Petersen and Gray in Slowgirl. (Photography by Michael Brosilow, courtesy Steppenwolf Theatre)
Fifteen minutes with Rae Gray
A fourth-year in the College moonlights as Chicago’s busiest young actor.

Rae Gray, ’14, was raised in Chicago, where she balances a red-hot acting career with classes at the place she calls the U of C. This past summer she had a critically acclaimed turn in Steppenwolf Theatre’s Slowgirl, playing a troubled 17-year-old opposite CSI’s William Petersen.

This fall she is starting her final lap at the College while starring in The North China Lover at Lookingglass Theatre. We spoke briefly on the phone a few weeks ago, and I asked if we might feature her in an upcoming issue of the Core. Her answer, like the girl herself, was graciously nerdy: “That sounds pretty neat.”

When did you audition and rehearse for Slowgirl?

The audition process was very unusual. Last year Erica Daniels, the associate artistic director at Steppenwolf, called my agent and said, “I have a possible summer project for Rae, so I’d like to keep her summer open.” In March she came into my agent’s office and I read some monologues for her; she put me on tape and sent it to Billy [Petersen] and Randy [Randall Arney], our director. They liked the tape, and we started rehearsal in June at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. Then we came back to Chicago.

Your character in the play, Becky, uses some wild language and funny expressions. How much of that was in the original script?

Becky is incredibly well written. I don’t think I gave her any of her idiosyncrasies; they’re just written in there. All the language—all her exaggerations and saying ‘like’ every other word—is in the script. I said it word for word or as close as I could. She’s completely fleshed out, and that made it so much easier for me to have a take on her, on who she is, and what’s motivating her. All that’s from Greg Pierce, our playwright.

You brought a unique physicality to the role, slouching and flopping around like a teenager. Were you channeling anyone in particular?

I went to high school with a lot of Beckys, I think, at the Latin School. Most of the girls there are a lot like Becky in terms of background, how they talk, and what they’re interested in, so I had four years to do a character study of these girls.

Of course, I always work with the director very closely to decide what the character should be like, and the costume designer was very informative about how our physicality should be. So many factors went into it; part of it is how I move physically too. You can never completely get away from yourself in any role, as much as you try. There will always be a little bit of your own stuff in there.

What was it like spending your summer doing an intense two-person play with a 60-year-old guy?

I was pretty intimidated going into this. Also very excited; any actor dreams of working at Steppenwolf and doing a summer show, a two-person show—there’s nothing better. It ended up being so incredible. I’m 21 and Billy’s 60, and he’s kind of a star. I didn’t know if he was going to be jaded. We just connected in a way that I’ve never connected with any cast member before, because it was just the two of us.

What did you connect over?

Part of it is a personality thing. When I met him for the first time I was comfortable with him right away, and I think he felt the same way about me. Part of it is our roots: we both started in Chicago theater; we’re both Chicago people and we have similar interests. We’re both huge Cubs fans. Our philosophies about acting, the business, and how theater is changing are very similar. More than anything, we were just very passionate about this story and getting it right. We were very diligent about it.

Did you have any time to relax or read some good books this summer?

I have to read a lot of scripts that my agent sends me, but yes, I did read quite a few books. I really like writing short stories, so I read short story compilations and some novels—Jeffrey Eugenides. I’ve been reading a lot about Marguerite Duras since the show I’m doing at Lookingglass, The North China Lover, is based on her life and I’m playing her. I can’t say my reading is always for pleasure, but I do end up doing a lot of reading and it’s fun.

What are your plans for the year ahead?

The North China Lover is eight shows a week, from September 25 to November 10, and I’m also back at the U of C for the first quarter of my senior year. After that I’ll probably go out to LA to start rehearsing Slowgirl; we’re doing it at the Geffen in the spring. It’s been one of my favorite things I’ve ever done and I’m so excited that I get to do it again in a smaller space and share it with the LA community. Usually you only get one chance to do these shows, so I’m very grateful. I have a couple other prospective projects—movies and shows that I’m looking at doing as well.

Will you be able to graduate on time?

I’m not entirely sure. I started having a conversation with my adviser, and I’m hoping to get independent study credit. I’ve done, I think, eight or nine professional shows while I’ve been at the U of C. When I leave for Los Angeles I’ll have eight credits remaining, so I’ll see how I can fill those in. I’m a theater major and an English and creative writing minor. I’ve completed all my Core classes and English classes, so basically what I have left are electives and theater credits.