THE LOOP — Before actor, comedian, author and handyman Nick Offerman was crosscutting coffee tables in his Los Angeles workshop or lauding the value of cured meats as Ron Swanson on "Parks and Recreation," he got his start as "a young broke actor" in Chicago.
The southwest suburban Minooka native — now a Los Angeleno married to actress and comedienne Megan Mullally — will return to Chicago early next month for a "homecoming" performance of his touring "American Ham" special at the Chicago Theatre. DNAinfo.com Chicago caught up with Offerman to discuss his upcoming two-day visit and what he plans to do while he's here.
This is your first time performing at the Chicago Theatre. Does it feel like a big accomplishment?
It sure is. I never dreamed — I mean, I used to go to work Downtown at the Goodman, and I've stood waiting for many trains Downtown in the Loop, staring at that marquee thinking 'God, I would love someday to just play Rosencratz or Gildenstern in that joint.' I never dreamed I'd be all by myself. This whole life has become surreal, and it will be a major feather in my surreal cap.
Will this performance be different than your Just For Laughs rendition of "American Ham" at the Vic last year?
It's the same framework, my "10 Tips for Prosperity,'' but it's been greatly refined, and Megan's band Nancy and Beth have a whole new set of songs to start off the show. Basically the Vic show was part of the Off-Broadway run, the Chicago Theatre show will be the big time.
The Oct. 3 show is being billed as your "homecoming" performance. Does Chicago still feel like home to you?
It does, yeah. I have to say the events that I've taken part in in Chicago in the last couple years have really been incredibly astonishing and gratifying. To see that Chicago still welcomes me as her own is incredibly heartwarming, and it makes me spend a little extra at the bratwurst shop. I'm keeping at least three butchers afloat.
"Dead Man" is an incredibly inspirational film for me, but only tangentially is it related [to the event]. The Music Box is the greatest art house in Chicago, possibly in the country, and when I was living here in the '90s, I saw "Dead Man" there probably five or six times. And it was just one of the most idyllic experiences. When I think about what it was like living in Chicago, I think about that. So they asked me if I wanted to screen a film and I said, 'Yeah, I want to screen "Dead Man.'" That's the film to see at the Music Box. It has an entire soundtrack of incredible guitar by Neil Young.
Where were your stomping grounds when you lived here in the '90s?
When I first got there I was very broke, and some friends and I lived out near Chicago and Ashland, and I lived down in Pilsen for a stretch, in one of those sort of artistic warehouse lofts. But my main dwelling was at North and Clybourn, right next to Uncle Julio's. There's now a big Pottery Barn thing, but it used to be a warehouse where I lived in squalor. I had my own scenery shop there. We built a lot of scenery there, but we also had a lot of parties. It's right around the corner from Steppenwolf, so it became the place where we would all go engage in iniquities after performing at Steppenwolf.
You're a Los Angeleno now. How does Chicago stack up to other cities you've lived in? Anything you miss about it?
I lived in New York as well. The greatest thing about Chicago, certainly as a young broke actor, was the incredible public transportation system. Every month we would buy a monthly pass, and with that thing you absolutely command the entire city. From the top of the North Shore all the way down to the bottom of the South Side, and that is something that Los Angeles is very sadly lacking in. If you don't have a legal and operative motor vehicle, you're screwed here because it's incredibly spread out and sprawling.
That leads into the other big difference: Chicago's theater community is so much more healthy and vibrant, and Chicago's so much more supportive of its live theater. I think that's in part because of that great transit system: You can go to a play, and go to the bar, and have three pints and talk about the play, and get home safely. Whereas in Los Angeles, there's not that many ways to go see the theater. I love Los Angeles. I've found an incredibly happy life here with my wife and the work I get to do here, but I do deeply miss the vibrant and fecund theater community that Chicago claims.
A lot of your peers and "Parks & Recreation" castmates spent their time here at Second City, but you didn't. Was avoiding it a conscious choice? Are you surprised your career now includes a lot of comedy?
I've actually never set foot in the Second City. It's a comedy theater, and I come from what we call "legit theater" or "straight theater." And so I knew Amy Poehler when she was training and working at [Second City], but we never saw each other's work. I was involved in plays at theaters like Steppenwolf and Goodman and Wisdom Bridge and my own company, the Defiance Theater. At the time there was, I think, a much more polarized viewing of the sort of different genres. You took part in plays so you would perform in a feature-length play, or you would perform in sketch and improv and you were known not so much as an actor but as a comedian. And the lines have become much more blurred because we all kind of do everything now. But certainly in Chicago there were two very disparate groups: the people who wanted to get to Saturday Night Live, and then the people the group which I was part of, which just wanted to perform really good plays.
You grew up on a farm in Minooka, outside Joliet, before you moved to Chicago, and a lot of your characters (especially Ron Swanson) seem to have an outdoorsy sensibility. Do you feel limited by that archetype?
I think my rural upbringing, and my ability to use a shovel, lends an authenticity to certain roles that I'm glad to see people respond to. Those of us who can wield a felling ax are often quite irked when we see a film and an actor clearly has no idea how to hold or wield a tool. I remember there was a movie called "Signs," and Joaquin Phoenix comes rushing in the house having just dug a bunch of holes with a shovel, and his jeans were clean and pressed, and you could almost see how soft his hands were. So it's nice when a production understands that your laborer should know how to perform labor.
I haven't found it to be limiting yet. Fortunately, I am grateful that the people in the business seemed to know me as a dependable character actor before Ron Swanson and "Parks and Recreation" took off. So I feel like it's not inhibiting me from getting roles that don't involve using tools.
What's on your agenda while you're off stage and in town? Any traditions?
Usually when I'm there I'll go to see friends and a play, and it's sort of a movable feast. Wherever Red Orchid or some of the old Defiant members are doing theater, that's where you'll find me. I always love to get into Moody's Pub if I can, and if I behave appropriately in Moody's Pub, then the next morning I need to nurse my hangover, so I head to the Heartland Cafe for a roborative brunch. It's funny — I mean, I make a much better living now as an adult than I did when I lived in Chicago, so all of my haunts are sort of dive bars. If there was one place I would always go, it would've been O'Rourke's across from Steppenwolf, but they closed unfortunately. This time around, I'm on a book tour, so evenings when I could be going to the theater, I'll be performing myself. But I'll definitely try to hit the pub.