10 Questions for  Francis Guinan

Starring this fall in Steppenwolf Theatre's Chicago premiere of The Night Alive by Conor McPherson.

By Raymond Benson

From the Autumn 2014 Issue of Clef Notes

Francis Guinan with fellow Steppenwolf ensemble members John Procaccino and K. Todd Freeman in Art at Steppenwolf Theatre, 2009 (photo by Michael Brosilow).

Francis Guinan arrived in Chicago in 1979, just in time to help establish the venerable Steppenwolf Theatre Company. A respected ensemble member of the company, Guinan, has appeared in nearly 40 Steppenwolf productions, including Tribes, August: Osage County, The Book Thief, and Fake. This season, he will be starring along side a bevy of luminary ensemble members in the company’s latest endeavor, the Chicago premiere of The Night Alive, written by Irish playwright Conor McPherson.

Guinan has one of those faces—you know you’ve seen it somewhere before. He’s so familiar because he’s been a “working actor” on television and in film, as well as on the stage, since first making the move to Los Angeles in 1989. His many small screen roles include characters on popular television series like Murder She Wrote, Star Trek—Enterprise and Star Trek—Voyager and the hit ABC drama, Grey’s Anatomy. But Guinan's face has had its share of big screen time as well. Film appearances in box office smashes like The Last Airbender, Shining Through and Hannibal have peppered his career over the years.

We caught up with Guinan recently to ask him ten quickie questions about his life and career.  

1. You’ve had a long career as a working actor.  Not a lot of folks can do that.  How do you manage to retain that longevity?   I consider myself the luckiest actor on the planet. And I say this not in self-deprecation or from a false sense of modesty. I had the great good fortune to have gone to college with many of the people who formed the core of Steppenwolf Theatre Company. In 1979, I was living in Minneapolis when I was asked to join the ensemble when the company moved from Highland Park, Illinois to Chicago. Since then, I have had what most actors only dream of: consistent, remunerative employment with wildly talented colleagues who know my work and trust my instincts. In such a rare situation, an artist has the time and opportunity to hone his craft.  

2. Born in Omaha, Nebraska, 1951, you grew up in Council Bluffs, Iowa.  That sounds like a small town.  What was it like growing up there?   Council Bluffs is just across the Missouri River from Omaha and together (they) make up a fairly substantial metropolitan area; population about 350,000 in 1951; nearly one million today. My grade school was a block away. I came home for lunch each day. My church, where I was an altar boy, was next to the school. Lots of kids in a neighborhood where you could leave the house after breakfast and, as long as you were back by dark, you were pretty much left to your own devices. I had a paper route (pre-cell phones and internet, of course); Polio; radio at the dinner table; Thorium 90 in the milk supply; Charles Starkweather; my own bedroom.  

3. Can you pinpoint specific moments from your childhood that pointed you in the direction of wanting to be an actor?    I don't recall a specific moment. Freshman year of high school I quit the football team after one week of practice. I didn't like running up and down a hill in full uniform while the coach yelled at me. I'm sure my character has since suffered greatly as a result, but there it is. Wanting to do something after school, I tried out for the school talent show with a Dick Shawn routine I'd seen once on TV. School plays followed. Choral singing. Speech and music teachers of particular influence at that time were Eileen O'Brien, Ellen O'Brien (unrelated), Paul Harrington, and Ira Raznik.  

4. What was your time in New York City like?     I lived in Brooklyn from 1983 to 1989...not a particularly great time to be there, though my Park Slope neighborhood was pretty posh. People lived in cardboard boxes across from Lincoln Center, and Times Square had yet to be Disney-fied.

The subway system was near grinding to a halt. Theater work was very tough to come by and very little of it paid much of anything. I stood in blocks-long audition lines outside the Actors Equity Building. Though Steppenwolf was just then transferring some shows to New York City (...And  A Nightingale Sang, True West, Balm In Gilead) I was never able to generate much interest from the locals. Had it not been for the Steppenwolf transfers and some regional gigs, I'd have joined the legions of homeless people on the sidewalks...New York is fine if you have a Broadway job or work on Wall Street, otherwise I just don't see the point...except for Central Park, which is a Wonder of the World on so many levels.  

5. The Los Angeles years... was this a concentrated effort to work in film and television?     I've never had any particular plan for my career. Ironically, my first job after moving to Los Angeles in 1989 was back in New York for The Grapes of Wrath, which was a huge success. Los Angeles was very kind to me for many years. I had a couple of series (EerieIndiana and The Mighty Jungle) and a good many guest star gigs. I was a working actor. I would go back to Steppenwolf on occasion to do a play. I even worked in the theater in L.A. (The Mark Taper Forum and The Geffin Theatre, with my friend Randy Arney). But in the early 2000's the studios began to consolidate and the work contracts began to shrink. At the same time rents were becoming stratospheric. My wife and I decided to come back home to Chicago.  

6. Tell us a little about your role in The Night Alive.   I play Tommy, who, along with his friend Doc, has managed to cobble together a life as a handyman in Dublin. He rents a room in his Uncle Maurice's house, which he maintains in a chaotic state in a sort of metaphorical reflection of his larger life. He's behind on his child support and seems to be failing even as an absent parent. Most importantly for the play, he's far lonelier than even he realizes. (Tommy’s story takes hold when he defends a destitute woman against a violent attack and then tends to her in his run-down room.)  

7. We’re huge fans of M. Emmet Walsh.  Have you ever met him prior to working with him in The Night Alive?   I've never met Emmet, though I too am a big fan and am looking forward to meeting him in rehearsals.  

8. Who are your theatrical heroes?   It's a long list. Sheldon Patinkin from Compass Players, Second City, Columbia College: the Godfather of Chicago Theatre; Cheryl Lynn Bruce, an actress of Biblical dimensions and subtlety; Tracy Letts, playwright, actor; Laurie Metcalf, an instinctive actress of incomparable gifts; Tina Landau, director, playwright, teacher, theatrical visionary; Frank Galati, director, actor, playwright, teacher—also a theatrical visionary; Martha Lavey, actress, artistic director of Steppenwolf Theatre, whose vision for Steppenwolf has made it one of the finest arts organizations in the nation; Robert Falls, Goodman Theatre, Chicago. Indeed, I am in stark admiration of the hundreds of wonderful theater artists in Chicago who manage every day to create dynamic careers while raising families, working extra jobs, making magic. Immediately I think of  Mark Grapey, Famous Door Theatre and the Three Oaks Festival; Elizabeth Laidlaw, Lakeside Shakespeare Theatre; Barbara Gaines, artistic director of Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. The list goes on and on and they are heroes all.  

9. Steppenwolf has been your home or home-away-from-home since 1979.  To what do you attribute its longevity?    Luck, mostly. No, really. Gary Sinise, of course. That and the generosity of the theater community and our friends. There are a lot of really talented people in Chicago, and there were in 1976 too, when Steppenwolf started. David Mamet, William H. Macy, Joe Mantegna and that whole crew were down at St. Nicholas Theatre on Halsted Street; Bob Falls had Wisdom Bridge up on Howard. 

Howard Platt and Michael Cullen were producing out of the old Theatre Building on Belmont around then. Stuart Oaken and Jason Brett built the Apollo Theatre on Lincoln Avenue in 1978. Now all of those people have moved on to other things and their organizations are part of Chicago theater history. Steppenwolf endured. But St. Nick gave a few of us jobs. Bob Falls did as well and continues to hire company members at the Goodman.

Howard and Michael produced one of our most successful early productions. Stuart and Jason provided us with a home when we first moved down from Highland Park. Richard Christiansen, The Chicago Tribune's theater critic was a big supporter of off Loop storefronts. Through a combination of unbelievably generous support from its boards of directors, subscribers and donors, Steppenwolf endures and grows.  

10. What’s the one classic role you’ve always wanted to play but haven’t?   Cyrano. Of the modern "classics,"  it would be Tobias in Albee's A Delicate Balance.  

You can get an up-close-and-personal look at Guinan in the role of Tommy in The Night Alive. It runs in the Downstairs Theatre at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago's Lincoln Park  through November 16, 20-14.