She's a University of Chicago senior, but native Chicagoan Rae Gray isn't worried about finding a job after graduation. She's been working as an actress since she was five.
"I think education is very important and it's important to have a degree, but it's not something that I need to further pursue acting and I'm not at school to learn how to act," she said. "I'm just there for the experience of going to college and to get the liberal arts education."
In addition to more than 100 voice-over roles and two decades of work on stages across Chicago, Gray has recently portrayed a range of characters spanning from a heroin-addicted streetwalker in NBC's "Chicago Fire" to a popular girl dealing with the consequences of a terrible accident in "Slowgirl" at Steppenwolf, where she co-starred with William Petersen of "CSI." In March 2014, "Slowgirl" director and Steppenwolf ensemble member Randall Arney remounts the production with the original cast at L.A.'s Geffen Playhouse, where he is the artistic director.
While her past and her future are both exciting, the present is doubly so. This week, she appears in a small recurring role on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" and embodies the late French novelist Marguerite Duras as a young woman in "The North China Lover" with Lookingglass Theatre Company. The world premiere adaptation tells Duras' autobiographical tale of her steamy affair as a poor teenage schoolgirl in 1930s Indochina with a wealthy, 27-year-old Chinese man. The provocative and haunting production, adapted and directed by ensemble member Heidi Stillman, requires Gray to step even further out of her comfort zone.
We called Gray to find out more about her life and stage and TV work, plus just how far outside her comfort zone she's willing to step.
"The North China Lover"
Go: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Nov. 10 at Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan Avenue
Tickets: $28-$70. 312-337-0665; lookingglasstheatre.org
Her roots: "I grew up in the West Loop—by Greektown, basically, just about a mile west of the Sears Tower. It was pretty deserted when we moved in. We had lived in the Gold Coast [until she was five]. Now it's all babies and dogs, but when we were [first] there, it was all warehouses. So it's been incredible to be growing up in an area that is also growing up with you."
Her 'hood: "My favorite thing about it is living so close to the United Center—because I'm a big Bulls and Hawks fan—and seeing everybody walking back up Madison after the games wearing their Hawks and Bulls jerseys. Most of the restaurants are pretty much all discovered, but there's this great cafe called Morgan Street Cafe that not a lot of people know about that makes delicious sandwiches. And we have a steakhouse next door to our house called Carmichael's Steak House that's really awesome."
She turned 21 on July 4: "I didn't get to spend it with my family this year [because] I was in L.A. rehearsing "Slowgirl" [for] Steppenwolf. But my birthday always has a theme, so that's cool. My grandmother makes me this American flag cake; it's got blueberries and the stripes are strawberries and Cool Whip. And with the fireworks, it kind of feels like it's all for me sometimes. [Laughs.]"
Playing Marguerite Duras inspires her: "I wasn't familiar with Marguerite's work, but I've since read 'The North China Lover' and 'The Lover' and I've read a biography about her and that's been the coolest thing. She lived in France, she lived in Indochina and she had all these different affairs and she always wanted to be a writer. She was just a strong, passionate, super-intelligent woman. Her family was kind of shamed in her community and so it's just incredible to see her push past all that and become super-successful through a really hard life. And it's really cool to be able to embody her in her youth."
Aspects of Rae that appear in her portrayal of Marguerite: "I think a lot of Marguerite's actions are driven by the fact that she wants to experience the experience of everything. So a lot of the time she will do something just for the sake of having done it and then being able to write about it. And I would say as an actor, I do that a lot, too, because the more experiences you have, the stronger and more well-rounded of an actor you can be. Just saying yes to new experiences and being open to new people and new things and traveling places—a lot of that feeds into this building base of experiences that I think are really important—unless something is completely stupid; I won't try it then. I also think we both have this witty, sly humor. And I love writing, too; I'm not a writer, but I also write every day. If you look at both of our lives, they're nothing alike. But if I were thrown into her situation in her time period, my life might not have been too different because I feel very similar to her in a lot of ways—which I don't feel about a lot of characters that I play."
Such as: "Becky [in 'Slowgirl'] was my first popular girl. And that's something that I'd been wanting to play for awhile—somebody who was a little more simply-minded and just in a different place than I was in high school. I went to high school with a lot of Beckys, but I was kind of dorky."
Is there role she'd turn down? "No. There is not. I try to play as many different kinds of people as possible. It can get tricky, because you do always have a little bit of yourself in every role. There's no avoiding that and that's actually a useful tool frequently. But there really isn't anything that I would limit myself to. I wasn't ever skeptical about ['The North China Lover'] but I do have to be nude in it, and there are sex scenes and it is a little more risque. But that adds on to the 'experiencing things for the sake of experiencing them.' I think the broader range of characters I play, the better an actor I'll be. I always want to be the chameleon, completely transforming from role to role. And the only way I can get there is by playing the biggest range of roles that I can."
On the play's nudity: "It's interesting. This is the barest I will ever have been onstage, 'cause I've never done nudity before. But onstage I feel so at home, probably more than anywhere else in the world. You never want to get too comfortable onstage; you never want to get relaxed. But there's something that's just so right about being onstage for me. I just never feel in any danger. So it's a very safe place for me to go there and be completely vulnerable and be somebody else and do crazy things."
She was far more self-conscious about this: "My high school biology teacher came to see 'Slowgirl.' I was a big science geek in high school and I was good friends with him, but he hadn't seen me in anything in a couple years. And there's a line in 'Slowgirl' where I say, 'I got a D in Biology.' And I just remember thinking most of that show how far from myself Becky was. And how he must be like, 'What is happening? Is she really like this?' He knows me well, so that wasn't a big deal. But I do wonder if people come and they think that I'm like that person."
Has that ever happened? "There was one instance after 'Slowgirl,' actually. I was sitting at Vinci and this woman comes in who'd just been in the audience and in the post-show discussion. She walks in and she sees me and she's like, 'You're going to prison!' And I was like, 'What? I'm not going to prison. I didn't do anything!' But she had such strong feelings towards that character and she so associated me with that character."
On working with "CSI" star William Petersen in "Slowgirl": "Not only is he incredibly talented and just one of my heroes. but also such a wonderful person—gracious and generous and humble. He's really good with people. And even more than as an actor, I've learned so much that I've been able to apply in my real life as well. I have endless amounts of wisdom I have gained from him. He's one of the smartest and one of the sharpest people I know."
Her favorite advice from Petersen: "He knew I was doing 'North China Lover' and excuse my profanity, but he just said, "Scare the [bleep] out of them." I was wondering if I should invite my family and my friends, 'cause it is certainly something that's going to make my dad uncomfortable, you know. But [Petersen] said, "You're baring your soul out there and you gotta invite everybody you know and you gotta go up there and become a totally different person and just let it all out up there. You can't have any fear about it; you have to put 100 percent of everything into it. And that's the way you're really going to pull it off."
On her "Boardwalk Empire" role: "It's the smallest recurring role ever. There's a younger plotline that they're starting to involve in this season and I play [a friend of] Nucky's nephew--Eli's son, Willie—his girlfriend's sidekick, basically. I'm there at the college that Willie goes to and I have some snarky lines. And I also do a lot of Charleston-ing and drunk dancing."
One thing she learned on set: "One really interesting thing that I didn't know about TV was how strict they are about making sure that you're word-perfect. It's really a writer's show. Writers have a lot of power in TV, which is not always the case—with movies, especially. Sometimes movie writers have to just give up the script to the director and whatever gets cut gets cut. But I think there's a lot more power for writers in TV. There was always a script coordinator on set who was always making sure we said every line word-for-word. And some of the writers were always on set. So that was something that surprised me about TV, just how prevalent the writers were in the whole process and how important they were. And I thought that was very cool."