Chicago has long been known for its vibrant, diverse acting community, which also is the largest talent pool away from New York and Los Angeles.
“Actors here work in multiple disciplines — onstage, commercials and films,” says Eileen Willenborg, executive director of the AFTRA local and Chicago SAG branch. “We’re also a large voiceover city, because Chicago’s a big advertising hub, so our members can make a really good living, as they’re able to work in all three areas, unlike in Hollywood, where you tend to be pigeonholed more as just a commercial actor or a TV or film actor.”
Willenborg adds that because Chicago actors tend to “do it all, (it) gives them these great multitasking skills.”
The city’s many training schools — including Northwestern U., Columbia College Chicago and DePaul U. — “offer a great variety of theater and film programs, and students can also train to be producers and directors.”
The list of Chicago-bred talent is large. It includes the likes of Vince Vaughn, Joan and John Cusack, Jeremy Piven, Ed Asner and William H. Macy — just to name a few. “A lot of famous names got their SAG cards here,” Willenborg notes.
Other Illinois-bred thesps over the years have included Robin Williams, Chris Farley, Richard Widmark and Jean Harlow.
Sharon D. King, a Chicago casting director and producer whose credits include “Nothing Like the Holidays,” “Witless Protection,” “Of Boys and Men” and the “Barbershop” franchise, says the city’s strong theatrical tradition translates into “an incredibly well-trained and diverse pool of talent; every director I’ve ever worked with loves Chicago because of our talent.”
King’s favorite local theater companies include the Goodman Theater, Steppenwolf Theater, Congo Square Theater Company, the Lookingglass Theater Company, Teatro Luna Theater Company, ETA Creative Arts Theater, Batey Urbano Theater and Black Ensemble Theater.
King also cites the Second City comedy group as fertile ground for growing fresh talent. “They have a wonderful training program, and not just for people who want to do improv, but for actors in general,” she says. “So anytime an actor here asks me, ‘Where should I take classes?’ Second City is one of the first places I send them. And it’s so diverse — minority actors, gay, Latino, they cover all the bases; it’s a great resource.”
King has frequently worked with producer Bob Teitel, who notes that in addition to its acting pool, the city offers “great crews, a great filming infrastructure, wonderful locations and a very attractive transferable tax credit of 30%, making it a great place to shoot — which is why we keep going back.”
“Chicago has the best actors on the planet,” adds casting director Claire Simon, who works in film, TV, theater and commercials and whose credits include “The Beast,” “Prison Break,” “The Lake House” and “A Home at the End of the World.”
“They’re grounded, trained, hard workers, and it’s very, very rare that I run into any attitude,” she says. “Everyone just wants to do great work. They may not have a ton of big Hollywood credits, but they do have an amazing work ethic.”
And she notes, “Second City has some of the funniest actors in town, but Improv Olympic has wonderful untapped improvisers, and we have Zanies and (other) comedy clubs with some wonderful standup talent.”
Simon, too, stresses the city’s theatrical tradition, citing Steppenwolf, Court Theater and the House Theater, “not to mention a hundred more small, exciting theaters with houses of 30 doing great work. Actors here are hungry. They work for nothing and bust their asses for nothing. I think we have edgy, eager, exciting theater here with no pretense. I wouldn’t want to be casting anywhere else.”