Q&A with Mike C. Nelson
Rising star of the newly released indie movie, “Bullitt County”
Indie movie and action thriller “Bullitt County” opened in late October at select cinemas in seven cities nationwide, including Chicago’s AMC Galewood Crossing 14. It will come to home screens in February. This is the first leading role in a movie for Mike C. Nelson, an Indiana native whose family relocated to the west suburbs when he was in his late teens. After graduating from University of Indiana, Nelson returned to the Chicago area where he took his first steps in a career that would lead him from sketch comedy training at Second City to roles in TV commercials and the television sitcom “Black-ish,” to landing the starring role in “Bullitt County. “ With family in Oak Park and Lake Barrington, Nelson, whose home is now Los Angeles, is a frequent visitor to Chicago and the western suburbs.
How did you get started as an actor?
I was a very late bloomer. Throughout high school, I was scared to get up in front of people. So I took advice from my brother who had taken an acting class in college. I was petrified to do it but it was awesome. I overcame a lot of fears and ended up majoring in theatre, which I never thought I would do. When I came back to the Chicago area, I took classes at Second City with a great teacher named Norm Holly. I created my own sketch comedy show with a group of friends and we started performing live at Chopin Theatre in Wicker Park. We were called Dry Hump (laughs). A very highbrow name for our very highbrow comedy. Wink, wink. I got by waiting tables at Ed Debevic’s — almost everybody who worked there was a musician, an artist or an actor, so it was really cool.
What made you move to Los Angeles?
I had only visited once — during the year before I turned 30, one of those milestone birthdays when you re-evaluate everything. I remember there was a week when I just couldn’t sleep. The wheels were spinning — I thought, I’m not married, I don’t have kids. And then I just made the decision, a few months short of my 30th birthday.
Did you get your break right away?
No (laughs). I started a sketch group and took a couple of years just doing that. But I had friends who said, what are you doing? Where’s your resume? Where’s your headshot? Like, get it going! I had a roommate who worked at an agency, so I put a rag-tag resume together and another friend took my headshot. The agency signed to represent me as a commercial actor.
What did that lead to?
I started out doing a non-union ad spot for Sam’s Club. It was my very first audition and brought me back to the first day of acting class. Everyone seemed to know each other and I just sat in the corner, the new guy. I ended up booking that spot. I’ve done over 50 commercials and still do them to this day. I’ve been fortunate to be one of the lucky commercial actors who has worked fairly consistently over the last decade.
So what has been the high point of your career thus far?
I think it was booking the role on “Black-ish.” That was my first big TV show and I had a small role as a male nurse. The best is right now — and it’s going to keep on getting better. I pinch myself!
How about a low point?
Dealing with daily rejection. Every once in a while, there’s one you just can’t let roll off your back. I’d say my toughest point was after I booked a big commercial campaign at the tail end of 2008 and quit my day job — just when the recession hit. I was broke and roughing it — living off unemployment and barely eating. I quit my job at the most inopportune time. But now I look back and, hey, that led me here.
How did the role in “Bullitt County” come about?
About five years ago I booked a job with writer-director David McCracken on a short film called “OstrichLand.” We became good friends and always kept in touch. He let me know that he was working on a feature script and he had kept me in mind for one of the roles. Along the way, he sent me different versions of the script and asked for notes. We went back and forth and were supposed to shoot it three years ago but the investor fell through. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise as David re-imagined the script and decided to set it back in the 1970s, before cell phones. Just two years ago, almost to today, we left for Indiana to start shooting.
What is the movie about?
Without giving it away, it’s a story of four college friends who reconvene 10 years later to walk the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Along the way they hear of this supposed treasure, from back in Prohibition days when some bourbon-baron family buried their riches to keep them away from the Feds. So the friends go looking for it. I’ll kind of stop right there. It’s an action thriller with a really cool look and feel. There are tips of the cap to movies like “Deliverance” and “The Shining.”
Do you have any stories to share about the making of the movie?
It was a fun experience. One of the first days of shooting, the song “Africa” by Toto came on the radio and that became our theme song. Before we went our separate ways for the night, we would pump “Africa” and everyone would sing their hearts out. Almost every day we were dealing with harsh weather conditions. There were sub-zero nights and there were days when it was 80 degrees and you’re wearing a wool coat.
What advice do you have for young actors trying to make it in the movies?
A lot of people say you have to do everything a certain way, but I’m proof that’s not true. You really can move out to LA when you’re 30, not just when you’re young and beautiful. My path has been different but I’m sitting here today grinning from ear to ear that I’ve had a career in television and film and commercials and theatre. I’ve been working steadily for close to 15 years. There are a few things I’ve kind of picked up. One, you have to have some talent and work on it. Work at getting better every day. Two, be a professional. Prepare for auditions. Show up early. Know your lines. And three, and most important, be the nicest person to work with. Don’t be a jerk. Don’t be the diva. If you’re kind and funny and nice to be around, people remember and will want to work with you over and over again.
Should actors have a plan B, in case things don’t work out? I’d say, no. If you’re serious about it, you’re going to figure out how to make ends meet. A lot of people come out here or go out to New York and they give themselves some kind of deadline. You’re going to fail almost 100 percent of the time by doing that. If you are passionate about it and you can’t be happy doing other things, then you’ll do whatever it takes. We all struggle, but we don’t give up.
What’s next for you? Scriptwriting! I’ve done mostly comedic stuff but over the years that has melded into other things. Right now, a good friend from Lisle — I just officiated at his wedding — and I are embarking on writing a biopic together. It’s a more serious, WWII-flavored script. That’s a departure but something I’m excited to try.
What do you miss about living in the Chicago area?
I miss the food. I miss the skyline and the lakefront. Most important, I miss my friends and family. It’s always comforting to go back because I know so many people there. And I miss White Castle at 4 a.m.! We don’t have those out in LA.
When were you last in the west suburbs? I was visiting my 99 -year-old grandmother in Oak Park and she had Johnnie’s Italian beef. Absolute perfection.
Three words that describe you? I’m funny, warm — and reliable.
How would friends describe you? I have friends who are very kind. They have said I’m smart and talented. And very loving. That’s nice to hear.
An actor who inspires you? Paul Newman — “The Sting,” “Cool Hand Luke” and “Slap Shot. “ And then he raced cars and gave profits from his food line to charity. How cool!
Something people may not know about you? Every Monday night I play trivia at a British pub with friends.
Cubs or White Sox? White Sox.
Do you still get nervous when you perform? I’ve learned to have confidence in what I do. When the camera’s rolling, all those nerves melt away. It’s one of the coolest things in the world — to be in the zone.Edit Module