NORWOOD PARK — If they wanted to, the Heffernan family's four ultra-artistic children could certainly have large egos.
Instead the Norwood Park clan said their incredibly diverse talents have brought out the best in each of them.
"It's really interesting because we all build off each other," said Caroline Heffernan, 13, an eighth-grader-to-be at Norwood Park Elementary School who has appeared in several commercials and performed lead roles in numerous Chicago-area plays and musicals. "My siblings are so interesting to talk to, and they're interesting to get opinions from."
When he was 13, Caroline's older brother Eddie played the role of "Lauren Wallace" in the Geico Insurance commercials where he promised to put his distant cousin, NASCAR driver Mike Wallace, "into the wall." A few years later, while he was a student at Northside College Prep, he produced a short film "The Letter," a psychological thriller that earned him "Best Young Filmmaker" honors at the 2009 Nashville Film Festival.
"I'd like to be a director and a screenwriter," said Eddie, now 20 and heading into his junior year at Stanford University. "My passion is filmmaking. When I was 8 or 9, I watched the original 'King Kong.' I appreciated how they created the special effects, and that was a turning point for me."
Home for the summer, Eddie is back to sharing a bedroom and a bunk bed with his 18-year-old brother, Matt, a recent St. Ignatius College Prep graduate who is going to the University of Illinois and plans on becoming a doctor. While he wasn't hitting the books at St. Ignatius, Matt played violin for the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, and performed in several theatrical productions throughout Chicago.
The baby of the family, Caroline already has received high accolades from the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times for a lead role as "Scout" in "To Kill A Mockingbird" at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Her next big part is as "Young Fiona" and "The Ugly Ducking" in Shrek the Musical starting July 13 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier.
"She's the most amazing little actress," said Norwood Park Elementary fourth-grade teacher Bonnie Adler, who instructed all four Heffernan kids and still attends their performances. "She can just transform into different roles like no tomorrow."
Adler said the most talented Heffernan singer might be oldest child Mary, 22, an Elmhurst College senior who has been belting out tunes since she was 3, including countless times on stage with her mother, whose professional name is Nancy Hays.
Hays, a singer and dancer who has opened for such icons as Danny Thomas and George Burns and consistently performs in Europe, is a dynamo in her own right. Visitors to the family's large white home can't take many steps without seeing the plethora of photos of Hays posing with major stars like Bill Cosby, the Smothers Brothers, and Donny and Marie Osmond.
In 1993, Hays founded Nancy Hays Entertainment Inc., a company that books celebrity engagements. Beginning Thursday, Hays has organized a three-day lineup for Kiwanis International in Vancouver, British Columbia, featuring Sarah McLachlan. In April, she put together an event for the University of Pennsylvania starring John Legend and the band Train.
"I had no idea when I got into this business that it would be the perfect business for me," said Hays, a Champaign native and U. of I. graduate who is married to Sean Heffernan, the chief deputy sheriff of Cook County. "I'm obsessed with the entertainment business. It's not work for me."
Mary called her mom "Wonder Woman" for her ability to handle her entertainment career and her family's insanely busy schedule. Hays said she "can work like crazy" from 1-3 a.m. from her basement office, when Caroline said the upstairs noise doesn't sound like a "herd of elephants." And the four kids are more than used to Hays' phone calls to clients during commutes in either of the family's two vehicles, a Honda Odyssey and Chevrolet Malibu.
"On top of everything, she always has a good attitude and is always in a good mood," Matt's longtime violin teacher, Domnica Lungu, said of Hays. "I ask her all the time about what's her secret."
Said Hays: "I have tons of passion and drive. I also don't know where it comes from. I can't seem to quench it. I have no idea where I am racing to, but the thought of stopping is just not an option. I love life and am a very driven person."
The Heffernans said they were never pushed by the parents into their chosen crafts, but they were consistently supported by them. And they were always around the business, even when Hays would change their diapers while watching videos of prospective superstar business clients.
As very young children, the Heffernans would attend plays at various Chicago theaters — "people couldn't believe they were with us," Hays said — and rituals consisted of watching black-and-white versions of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," and Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire's "Holiday Inn."
Early-on nighttime reading included "Johnny Tremain," "Huckleberry Finn" and "To Kill a Mockingbird."
"There was a joint door between their bedrooms and I would sit on the floor with a little light and read to them with the lights out," Hays said. "I told them that they should use their own imaginations to picture the characters as I read out loud."
It is not all about the arts for the Heffernans, who "are a remarkably balanced family," according to longtime neighbor Cathy Dunlap.
"They are such wonderful people to be around, even if they weren't doing all that talented stuff," said Dunlap, a Morgan Park Academy graduate and Beverly native. "The Heffernans are magic."
Matt and Eddie are huge English Premier League soccer fans; their favorite teams are Chelsea and Manchester United, respectively. After graduating from college, Mary wants to work in geriatrics.
And despite her natural acting and singing talents, Caroline, who also takes piano, gymnastics and contemporary dance classes, said she "always wanted to be a veterinarian."
"Everybody always laughs when I say this, but I don't really want to do theater and musicals as a career," she said. "I want to be doing it for fun, but I don't think it has good job security."