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An Actor's Mind

Joe Mantegna is at the top of his game and aims to keep playing Hollywood's Major Leagues
Marshall Fine
From the Print Edition:
Joe Mantegna, July/August 2011

(continued from page 2)

“It was like this mystery world, on the third floor of the high school, in the Little Theater. There were people in leotards; I didn’t know this even existed. And the teacher in charge ran it like a professional theater. Well, my friend took one look around and said, ‘I’m outta here.’ It was too foreign, too weird for him.”

Mantegna, however, decided not to bail. He’d been rehearsing his song—the ballad “Maria”—all week. So he gathered his courage and took the stage.

“I was small for my age. My mother changed my birth certificate so I could start school earlier, so she could work,” Mantegna recalls. “So I was young and had this high tenor voice. And I sang the song and, out of the blackness of the empty auditorium, there came this applause. Maybe nobody had ever applauded for me before, but this thing just washed over me. It was like a lightning bolt hit me in the chest. At that moment, I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

“I lay in bed thinking that I wanted this more than I’d ever wanted anything. And only a few days before, I didn’t even know it existed.”

Just one problem: He wasn’t chosen for the cast. “I was devastated. It had this importance to me that I didn’t understand.”
A few weeks later, Mantegna heard that one of the cast members had hurt his foot during rehearsal and made a point of tracking down the director and offering his services.

“That director said, ‘I do remember you. I liked your moxie. But you were too small. But I want you to join my advanced theater class.’ And that had an incredible impact on my life,” Mantegna says. “It was just this high school in Cicero but he ran it like it was Broadway. I did musicals and plays for three years.”

From there, he went to the theater school at the Goodman, Chicago’s major institutional theater. After two years, he auditioned for and was cast in the Chicago company of “Hair”: “And I never looked back. When I finished singing that song at the audition for ‘West Side Story,’ the die was cast. Nothing has altered for me from that night. It’s been a long road— and that’s where it started.”

The 1970s established Chicago as an epicenter of theatrical innovation. David Mamet was writing new plays for the St. Nicholas Theater, while a group of recent Southern Illinois University graduates joined pal Gary Sinise in Chicago to create Steppenwolf Theater. And Mantegna and actor-friend Dennis Franz became stalwarts of the Organic Theater, working for director Stuart Gordon.

“It was this period in U.S. theater where there was just an explosion,” says Jim Belushi, a Chicago native and longtime friend of Mantegna who was working at Second City at the time. “It wasn’t cultivated. It was just out there. Joey was one of the leaders. We had a great reverence for what Joe and Dennis were doing, writing their own stuff. It was this beautiful creativity.”

Adds Franz, “It was an extremely creative time when a lot of creative people were getting started. It was the chance to display our wares and get a start. A lot of creative juices were flowing; it was an exciting time for all of us.”
There was a DIY ethic at work, part of which grew out of Chicago’s own “second city” mentality of always being slightly behind New York (and Los Angeles).

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