Sitcom star returns to his roots
“Acting isn’t about pride and dignity. It’s about being willing to be humiliated,” Lucas Neff told a crowd of theater students and observers Friday as he prepared to coach them on acting in front of a camera.
The star of the Fox-TV sitcom “Raising Hope” explained that actors who are afraid to let themselves go are boring and ineffective, doing a disservice to themselves and their audience.
“Be cool on your own time,” he advised.
Neff, a 2008 UIC theater grad, plays “humiliated” often as Jimmy Chance, an accidental single father who is raising baby Hope, the product of a one-night stand with a fugitive. He lives with his eccentric parents and grandmother and chases after his seemingly unattainable supermarket co-worker.
“He’s an innocent character stuck in terrible situations, and it’s interesting to see how he deals with them,” said Alex Kubacki, a sophomore in information systems and a fan of the show.
“It’s funny, but there’s a meaning at the end,” said Zenaido Vallejo, an engineering major who came to hear Neff.
During the three-hour workshop, Neff primed the students for their acting exercises with a few hard truths:
• Endless rehearsal is the only way to prepare for spontaneity.
• You can control only yourself, not the material, the process or other actors.
• To maintain your creative spark, keep asking yourself why you act and why people behave as they do.
The students did take after take of six scenes that Neff chose from film and TV scripts. The settings ranged from a hospital room where a drug runner tells his sister and friend that he’s about to be murdered for fumbling a deal, to a friendly neighborhood where the Munsters just moved in and are planning to eat people.
Neff stressed the need to make each take different, investing the characters with different emotions each time, instead of refining the same take repeatedly.
“Use a different energy for each take. Give the editor something to work with,” he said.
“Keep yourself energized. The more fun you’re having with each other, the better the scene will be. Don’t ask the director for permission to do something different.”
Along the way, Neff taught on-camera technical skills. The first was how to hit marks — color-coded tape on the floor indicating where each actor should stand after walking into a scene — without looking down. Another was speaking lines to a character who isn’t on set, since scenes are often shot in pieces, out of sequence, over the course of 15-hour days.
Since each scene segment may require 12 takes, actors often release their tension through physical movement, jumping, shaking and stretching between takes, Neff said. The students followed his lead.
“Tension is the soul-sucking torture we do to ourselves,” Neff said.
Asked what part of his UIC education was most helpful in starting his career, Neff said, “Attitude is part of it.
“You have to be realistic about where you sit in the world when you’re starting out. You have to place the burden of responsibility upon yourself to take the initiative, and apply yourself to make the most of whatever opportunity comes your way.… You don’t know what’s going to be your chance.”
Neff said that one of his chances was the opportunity to study with Yasen Peyankov, head of UIC’s acting program and a Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member. Meeting Steppenwolf actors led Neff to enter the acting school at Steppenwolf, even though it took four applications, he recalled.
“This could be the last good job I get, so I’m still trying to make the next thing happen,” Neff said.
“I’d never limit myself. I hope I get to do everything.”
– Rachael LaManna contributed to this report