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Former Hillary Scholar switches codes

2 June 2022

Connor Johnston, former Hillary scholar and basketball player turned actor. Photo taken by Andi Crown.

From basketball to acting – University of Waikato alumnus Connor Johnston is using the skills he gained from the Sir Edmund Hillary Programme to break into his acting career. Connor is a recent graduate of a Bachelor of Management studies and a former Sir Edmund Hillary scholar.

From a young age, Connor was thrust into sports, his height and skill making him an asset for any basketball team.

“I started playing basketball at a really young age in Katikati, a small country town near Tauranga. I was really committed to playing basketball and so my family moved closer to the city so I could attend Tauranga Boys’ College.”

Training under the Tauranga Boys’ College basketball coach and ex-NBL legend Murray Clarke, Connor spent his mornings, lunchtimes and nights training to be the best. His commitment to basketball was rewarded many times when he was named in local, regional and national representative teams and squads, including the 3x3 New Zealand Basketball squad.

Because of his sporting success and consistently high grades, Connor was offered a Sir Edmund Hillary Scholarship which solidified his decision to come to the University of Waikato in 2015.

“I wanted to stay close to home but there is also so much to the Sir Edmund Hillary programme. The Hillary team provided me with a lot of support when communicating with lecturers about my basketball commitments and Greg O’Carroll is always around for a chat and reassurance.”

Over the following few years, Connor balanced his sporting life with his study. He was able to train with the best of every code, gain valuable knowledge about rehabilitation and injury prevention, keep up with his studies and grow his confidence and leadership abilities.

“With the Hillary programme I was able to do different workshops focused on public speaking, confidence and team building. All the things we did definitely helped me when getting into acting.”

In his final year of study and with his sights set on playing in the national men’s basketball league, Connor fell in with a group of arts and film students and he decided to give acting a go. In 2018, he auditioned and was accepted into “The Actors’ Program”, a drama school based in Auckland.

At first, he struggled with the change in nature of an acting career from a sporting career. “In sports you always want to win and be the best. It doesn’t translate well into the arts. With acting you need to be patient, you don’t get the instant gratification of winning.”

However, gratification did come for Connor, who secured his first role in TV3’s Head High, a 2020 school-based drama following the rise of high school rugby stars.  He then went on to secure other roles in TV series and film, including the yet to be released 2022 New Zealand film Punch which stars BAFTA award-winning and Oscar nominee Tim Roth.

Connor’s acting career is in full swing and he is still using his management degree skills to help run his family business.

Connor has just wrapped filming on a new NZ on Air Production, Here If You Need, a dark comedy that follows a young-women who forms a social netball team hoping to uncover the circumstance surrounding her brother’s death. Connor holds a core cast role and was part of the team that created the original concept for the show. Here If You Need is set to be released later this year.


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