and decided to film the audition in the cycling room at his local gym instead of in his apartment.

"I walked up to the front, there were five or six people there, and I was like, 'Hey guys, I'm going to clear away some of these bikes and film an audition for 'This Is Us.' It's gonna get kinda weird, feel free to laugh, but just so you know, that's what's happening,'" he said with a laugh.

Using mats and blasting music on Bluetooth speakers while saying the audition lines, he filmed a first take and then a second take — as most people left the room because "they were weirded out," he said, laughing.

After sending in the audition tape, he put it out of his mind. It wasn't because it was unimportant, but to help keep his sanity, he said. He explained that actors land one part out of dozens and dozens of auditions, and they can't torture themselves about it.

Johnson, who also works as an Uber driver in L.A., was in line for a commercial audition a week later when his agent called him with the news that he had booked the role on "This Is Us." He tried not to scream with excitement while in line, he said. A few days later, he was on location filming his scenes.

Johnson said it wasn't until he took a digital media class at Michigan Technological University that he realized he enjoyed entertaining people. He grew up wanting to follow in his father's footsteps to serve in the U.S. Air Force. Johnson spent his early years living on air bases in South Dakota, North Dakota and Germany until his father left the military. The family settled in Poplar when his father took a job with Cirrus Aircraft when Johnson was about 8 years old.

However, asthma disqualified Johnson from being able to enlist, and because of his love of math and science, he graduated from Michigan Tech with a degree in scientific and technical communication.

For a digital media college class, he created a video spoofing Weird Al Yankovic's song "White and Nerdy."

"It celebrates the geek, nerd culture at Michigan Tech. It is a celebration of that because I absolutely identify as a big sci-fi geek," he said. Being in front and behind the camera in creating the video, he said "it was right around then that I really started to fall in love with the idea of filmmaking."

Following college, he fulfilled his dream of working with the military when he landed a civilian job with the U.S. Navy in Indiana. But he kept in touch about the pipe dream and reality of acting with a friend and neighbor of his growing up in Wisconsin who had moved to Hollywood. Three years into his job with the Navy, he was offered a job at Silicon Valley that would mean moving to California the following week, and he realized it was time to make the leap.

"As much as I loved my job with the Navy and was thankful for it, I realized that I was totally willing to leave it to move to California, and I think that was an indication to me that I was young, I didn't have a house, I didn't have kids, I wasn't married, I had no anchors tying me to Indiana," he said. "I decided to pack up ship and move to Hollywood, and I've been here ever since."

Filming his first national TV role, the nerves hit only for a brief moment that day. To prepare, he studied drumming fitness videos, and the co-founder of a drumming fitness organization called Pound helped create a routine that was realistic for Johnson to teach in the episode. He felt prepared and had memorized his lines when he arrived on set, which helped diminish any nerves, he said.

"Right before they started filming, I was a little nervous just because it was a big show and there was a lot going on," he said. "I was listening to music in my ear and trying not to forget my lines and trying to drum in time, trying to remember the routine I was literally just taught an hour ago, and at the same time, trying to act and not be awful at it and also trying to teach the class the routine. So about five seconds before they yelled 'action,' I got a little case of 'oh boy, here we go!'"

He said he hopes the primetime role will help him land bigger roles — and eventually star in a science fiction or action TV show or movie. But he knows landing a role on "This Is Us" after being in Hollywood for only 18 months is rare. He has met friends who have been there for years and are still trying to make it as actors. The cost of living and repeated rejection can get to people, he said. He explains that he tries to maintain a positive attitude and lives by his parents' lesson that "the only time you actually fail is if you get knocked down and refuse to get back up."

The best way to handle it, he said, is to surround himself with a good group of people who support him, are working as hard as he is and appreciate him for who he is instead of what he can do for them. He also encourages people back home in the Twin Ports to be on the lookout for local actors trying to making that next step in their careers.

"It's really nice, it's really encouraging to see people back home that are happy and proud and excited for you. You want to entertain them and that's what actors want to do — we embody other characters to entertain people," he said.

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