Great American dream
Gurnee native Kevin Anderson has had a roller-coaster career.
Kevin Anderson is thrown by the canopied beer garden outside Lincoln Park’s John Barleycorn. “Wow, I don’t remember that,” he says as we enter the bar on a recent evening. He asks a server how long it’s been there. She doesn’t know. “I can tell you, that wasn’t always there,” Anderson declares as we sit down.
Barleycorn was Anderson’s suggestion. It’s a few blocks south of Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, where he’s rehearsing for the upcoming A Guide for the Perplexed, a new play by Joel Drake Johnson in which Anderson plays a newly released convict who bonds with his teenage nephew while forced to live with his sister’s family. But it’s a stone’s throw from VG’s former home, now the Greenhouse Theater Center, and one can imagine Barleycorn as a former hangout for the actor. Clearly, though, it’s been a while.
The Gurnee native’s connection to Victory Gardens goes back to his days as a student at the Goodman School of Drama (now the Theatre School at DePaul University). “When I was 19 and going to Goodman at DePaul, [VG artistic director] Dennis Zacek cast me in my first time ever being paid as an actor,” Anderson, 50, recalls of a “semiprofessional” production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. “I mean, I’d worked at Great America,” he adds, noting you could see the roller coasters from the kitchen window of his childhood home, “but that doesn’t really count.”
In 1982, two years after graduating from Goodman, Anderson appeared in the VG production of an Elizabeth Diggs play called Close Ties—“the first play I’d done as a professional actor,” he says. Close Ties was directed by VG associate artistic director Sandy Shinner, who now directs Perplexed.
Anderson joined the Steppenwolf ensemble in 1984, just as the company was enjoying the buzz of its New York remount of Balm in Gilead. That energy was instrumental in Anderson’s career: Steppenwolf’s 1985 production of Orphans, starring Anderson, Terry Kinney and John Mahoney and directed by Gary Sinise, followed in Gilead’s wake with an Off Broadway transfer, followed by another mounting in London’s West End.
“I’d never been to New York, never been overseas. It was a trip,” Anderson says. “Back then, we were so excited about going to New York, all we wanted to do was one night. That was our attitude. It was very early in—that idea of bringing plays from Chicago, that didn’t happen a lot.”
His varied career has included playing Julia Roberts’s love interest in Sleeping with the Enemy, starring opposite Patti LuPone in the original production of Sunset Boulevard (where he met his significant other, British actor Dawn Spence) and headlining the short-lived TV series Nothing Sacred. He says he’s “more or less” L.A.-based these days, though he’s spent the past year touring the U.K. in a stage adaptation of The Shawshank Redemption; his last Chicago gig was Steppenwolf’s I Never Sang for My Father in 2004.
While Anderson’s demeanor couldn’t be more laid-back, he says a competitive streak has fueled both his acting career and his passion for poker. An avid player, he says he initially couldn’t audition for Shawshank because he was in Las Vegas for a poker boot camp. He notes with pride that he won a tournament in Ireland.
After Perplexed, Anderson will remain in Chicago to appear in Steppenwolf’s Detroit but has nothing lined up beyond that. (He notes he’d like to put more effort into getting film work; his last feature role was as Dakota Fanning’s dad in 2006’s Charlotte’s Web.) For now, he’s enjoying the homecoming: “It feels really good to be back in Chicago, going back to a place where you had all these ideas, and you’re still the same in a way. It’s still about the work, coming back and working on a play.”
A Guide for the Perplexed is in previews now and opens Monday 19.