From campus to sitcom star: young actor’s career raises hope

Lucas Neff in promotional photo for "Raising Hope"

Lucas Neff (holding baby aloft in a promotional ad for “Raising Hope”) is no slacker, although he plays one on TV. “Lucas was always very focused and striving for perfection,” his former professor says.

Even his former professor says Lucas Neff’s success ” sounds like a Hollywood story.”

Neff, a 2008 graduate in performing arts, stars in the new Fox sitcom “Raising Hope” as Jimmy Chance, the accidental father of a seven-month-old girl.

The show airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m.; last week, after three episodes, Fox slated it for a full season.

Jimmy, 23, lives with his parents, cleans pools with his father and became responsible only when the baby fell into his lap.

Neff began supporting himself as a full-time actor right after college, never taking a break between shows.

“Lucas was always very focused, critical of himself and striving for perfection,” said Yasen Peyankov, head of the acting program. “I believe he is quite level-headed and humble.

“I knew he would work; I didn’t know he was going to get such a huge break so soon. It sounds like a Hollywood story.”

For two years, Neff performed on stage and in commercials in Chicago. He says he earned enough to pay the rent and have “almost three meals a day.”

Just as he hit a slump and started to clean houses for extra money, his agent called him to do a video audition for “Raising Hope.” He liked the script immediately.

“For me, this show has a message. It has a lot of heart, and it has a sweet core in its sensibilities,” Neff says. “The more time I spend on this planet, the less I enjoy cynicism.”

Hundreds of actors auditioned for the role, but Neff made an impression on producer Greg Garcia.

“Greg is the funniest, most loyal guy in the world. He called me before Fox did,” Neff says. “He’d called his wife and said, ‘This is the guy.’ Then he showed her my audition and she said, ‘I love him.’”

Neff had intended to study cinematography at UIC. When he was accidentally placed in theater, he decided to try acting. He stayed because of “great teachers” like Peyankov, Luigi Salerni and Bill Raffeld.

“Maybe I had some predilection I wasn’t aware of,” he said.

“It’s fun playing pretend. It’s better than real work, and it broadens a person. It develops your empathic side.”

Neff appeared in UIC Theatre productions of “Angels in America,” “The Kentucky Cycle,” “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” “Hamlet” and many other plays – usually two each semester, he says.

He worked as the doorman at Hawkeye’s Bar & Grill on Taylor Street, a job that also required acting for someone with such an affable demeanor.

“I think I was the least intimidating doorman ever,” he said.

After graduation, Neff attended the School at Steppenwolf, a 10-week program led by members of the Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble. He went on to perform at Steppenwolf, Chicago Dramatists and other theaters throughout Chicago. He is in talks with some of those theaters to produce his own plays.

Meanwhile, he and his fellow cast members put in 12- to 15-hour days on “Raising Hope.”

It helps that the cast, crew and director all like and respect each other, Neff says.

“Getting 22 minutes of comedy is harder than you’d think,” he says.

“You can see on their faces how it wears people out. There’s always more makeup at the end of the week.”

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