Jimmy Smits sees 'Hat' as a good fit

About halfway through a very interesting interview over breakfast at the Kingsbury Street Cafe, the actor Jimmy Smits asked a question of his own.

"How come you've not asked about my own relationship with addiction?" he said, as his warm face took on a sudden intensity.

It was a fair question. The edgy Stephen Adly Guirgis drama known as "The Motherf***er with the Hat," is opening at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company on Sunday, and the reason Smits' face can be seen (under a pair of sunglasses and ball cap) around Chicago is a play about addiction. And about love, but still.

As Smits had pointed out a little earlier in our conversation, the character with the chapeau in the play represents, really, "that which each one of us is supposed to do but can't." One does not need to be addicted to drugs or booze to understand this metaphor: Whatever one is trying to kick — power, emotional dependency, watching TV — there most likely is a so-called guy with the hat in the way.

It turned out that Smits had a couple of agendas. One was his interest in musing on the themes of a play with which he has been connected, at least peripherally, for some time. His casting in director Anna Shapiro's Steppenwolf production is not some unusual celebrity infusion designed to sell tickets (although the presence of Smits, best known for his work on the TV shows "L.A. Law" and "NYPD Blue," will certainly move some ducats at the 'Wolf).

Smits has worked with, and greatly admires, the artists of New York's Labyrinth Theater Company, which helped forge this drama. Along with Chris Rock (a whole other matter), the Labyrinth actors Bobby Cannavale, Yul Vazquez and Elizabeth Rodriguez were all in Shapiro's 2011 Broadway production and all were, as I wrote at the time, "ready to scream their passions, manifest their neuroses and generally flay their souls all the way to the back of the balcony."

Smits likes to hang around with actors of that ilk, and directors of the Shapiro ilk. Smits also knows Guirgis, who has been around for some of the Steppenwolf rehearsal process and whom Smits believes "catches the way people speak and yet also has a lot going on underneath." And Smits (who has homes in Los Angeles and New York) saw the play come together because he participated in some of its early workshops and readings.

"This play," Smits said, early in our conversation, "has been haunting me."

But there also was something else — something that comes from doing a lot of press junkets for movies and sitting for profiles while he was working on TV shows that were, in their network prime, watched by a good percentage of America. This was something of a test.

"How come," he asked a few minutes later, with a disarming smile, "actors feel like they have to give some kind of personal revelation attached to the project?" I said that I did not really know why, beyond the need for writers to come up with some hook on which to hang an interview, and that I had not asked the question anyway and had not intended to do so. Smits smiled again. I asked him how he felt that people perceived him.

"I don't want to go there," he said, at first. But he did go there, kinda.

At this juncture in what has been a long and impressive career — Smits is 57 and has been attached to causes and programs favored by the politically active — he remains creatively hungry and now wants to do what he wants to do. This play at Steppenwolf, for which he hardly is making his fortune, is what he currently wants to do.

"I have carried the burden of being a role model for some time," Smits said. "And that's great. The body of work I've done has afforded me that opportunity. Latino people have come up to me and said they were motivated to become a lawyer because they saw me play one on TV — and you can't discount how great it is when they tell me I was the first.

"I am OK with embracing people's perceptions as long as I still have the ability to do other things as well. I've always had a commitment phobia. But at this point for me, it's all about who you get to work with. My comfort zone has always been in an ensemble-type atmosphere. I have to keep exercising that muscle."

His ensemble at Steppenwolf includes the Chicago actress Sandra Delgado, whom he says he has come to admire greatly and who he thinks belongs in the Steppenwolf ensemble. He's also working with John Ortiz, a co-founder of Labyrinth, who previously appeared with Smits in the Nilo Cruz play "Anna in the Tropics." Guirgis wrote the play with Ortiz in mind.

"We're going to be looking at the play from a whole different angle," Smits says of the Steppenwolf production, which features the same physical production as the one on Broadway, but comes with a different cast and a fresh process.

One is tempted to say that the Steppenwolf production will be shorn of stars, in the usual Chicago way, but, given Smits' presence, that's not true, really.

"I am here," he said, shortly before reattaching his shades, "to mix it up."

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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