By Brian Hieggelke
Close your eyes and become a 21 year old, dreaming about your future. Maybe you want to be a lawyer, or a doctor, even an accountant. Or how about a real reverie, an actor? Now picture yourself, still finishing up college, sitting in the office of the leader of what you believe to be America’s premier theater company. “We’d like to have you join the ensemble,” Martha Lavey, the artistic director of Steppenwolf, tells you. This wakes you up. Too unreal. The Steppenwolf ensemble is an honor that just doesn’t get offered as a starting job. It’d be like a newly minted MBA joining Goldman Sachs—as a partner.
“I went back to school and over Christmas break is when Martha called me and I was supposed to do a reading with Tracy Letts and she said ‘meet me in my office beforehand’,” Jon Michael Hill recalls. “They said they were bringing in six new members and they wanted me to be one of them. I kind of had to pull myself together in the bathroom before going up and doing a play with the most intense person in theater, Tracy Letts.”
All of a sudden, Hill was, in 2007, the youngest ensemble member at Steppenwolf since its founders put it all together in the early seventies. He pulled together so well that Letts decided to write one of the main characters in “Superior Donuts,” his follow-up to his Tony and Pulitzer-winning “August: Osage County,” especially for him. Hill commanded the stage in “Donuts” as Franco Wicks. Audience members, including this one, fell in love with his ebullient, charming young character—and were devastated when Franco was beaten and broken, literally and spiritually, in the course of the play. Before long, “Donuts” hit Broadway. The New York Times singled him out for a profile and he earned a Tony Award nomination. Soon he was cast as one of the stars of ABC’s then-new police drama, “Detroit 1-8-7,” which aired its season finale this past Sunday. Now, at age 25, he’s back at Steppenwolf in a pivotal role in its upcoming revival of Lanford Wilson’s “The Hot L Baltimore.”
“Let me just say that I can’t conceive of a universe in which this guy doesn’t have a huge, giant career ahead of him,” Jason Richman, creator and executive producer of “Detroit 1-8-7” says. “He is just such a talent.”
At the end of the day, one among a perpetual string of twelve-hour-or-so days preparing for “Hot L,” Hill, wearing a gray v-neck tee and a matching pork-pie hat, looks jaunty when we meet.
After we were mesmerized by Hill’s performance in “Donuts,” he dazzled us in “The Tempest,” where his Ariel, shirtless in white football pants and wrestling boots, showed off his athleticism, zipping around the set, climbing the walls, practically flying. “I love climbing on things, I love getting in there,” he says. “‘The Tempest’ was like a playground for me. As a kid I would drive my mom nuts, I would climb to the highest branch that would support my weight. I love balance.”
A compact five-foot-five-inches, Hill’s built like a running back, which he was in high school. His teammates called him Shakespeare. He even had a “Glee” moment of sorts. “Drew was our hard hitter and a pretty big guy,” Hill says. “But I got him to do ‘Guys and Dolls.’ And at some point I was playing Sky Masterson and I had to punch him, knock him out, and I didn’t hit him but he could tell I was really getting into it. And after the show he was like, ‘Don’t think you could actually do that shit,’ ” Hill chuckles.
Saturday afternoon, the first day of technical rehearsal for “The Hot L Baltimore” and the actors are working on the set for the first time, less than a week before previews. “Hot L” is an ensemble number with fourteen characters. On and around the set, about twice that many stage managers, sound designers, lighting specialists and other production personnel buzz in dozens of separate conversations. On stage, actors await director Tina Landau, who’s working her way up and down the stairs like the hotel manager showing everyone their new rooms, conducting a series of mini-meetings on any and all topics as they arise. It’s at once fascinating and tedious. The lines have been learned (mostly), the characters developed. Now they’ll figure out their cues, plus such details as what light switches they can flip, which knobs to adjust on these vintage TVs and radios. (None. Computers are doing the work.) Landau’s conception of the play has it starting already in motion of sorts, with a twenty-minute pre-show in which actors will do little bits of “business” while the audience files into their seats. Two hours into rehearsal and they’re still working on this pre-show.
Hill, in costume rocking a short seventies Afro, browline glasses, plaid pants and a black vest worn over a red short-sleeve shirt, mans his station behind the hotel desk. “Superfly,” I think. He plays Bill Lewis, the night clerk of a condemned hotel. Landau’s giving him notes on seeking out a station on the radio. “Turn the dial and find a song and keep turning till you get to Sly Stone, ‘cuz, you look like him,” she quips. I stand corrected. Even killing time, waiting for the actual scene rehearsal to begin, Hill’s fun to watch. He dances in place, working on his seventies moves. He cuts up with his “love interest” in the play, Allison Torem, another one of Chicago theater’s bright young stars, who here plays a young prostitute and looks like she’s channeling Jodie Foster’s child hooker in “Taxi Driver.” Hill starts darting off stage in breaks to grab some candy from the jar stationed on one of the temporary desks set up among the main floor seats. He strums his guitar and sings quietly. After four hours of this, they’ll break for dinner, perhaps four minutes into the play.
By no means a musical, there’s nevertheless musicality in “Hot L” that Landau amplifies. Bill is writing a song in Steppenwolf’s version, which Hill performs as a coda of sorts to Act One. A yearning bluesy folk ballad, Hill wrote the song himself. “It’s beautiful,” Landau says. “His character is in love with a character called the Girl. So for fun one day I asked, ‘Do you want Bill to play the guitar?’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘So well then,’ I asked, ‘maybe he’s working on a song for the Girl if he ever got brave enough to sing it to her?’ And three days later he was like, ‘I have a song.’ ”
If acting is the love of Hill’s life, music is his mistress. He inherited his passion from his father, who always played in bands—”electric bass, but he was one of those guys who can play drums and guitar and sing,” Hill says—but gave up more serious dreams when his two sons were born. Hill played the sax in high school and took up guitar early in college. “I just started writing songs and have been over the past seven years,” he says. In Detroit, he met some musicians and they started recording together; he’s hoping to bring them to Steppenwolf to do a “mini-concert.”
“One day in rehearsal,” Landau—whose all-business rehearsal demeanor channels early nineties grunge as convincingly as Hill’s does early seventies soul—says, “I asked the whole cast to come in and every person had to sing a song a capella. And Jon got up, and he was very nervous as everyone was, and all of a sudden he opens his mouth and he goes, ‘When a Man Loves a Woman!’ And he sang it in the stratosphere. Impeccably. I mean, we fell off our chairs and I said to Jon after, ‘Now I know for sure: there’s nothing you can’t do.’ ” Right now, Hill’s only song is the aforementioned Act One closer. Or perhaps not: “Just now on this break in tech I was thinking,” Landau says, “I might go back to that ‘When a Man Loves a Woman,’ too. We’ll see. Things change quickly around here.”
Born in Waukegan, Illinois to young parents, Hill grew up in a supportive family environment where his folks struggled to make ends meet, but supported their son’s passion for the arts—his father, perhaps, living his aborted ambitions as a musician through his son, his mother as his “biggest fan.” Jon, along with his older brother and his parents, moved around a fair bit in search of firm financial ground. “My dad has had I don’t know how many different jobs,” Hill says. “He’s driving a bus up in Madison, Wisconsin right now but he’s been a mechanic, a telemarketer, he’s installed peoples’ cable, he’s done all kinds of stuff. My mom, well, what she loves is working with kids,” but she’s spent the last several years in office jobs. Life eventually took its toll and his parents split up. Like his mother, Hill’s older brother ended up working in an office but, like his father, pursues his musical dream in the hours in between. He’s a rapper, and collaborates with his younger brother.
But little brother Jon was always an actor first, dating back to second grade, after he’d seen a short story he’d written about his older brother getting lost at Lincoln Park Zoo get turned into a play. He kept it up straight through eighth grade, when a sense that he wasn’t very good—”I wasn’t getting the lead roles, I would get weird roles like one was Bubba, this guy who crawled around like a frog”—led him to quit acting when he started high school. This story might have ended here, and we’d never have heard about him, but when he reluctantly auditioned for and landed a major role in the musical “Fame” at Waukegan High the next year, he was hooked.
Avi Lessing, then the drama teacher at Waukegan High, who “was the first person to put Shakespeare in my hands,” eventually referred him to Northwestern’s Cherubs summer arts program for outstanding high schoolers, and there he decided his life’s course was on the stage. He took up theater in Urbana-Champaign at the University of Illinois, where he made more vital connnections. Duane Cyrus, a former Alvin Ailey dancer then at the University of Illinois working on his MFA, mentored Hill in dance. Another teacher, Lisa Dixon, guided him in nearly all else. Theater historian Peter Davis was doing dramaturgy and understudy work for a play at Steppenwolf in 2006, Bruce Norris’ “The Unmentionables,” and sent Hill their way.
He landed the part and the play ran the summer after his junior year; by Christmas, he was in the ensemble.
Every member of Steppenwolf’s ensemble talks about it as something truly special; not in the career benefits it brings, which it certainly does, but in the nourishment of working closely with a small community of like-minded artists deeply committed to “brutal honesty on stage,” as Landau describes it. Within that small community, even smaller recurring collaborations form, like that of director Landau and Hill, who’ve worked together in many of Hill’s Steppenwolf endeavors, including Broadway. Ironically, though, they did not meet through Steppenwolf but through a blind audition in New York, when she was casting Tarell Alvin McCraney’s (another close collaborator of hers who would later become an ensemble member as well) “In the Red and Brown Water” for the Alliance in Atlanta. “I think he’s one of the few auditions in my lifetime that I cast in my head on the spot as soon as he left the room,” Landau recalls of her first meeting with Hill. “I was like—him, that’s it. I almost never cast without callbacks but I remember thinking he has an unearthly mix of youthful exuberance and a deep, ancient wisdom.” From there, they worked together in Seattle before reuniting in Chicago for “Superior Donuts” and “The Tempest.” “Every time he’s been radically different in the role,” Landau says. “Every time he has created something that feels like a concoction of some sort that sort of is based in the text and comes from it but then also has kind of quirks and personality and defining moments that are absolutely his, sometimes to the point where I don’t know where they come from.”
In “The Hot L Baltimore,” Landau says of Hill’s character, “Bill on the outside is slightly controlling, slightly concerned with rules and behavior and keeping a tight lid on things. What his private life was I had no idea. Jon created an entire back-story that made Bill complex and hip and kind of fun and a little cynical but lived-in. A little more romantic. He is bringing flavors to it that I did not expect.”
When such extraordinary talent arrives so fully formed, we marvel: where does it come from? God-given abilities sure, family and important mentors, of course. Hill was raised a Jehovah’s Witness, an especially strict and isolated religion that he’s since left due to its “overbearing restrictions” and judgmentalism. But rather than be bitter about it, he’s appreciative of what he learned: “I took a lot of things away from my experiences as a Jehovah’s Witness that I will keep with me for the rest of my life,” he says. “Conscientiousness, generosity, cleanliness.” Not to mention what now seems like a natural poise in front of audiences, honed by years and years of experience giving speeches. “I was in Theocratic Ministry School, so they would give me a piece of scripture and I’d have to build a speech around it. That was how I got comfortable speaking in front of people, I think. And I’m grateful for that.”
The actor, offstage, is a cipher, whether he wants to be or not. Actors resemble the rest of us on the surface, but when you meet them, you realize something else is at work. They have an otherworldly charm about them; you can’t avoid their magnetic pull. Outside of their range, you wonder: is he really that nice, or just acting that way? All of which is a long-winded way of saying that, based on the limited time we’ve spent together, Hill seems like a generally nice guy, humble and quick to share credit for the success of his work with those around him.
“He’s “shy and kind of self-effacing,” Landau says. “Jon has a fantastic sense of humor but a little dry, a little understated. He is one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met. He’s very unassuming offstage but beautiful, a beautiful, beautiful soul. But not someone you worry about being high-maintenance or dark. Although I have found myself often saying in rehearsal, ‘Jon, are you okay? What’s going on?’ Because he gets very serious around the work and sometimes I misread it as a cloud. It’s just like, the brow is furrowed, he’s just really examining a moment. In this rehearsal process, almost every day when I came in, Jon was there either when I got there or before me, going through his stuff on his own—his lines, his business. He’s a supremely hard worker.”
Richman says Hill is “The. Nicest. Person. Ever.” “The most charming thing is when we were announcing the new ensemble members, we had a little press thing,” Lavey says, “and Jon brought his mom. I mean, you know it was so sweet. He has a radiant soul. You really can feel something very loving and very alive in him.” He took mom to the Tony Awards, too.
On the ABC television series “Detroit 1-8-7,” Hill plays Damon Washington, a newcomer to the homicide squad assigned to partner with the distant and brooding Louis Fitch, played by Michael Imperioli, best known for his role as Christopher Moltisanti in the legendary HBO series, “The Sopranos.” Washington’s a rookie in the big leagues, and is eager to learn. But Washington also has a grounded wisdom, a steady moral compass that, over the course of the season, comes to change his curmudgeon of a partner, to humanize him. It’s a huge role for any actor, and a sign of Hill’s talent that the show’s creators and the network took such a chance on him.
“The series was really predicated, especially the pilot, on the main relationship, which was Fitch and Washington,” Richman says. “And we really had to find the right people. We really looked extensively and there were a lot of layers to the characters. And what was interesting is that when we interviewed the casting directors they said, ‘We have a secret weapon. We have Washington but we’re not going to tell you who it is unless you hire us.’ So we were very suspicious. But it was quite intriguing and we met them and we hired them, and the next day the casting directors brought in a tape of this guy Jon Michael Hill who none of us had ever seen. And he blew us away. He just brought so much depth and humanity and skill to his ability and the role. When you’re lucky enough to find talent like that you just want to write for them.”
On set, Hill was a quick learner. “I felt like I had a great partner,” he says. “I could watch him and mimic his on-set demeanor and work ethic and see just what it takes to do that kind of work. Then I watched the episodes. I was just horrified by what was going on in the first couple of episodes; I was like okay, how do I fix this? So I kind of took a scalpel to it and kind of tried to figure out what I could do to make it more clear.”
The show ended its debut season on the renewal bubble—not a ratings disaster but far from a hit. They won’t find out for a couple months whether there will be a second season, but Hill’s future seems secure. “ABC was like, no matter what happens with ‘Detroit 1-8-7’, we wouldn’t mind getting you into another pilot this season, or trying to get you into one,” Hill says. “That was on the table, but I was like, ‘Look man, I have a chance to come back to the Steppenwolf and do this play. I’m gonna do it if it’s possible.’ ”
Like many entertainers, especially those on the early arc of their career, Hill is basically homeless—he lives wherever he’s working. But he knows where home is—it is here, in Chicago, with Steppenwolf. “For sure at some point I’m going to have a place here that I keep year round just because I know I’m not going to want to leave Steppenwolf, leave Chicago for good,” he says. “Because there’s no better gig, it’s like coming home working with your family.”
“The Hot L Baltimore” begins performances March 24. Invaluable research and reporting assistance by Benjamin Rossi.