James Vincent Meredith of Steppenwolf’s Clybourne Park and Starz’s Boss
The Steppenwolf ensemble member is one of the many Chicago actors with roles on the new Kelsey Grammer series.
“Boss had such faith in the Chicago actor,” James Vincent Meredith says. “No other television show that’s been filmed here in recent memory, the last three, four, five years, has used such a huge Chicago presence actor-wise.”
Meredith should know. The Steppenwolf ensemble member has supplemented his theater work with appearances on most of the locally shot shows in that period, including single-season series The Chicago Code and The Beast, as well as the occasional exterior for ER. “I’m used to doing the kind of one-off thing that a lot of Chicago actors do. We go in, do our day player, and we’re off to the next,” Meredith says in a conversation at Steppenwolf’s offices.
Boss, the new Starz series about a fictional Chicago mayor, which premieres October 21 (), offered Meredith a different experience, though he didn’t know it at the start of filming last spring. Meredith was initially hired for three of the season’s eight episodes as an alderman, the actor says, “who’s a main enemy of the mayor,” played by Kelsey Grammer. “He wants Mayor Kane out of office any way he can do it.”
After a day of shooting for the pilot at City Hall, showrunner Farhad Safinia pulled Meredith aside. “He’s like, ‘Yeah, I just want to talk to you about the arc of your character and what we’re thinking,’ and he starts giving me all this info: ‘And then this happens, and then there’s gonna be a big this, and then that,’ ” Meredith recalls. “I was like, Man, how’s this gonna happen in three episodes?” His Alderman Ross ended up appearing in seven.
The Evanston native, 40, who studied at Piven Theatre Workshop and was a member of its Young People’s Company in the late ’80s, describes joining the Steppenwolf ensemble in 2007 as a similar surprise. He’d worked for Steppenwolf just twice, in 2005’s The Pain and the Itch and the 2006 remount of The Bluest Eye, and had appeared in About Face Theatre’s 2005 production of Take Me Out, staged in Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre.
“I just remember thinking, How am I even on their radar? How do they even know who I am?” Meredith says of his January 2007 meeting with artistic director Martha Lavey. “I was stunned. Just stunned. I mean, I was in high school, I had a Steppenwolf shirt,” he adds, shaking his head. “It was, like, tie-dyed, and I remember thinking, [Nonchalantly] Man, this is a kick-ass shirt, I’m gonna be in this company one day.”
Meredith, who’s brought his sonorous voice and contemplative gravitas to roles ranging from Othello to John Proctor, can currently be seen onstage at Steppenwolf in, Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer-winning riff on A Raisin in the Sun. Audience reaction to the play, which satirically takes on issues of race and gentrification, has been widely varied. “The post-shows are pretty fiery when there’s the right amount of diversity in the room,” says Meredith, who now lives in Oak Park with his wife, a teacher. “The way the audience reacts is directly related to who they’re sitting next to.”
Raisin, coincidentally, gave Meredith his first union gig, in Chuck Smith’s 2000 Goodman production. “I thought I was gonna be home free after that. And I ended up making ten grand for, like, the next year.
“It seems more like attrition here in this town, if you’re an actor. As long as you stay in the game long enough and you don’t give it up, there’s gonna be opportunities for you to act.”
Clybourne Park continues through November 13. Boss premieres October 21 at 9pm CT on Starz.