The Actor's Grind | Our Town | Chicago Reader

The Actor's Grind 

Eric Johner finds his calling--and it ain't child's play.

By Albert Williams

In January of 1996, I reviewed a show called Musings & Asides... Topic: Sex at the Chopin Theatre. It was a program of monologues in which mostly unknown actors portrayed famous figures from literature and history ruminating on matters of the heart and other organs. Most of the vignettes were forgettable, but one piece stood out: a daffy little poem called "Fun Sex Rex," written and performed by a fresh-faced newcomer named Eric Johner. Clad in a stovepipe hat and long johns, Johner impersonated Dr. Seuss's Cat in the Hat delivering a sermon on sex: "Would you like to have it here? / Would you like to have it there?...You will like it / You will see / You will like it / In a tree." The script was clever in its deliberately silly way, but more memorable was Johner's charming performance, a mixture of childlike innocence and sexy eagerness that avoided seeming either childish or smarmy.

A year later Johner put his boyish looks to work onstage again, but in a vastly different vehicle. The Boys of the Peggy August Club at Bucktown's Trap Door Theatre was a gritty, naturalistic study of male bonding and rivalry; Johner played a straight-arrow, none-too-bright high school gymnastics star named Tadpole who, despite his desire to remain a virgin until marriage, is stripped naked and forced to have sex with a prostitute at a buddy's bachelor party. Where Johner's Cat in the Hat was playful and frisky, Tadpole was torn by shame, lust, and confusion. His compelling performance was all the more remarkable considering the intimate nature of the tiny theater, which would make any emotional dishonesty on the actors' part readily apparent. Happily, the entire ensemble was up to par; Peggy August was scheduled to run for four weeks but ended up playing for three months.

Now Johner (pronounced YO-ner) has hit the big time in Chicago theater. As depressive, suicidal, stuttering Billy Bibbit in Steppenwolf's critically dissed but crowd-pleasing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, he's holding his own alongside cast members like Gary Sinise and Amy Morton. Most reviewers, despite their reservations about the material and Terry Kinney's staging, have praised the show's acting, and the Tribune's Richard Christiansen singled out Johner for giving "the evening's finest portrayal."

Not that Johner's trying to steal the show from Sinise or anyone else. He's dedicated to the ensemble tradition of Chicago theater, all the more so for having come late to it. Raised on the North Shore, he attended New Trier High School, which is well-known for its drama program. But Johner says he "ran with a different crowd. I played soccer and other sports. You know what it can be like in high school--you're too cool for yourself."

But Johner was always pulled toward public performance. At Colorado State University, he majored in speech communications with an eye to becoming a lawyer. After school, realizing "I needed to come to terms with myself," he returned to Chicago and landed a job as a sales representative for an engineering company. "I was miserable from the first day," he says. "I loved meeting people, but I could never push the hard sell. To keep myself sane I began taking acting classes."

Johner enrolled in night classes for adults at Evanston's Piven Theatre Workshop, known for producing such alumni as John and Joan Cusack, Aidan Quinn, and workshop directors Byrne and Joyce Piven's children Jeremy and Shira. After one class he was hooked. "I remember driving home on the wrong side of Green Bay Road that night," he says. "I knew theater was my first love. It changed my life." What impressed him most was the "reverence for acting" he says Byrne Piven and his disciples preached. "Byrne was serious about the craft of acting and I keyed into that right away." Johner paid for the lessons by working in the school's office--"I licked a lot of envelopes."

It was at Piven that Johner came to the attention of the producer of Musings & Asides. But he landed the Peggy August role without any connections--and, he admits, he wasn't the first choice for the role of Tadpole. "Beata [Pilch, Trap Door's artistic director] wanted to give the job to another guy. But he didn't want to take his clothes off. I was second in line."

After Peggy August, Johner appeared in a few other small off-Loop shows, including a workshop production of a play called Objects in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Seem at Bailiwick Repertory. "I played a gay guy in that, and I'm straight. There were a couple of kissing scenes, and it was a new world for me. It was a good learning experience to be pushed into a character you're really unfamiliar with. The harder things are for me, the more I put myself into them."

Johner also appeared in Trap Door's staging of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Bremen Freedom and the Terrapin Theatre's revival of Willy Russell's Stags and Hens, both of which were very well received. Then he seemed to drop out of sight. Had he headed off to Hollywood--or just given up acting altogether? In fact he was auditioning for local casting agents in hopes of landing a role in a TV pilot. "I had gotten wrapped up in this idea of 'I need to start making some money.'" But when nothing panned out, "I had a conversation with myself. I said, 'I need to get back on track.'" So he applied to Steppenwolf Theatre's selective (and expensive) training program, in which students study under Steppenwolf members such as Morton and Jeff Perry.

"I used my savings to pay for the program. I spent 8 to 5 every weekday doing what I wanted to do, and did odds and ends at night and weekends to pay for it," he says. "I've moved furniture, tended bar--fuck, I've waited on so many tables!" The program included instruction in the vocal and physical techniques the talented but raw young actor needed for the demands of full-time Equity theater. "Peggy August ran for three months, but we only did four shows a week," he says. The physically taxing Cuckoo's Nest has eight--including two a day on weekends. "I'd always thought acting was just about learning your lines and connecting with your scene partners. Now I know that being an actor is a grind."

But it's also a mission. "It's about being compassionate and honest. It's about the search for the truth. My dad, who passed away when I was young, was a surgeon at Evanston Hospital. He liked to help people, but to do it he had to cut them open. I think there's something similar about acting. You're examining and probing the human condition."

Johner won the role of Billy Bibbit in part because of his participation in the Steppenwolf school--including a workshop production of the English drama Road directed by Jim True, a fellow New Trier alum. But the connection by no means guaranteed him the job: selected as one of a handful of finalists from among some 85 hopefuls from around the country, he auditioned for Kinney three times before being cast. To prepare for the part, Johner says, "I did a lot of homework, including talking to a speech pathologist at Northwestern University and studying a video from the Stuttering Foundation of America." He also devised his own special makeup to create Billy's self-inflicted cigarette burns on his hand. "Doing the makeup helps me get into the role," he says. "My job is to be Billy for a couple of hours."

The research resulted in a stunning rendition of a crucial role. Billy's final breakdown and suicide sets up the climax of Cuckoo's Nest, the story of a group of mental patients who rebel against the authoritarian Nurse Ratched. When Billy loses his virginity to a prostitute brought into the asylum for a secret party, Ratched puts down the incipient revolt with a moralistic lecture that emotionally crushes Billy, driving him to suicide. In his showdown with Morton's Ratched, Johner seems to literally crumble onstage, reduced from a cocky, confident youth to a shamed, stammering, sobbing infant in a man's body.

"Every time you do the show you have to dig deeper," says Johner. "You have to keep it alive, make each performance different. I look for things that can inspire me, like a twinkle on Amy's wristwatch. Whenever I'm in trouble onstage, I soak everything I have into the other person [in a scene] and work off that." In his climactic breakdown scene, he notes, "I sometimes find myself wanting to rush the moment. So I just drill into Amy's eyes and that's how I find what I need."

As for critics' doubts about the script--which has been labeled everything from dramatically dated to misogynistic to dangerously scientifically inaccurate--Johner insists he loves the material as much as the role itself. "When I was in high school we had to write a theme paper on a piece of literature. Fourteen typed pages--for a 16-year-old it's like a master's thesis. I wrote mine on Cuckoo's Nest. I thought it was a really great story even back then, and it still seems to me like a timeless story." Besides, he notes: "How could an actor not love a play in which a group of people sit in a semicircle in group therapy talking about their psychological problems?"

Johner claims he has little interest in TV and mainstream movies except as a way to pay the rent. "Film just seems so foreign to me. When I started with Piven I didn't try to meet agents or audition for two years. I just wanted to understand what acting was about. But I realized pretty early that if you're in it for the money, film is the main place to be." He has appeared in a few independent films, including a thriller called No Tomorrow. The best thing about that, he says, was that "I got to play the asshole older brother"--a change of pace from deflowered virgins and clean-cut boys next door. "I don't want to get typecast," he says. "My job is to understand the human condition." As for the process of making movies, "I was initially bored by putting in a 15-hour day for a minute of film. But I like the collaborative aspect." He's also been in a few commercials: "I played the all-American blue-collar nice guy for Chevrolet, True Value Hardware, that kind of thing. It's allowed me to do what I want, which is to act onstage."

When Cuckoo's Nest wraps up its run here on June 24, the production moves to London, where it will play as part of the BITE:00 Festival. There's also talk of a New York run. Meanwhile, the Steppenwolf production has drawn the attention of big shots from both coasts--Gene Hackman and Mel Gibson are among those who've dropped in to see it.

Which is great for Johner's career. There's no question this young actor has charisma--the kind that comes not just from a handsome face and an athletic build but from hard work and a passion for his craft--but only time will tell whether he'll make it big. If he doesn't, he can always go to law school. Ask any actor's family: it's good to have something to fall back on.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kristina Krug/Michael Brosilow.

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