Lauren Holt was on an extended break from her adopted hometown of L.A., riding out some of the pandemic by staying at her parents’ house in the shadow of her old stomping grounds — Charlotte’s Alexander Graham Middle and Myers Park High schools — when her cellphone rang.
She only answered it out of boredom.
“I thought it was a scam call,” Holt recalls, “because I saw a number that I didn’t know. ... I was like, ‘Ugh, well, I’m not doing anything, so I’ll answer it just to see.’ And it turns out it was Lorne Michaels!” ” she continues, her voice quickly melts into giddy excitement at the mere memory.
Yes, that would be the Lorne Michaels, famed executive producer of “Saturday Night Live,” and the purpose of his call was to offer the 29-year-old Charlotte native a spot as a featured player on NBC’s late-night sketch-comedy series.
There was no chance Holt could play it cool. She burst into tears of joy. She thanked her new boss repeatedly. After all, performing on “Saturday Night Live” was only something she’d been dreaming of since she was in middle school.
When she made her debut on Oct. 3, Holt became one of just 156 people who have been cast members since the show was first broadcast in 1975.
The cast for “SNL’s” 46th season — which is set to return Saturday with its first episode of the new year — has 15 “repertory players” (i.e. veterans) while Holt belongs to a group of five “featured players,” a designation used for members in their first or second year.
To put it in perspective: In terms of the comedy biz, getting tapped by Michaels to be on “Saturday Night Live” is roughly as prestigious as being tapped, say, in the political world, by the president to hold a cabinet position.
And to think, if she’d given up on her pie-in-the-sky dream, it’s conceivable that Holt could have wound up owning an art gallery — or a picture-framing shop — in Charlotte.
Growing up with art all around her
If you’ve ever been stuck in traffic on Kenilworth Avenue waiting to get through the light at East Boulevard, you’ve probably looked to the left and seen the sign for Harris Holt’s art gallery and custom framing shop.
Harris Holt, Lauren’s father, is a watercolor artist who has painted historical towns and buildings and coastal scenes for decades in Charlotte, whose originals have sold for upwards of $5,000; he and Lauren’s mom, Lyn, have owned the shop that bears his name since Lauren was a young girl.
“I grew up around art all the time,” Lauren Holt says. “That was kind of my first passion.”
But at a fairly young age — as an elementary schooler — she developed a second passion: writing and performing funny sketches.
It was born out of her involvement in a school-sponsored program called Odyssey of the Mind, which in many instances challenges teams of students to develop short sketch plays that offer creative solutions to unusual problems.
“I think it was fourth grade we had one problem ... and I was this British reporter. I was like” — Holt affects an English accent — “‘I’m Naomi with Naomi’s News,’ and then I got this huge laugh that I had never gotten before,” she recalls. “I was like, OK, here we go. This is what’s up.”
“That’s where I started, kind of, acting,” Holt says, laughing, before adding: “I’m using air-quotes.” She later honed her skills a bit by attending summer camps offered by Children’s Theatre of Charlotte.
Then in middle school, her parents took her and her older sister, Jamie, to New York City, where they did the NBC tour and were given a peek inside the legendary home to “SNL’s” live broadcast — Studio 8H. At the time, Tina Fey, Seth Meyers, Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig were all cast members.
“I saw the stage, and it was a weird moment where I was like, ‘Oh. I can do this,’” recalls Holt, explaining that she already was a fan of the show but citing the family trip as putting in her head the dream of being on it when she grew up. “I didn’t tell my parents or my family or anything. It just was inside. A decision I made.”
‘This is the time to just go for it’
She was never the class clown, though.
“I mean, maybe to like one person next to me in class,” Holt says. “But I’m a pretty big rules-follower, so I was not trying to get in trouble for talking in class.”
Instead, she kept honing her sketch skills in Odyssey of the Mind, and she got involved with theater productions at Myers Park High, albeit always in minor roles.
Meanwhile, she also started working at the framing shop when she was in high school. Not only because she wanted the money and her parents wanted the help, she still genuinely loved art.
And after graduating from Myers Park in 2009, she enrolled at UNC Greensboro. Her major? Studio art. Her minor? Photography.
Not theater. Why?
“I mean, it seems like such a far-fetched idea. Like, who could get on ‘SNL’?” Holt says, when asked about the program she chose in college. “A million people try. There’s (so many) sad stories about people not making it, or that are wanting to. Really big people. So you think, ‘I could never do this.’”
Somewhere along the way, however, she changed her mind again.
“I got my chance to spread my wings in the art world in college, and I had a direct view of what that life would be — staying in Charlotte, doing art, opening up my own gallery eventually, or something. Who knows? You know, you never know which way you can go in the art world. There’s so many different paths,” Holt says.
“But since I kind of knew what that road looked like, I was really curious about what the comedy side would look like.”
Plus, she was increasingly drawing inspiration from sister Jamie, who had taken a leap of her own — after also studying at UNC Greensboro — by moving to Los Angeles to go to film school at the University of Southern California.
Upon graduating in 2013, Lauren says she faced a decision: “I could either be broke doing art,” she thought, “or I could be broke doing comedy.
“So I chose to pack up my car and move across the country. ... I was like, ‘Why not? This is the time to just go for it.’”
The big break before her big break
At the risk of making it sound way too easy — because it wasn’t; it definitely wasn’t — Holt spent the next several years “laser-focused” on her goal of becoming the best sketch-comedy performer she could possibly be.
She began by taking classes at L.A.’s Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) Improvisational and Sketch Comedy Training Center, which was co-founded by “Saturday Night Live” alum Amy Poehler and is the only accredited improv and sketch comedy school in the country. To pay for some of those classes, she started interning at UCB; and to pay for more of those classes, as well as her rent, she started working as a babysitter and a nanny.
Eventually, Holt landed a spot on UCB’s regular improv team, then on its musical improv team, before finally working her way up to a coveted spot on its sketch team, called “the Maude team.” That, she says, was the big break that paved the way for her to get her shot at “SNL” — “the Maude team” having seen several former performers and writers go on to work for the NBC show, including current star Kate McKinnon.
“I printed out my email from UCB for my first Maude callback, and I have it on my fridge still,” she says. “That was the moment where it felt like I got the approval to give this a real shot.”
Between 2015 and 2020, Holt also amassed a fair amount of credits in film, all of which were shorts, along with a few minor roles in small TV series and, in 2015, a bit part in Lady Gaga’s music video, “Til It Happens to You.”
But her goal remained “Saturday Night Live,” and in 2018, Holt got her first call to audition for it.
She went in nervous. How nervous? “Oh my God. Um, very,” she recalls. “I remember the moment walking onto the stage, and then after that, it was all kind of a bundle of nerves and — yeah. I don’t remember all of it. But I remember I got a few laughs. So that was a good thing.”
The process would sprawl across the next year and a half or so. Again, at the risk of making it sound way too easy — because, again, it definitely wasn’t — Holt would audition “a few more times” before she received that affirmative phone call from Lorne Michaels.
It was the greatest news of her life, though it was coming, of course, at the strangest and most challenging possible time.
‘I want to be great on the show’
Following the start of the first big lockdowns last March, Holt says she spent “I don’t even know how many months” in 2020 quarantining, and that coming out of it to work with the folks at “Saturday Night Live” was more of an adjustment than it might have been otherwise.
“The biggest shock was being around people again,” she says, “and I was just hoping that I wasn’t too weird. Because I was a little rusty on social interactions.”
Holt further underscored the surreal nature of things in her address to UNC Greensboro graduates during a virtual ceremony in December: “I always dreamt about my first time walking into 30 Rock and being in my first sketch on ‘SNL.’ And it definitely never involved PPE or getting a cotton swab shoved into my brain every day.”
And in fact, since moving to New York for the show, she says she basically hasn’t seen any of the city — beyond her apartment, and NBC — thanks to the pandemic.
“It was a very weird year,” she says. “I mean, it was difficult. Lots of my friends have lost family members and it was an awful year all around for so many people. But I am grateful that my dream came true that year. So it is hard. But I think that overall ... I wouldn’t say I was a fan of the year 2020, but I’m definitely a fan of this opportunity.”
The show’s youngest female cast member, Holt consistently found her way into stand-out sketches during the first nine episodes of her career. As far as highlights, she says it’s hard to pick, but winds up pointing to two:
First, the Oct. 24 parody sketch in which host Adele, the singer, played a wacky alternate version of herself, one trying to stand out as a contestant on “The Bachelor” by totally inappropriately belting out various hit songs of hers. At the end, she gives one of the women (Holt) the brush-off by singing “Rolling in the Deep.”
“Adele singing ‘Rolling in the Deep’ right into my face was pretty spectacular,” Holt says. “I think I’ll remember that forever.”
The other was the first time she got to say the iconic “Live from New York it’s Saturday night!” catchphrase to open the show, on Dec. 5, to cap a kickoff sketch featuring Kate McKinnon as Rudy Giuliani; Cecily Strong as the Trump campaign’s star witness in Michigan, Melissa Carone; and Holt as a lawyer.
“Getting to say my first ‘Live from New York’ was truly an out-of-body experience. All the blood left my body and went straight to my head, and I had chills everywhere.”
But she hopes there are a lot more where those came from.
“Well, hopefully still on the show,” Holt says when asked where she sees herself in five years. “Yeah, that’s the goal, is to just stay on.”
It’s funny, she says. On the one hand, she feels like, yes, she’s reached her goal. On the other, she feels like she’s still not quite there.
Joining the cast of “Saturday Night Live” is an amazing accomplishment. A truly rare feat. She knows this.
But, Holt says, “I want to soar and be great on the show as well. Just because I’ve gotten to this step doesn’t mean that it’s the end.
“So I just want to keep going and keep making people laugh — because that’s what it’s all about.”
NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” has five consecutive new shows planned, beginning this weekend, and has announced its hosts and musical guests for the first three of them: John Krasinski and Machine Gun Kelly (Saturday, Jan. 30); Dan Levy and Phoebe Bridgers (Feb. 6), and Regina King and Nathaniel Rateliff (Feb. 13).