From actor and singer-songwriter to new father, This Is Us star and former Chicagoan Chris Sullivan is playing multiple roles these days—and loving it.
He’s beloved as Toby on the NBC blockbuster series This Is Us, but long before Chris Sullivan achieved TV fame, the actor was turning heads on the stage in Chicago. One of his plum roles? The one-man show Defending the Caveman, which brought him to Chicago’s Lakeshore Th eater and introduced him to the Windy City theater scene. Now five seasons into This Is Us and relishing new fatherhood and the recent release of his album of country-roots tunes as Joseph the Spouse, Sullivan sat down with Men’s Book Chicago to discuss the city’s impact on him, what he’s learned from the quarantine and where he hopes to be in 10 years.
This Is Us has taken on a life of its own. When you signed on for it way back when, did you have any clue what was coming your way?
The cast frequently reminisces about reading the pilot episode, and we all knew right away that that was one of the best episodes of television we had ever read. So we knew that much, but in any kind of entertainment realm there’s always unknowns, and we certainly couldn’t have known that it would have been one of the most well-received shows on TV. Th e storytelling just kind of continues to amaze us as we go season to season. It keeps getting better.
What do you think you’re proudest of about this whole experience so far?
I think what I’m most proud of is actually an internal culture that the show has managed to maintain. Th ere are a lot of things that can go on behind the scenes of any creative endeavor, whether it’s political or financial or whatever, and [series creator] Dan Fogelman has managed to bring together a group of people, from the producers to the cast, the writers to the crew, who truly love each other. It’s a collaborative group of people who even after five years, five seasons, are still so excited to go to work, so excited to support each other. Th at’s not an easy culture to maintain.
What brought you to the city, and what was that period of your life like at that point?
I was part of the national tour of Defending the Caveman, and after a couple of years making the rounds of the major markets, we did a sit-down run at the Lakeshore Th eater at Broadway and Belmont, which is now a Laugh Factory. I had been touring with that show on and off for four years—I did almost 1,000 performances—and I think I was at the Lakeshore for 14 months. Th at’s when I decided that Chicago was where I wanted to stay. So when that show ended, I stayed and started studying improv, trying to get myself involved in the theater scene. At that time, Chicago was kind of in between its film and television popularity. It was before [One Chicago creator] Dick Wolf came to town and it was after Prison Break. Some big movies would come to town, Batman films, things like that, but it was all theater. I got myself into the theater and voice-over and commercial acting world.
What were some of your favorite places in the city?
I spent a lot of time at iO, studying—I learned quite a bit about acting from them. I spent a lot of time at the Court Theater on the South Side—it’s one of my favorite theaters. Honestly, after Defending the Caveman, I managed to string together a good string of theater shows. Most of my time in Chicago was spent in theaters [laughs], whether the Royal George or the Goodman or Chicago Shakespeare, places like that. … And Chicago is still my creative center. It’s funny, when young actors ask me for advice, I tell them something they don’t want to hear, which is ‘Move to Chicago.’ They’re like, ‘I don’t understand.’ Chicago is the most creatively diverse town I’ve ever lived in. And on top of that, it’s an affordable city for a young artist. You can find a reasonable place to live and figure out who you want to be as an artist.
Let’s discuss your big recent news, which is your new album as Joseph the Spouse. It’s country, it’s rootsy, it’s mournful at times. How did the album come together?
It came together through a new friendship with Taylor Goldsmith, the lead singer and songwriter for a band called Dawes. He and I met through Mandy Moore; they were dating when we first started filming, and now they’re married with a baby on the way [Ed. note: Moore gave birth to a son, August, on Feb. 20]. As soon as Taylor and I became friends, I got every album Dawes had released and started listening to them in chronological order. And as I would listen, I would text Taylor and ask him questions, and we’d talk about his process and his influences. Like where did this turn of phrase come from? And finally, I had heard enough of his lyrics and I sent him a text one day saying, ‘You listen to a lot of John Prine, don’t you?’ And he said, ‘He’s one of my favorites.’ John Prine is my all-time guy. I grew up listening to him. He was from just outside Chicago. And so I was writing a song one day and the first half of the first verse was 100% a John Prine song. So I texted Taylor and said, ‘Hey man, you want to write a John Prine song?’ and I sent it to him, and he sent back almost instantly the second half of that verse, and I wrote half the chorus and he wrote half the chorus, and within two days we had written our first song together over text message, and that was ‘Deaf Ears,’ the second track on the record. And it’s 100% our love letter to John Prine. And then after that, we just sat down and wrote a bunch more songs. I think you’re right, there is a lot of mourning; there’s a lot of songs about uncertainty, about deciding what kind of man I want to be. The overarching theme of the record, Six Feet From Under, is, essentially, you know, our time here is limited. So how are we going to spend the time we have?
Like many musicians, you’ve put new work out into the world and are having to sit on your hands a little bit because of the situation we’re in. Are you itching to get out in front of people and perform?
Yeah. You know, back almost exactly one year ago, we were performing around L.A., playing the songs live, Taylor and myself and my wife, Rachel, and he brought a bunch of the Dawes band members in to record the record and also to play live. We were digging it—the songs were taking on new life and we were really starting to feel that rhythm. And of course, everything went sideways. I’d love to get back in front of people; I think that’s really what this is about for me—any kind of creative endeavor is about collaboration and working with artists who have something to teach me, and getting in front of an audience.
You’ll have to come back and play the Lakeshore Theater.
There you go. That would be full circle.
In your ideal world, where are you going to be in 10 years?
I think if I’m right where I am right now in 10 years, that would be just fine with me. I’m a new dad, and I’m getting a chance to make a good living doing what I want to do, and when This Is Us is over, I can get back to the theater. I can tour, play music; I can work on other film projects. When I first started working with my manager James Suskin, one of the things we agreed on was to always have the current project be different from the last project. So there’s a real urge to do things differently and surprise people, surprise myself, challenge myself, do new things and connect with audiences as frequently as possible. So, I’m pretty content where I am today [laughs], and if I were doing some version of this 10 years from now, I would be real happy. That’s one thing that this quarantine has taught me—the Groundhog Day nature of the last year has given me a lot of time to really be comfortable with myself, and just being. So in 10 years, I hope I’m still challenging myself. That’s where I see myself.