"I think, of New York and L.A. and Chicago, Chicago's probably the easiest of the three to get your foot in the door and to get a start," says Claire Simon of Simon Casting ("The Chicago Code," "Detroit 1-8-7," "Contagion"). "We have this wonderful, strong theater community, and it's also a really affordable, wonderful place to live."
David O'Connor of O'Connor Casting Company, who is currently casting multiple commercial projects, says of Chicago, "If you talk to an actor who's lived in all three cities, they all say the same thing: It's definitely a warmer environment; it's not so cutthroat. Actors talk to each other more in the waiting rooms. They'll help each other out a little bit more, and that's a common thread I've been hearing for 20 years."
Chicago is a great place for actors to get training, refine their technique, and ultimately build their careers. But you have to be willing to diversify. Currently, many television projects shoot in the city—including Showtime's new series "Shameless"—but, Simon says, "To come here with the idea that you're just going to do TV would be foolish. You really have to be willing to do theater and commercials and whatever comes to town." And that makes well-rounded actors, says O'Connor.
That diversity is also what makes other states seek out Chicago actors. "There's probably 10,000 to 15,000 actors that are around Chicago, and all of them do everything," O'Connor says. "Whereas if you're in L.A., there may be 90,000 SAG actors, but you know only 10,000 to 15,000 of those actors will do commercial work. So the directors that are coming [to Chicago] are searching out new faces, new people."
Chicago casting directors also cast projects happening in L.A., New York, and elsewhere across the country. O'Connor says that more than 60 percent of the projects he casts are shooting outside of Chicago, adding that union projects from New York will often come to Chicago for talent before going to L.A., because they can save on airfare.
"People come to Chicago for great theater character actors and for funny people," says Simon. O'Connor concurs: "Nobody beats us for improv. It's one of the main things that people constantly come from New York and L.A. for. They want people that are very real and theater-trained and people that have comedy backgrounds."
Belonging to a union isn't a prerequisite to working in Chicago, but having representation is. "If you're a decent actor, you're going to have representation in Chicago," says O'Connor. Multilisting is allowed in the city—meaning actors can work with more than one agent and manager—which makes it easier to get an agent and get sent out right away. "So if you're a talented actor and you come to town and start auditioning for things," says Simon, "people are going to be excited to find you."
Claire Simon, Simon Casting, www.simoncasting.com
David O'Connor, O'Connor Casting Company, www.oconnorcasting.tv