A few years ago, the term “Hollywood by the lake” came into use as Chicago and the suburbs became frequent filming locations. Now, it might be more accurate to say “Hollywood on the Near Southwest Side,” as multiple television series are using Cinespace Studios, located in the old Ryerson Steel complex around South Rockwell Street and West 14th Street.
Along with the three Dick Wolf “Chicago” shows on NBC, the network’s upcoming “Chicago Justice,” the Fox hit “Empire” and the Amazon series “Patriot” (set for a 2017 debut), there are two more Fox shows filming here now: the police drama “A.P.B.” and a show inspired by an iconic horror book and movie.
That new series is the Fox thriller “The Exorcist,” premiering at 8 p.m. Sept. 23 on WFLD-Channel 32. It’s inspired by William Peter Blatty’s novel that became an Oscar-winning movie directed by ex-Chicagoan William Friedkin.
On a recent summer Sunday, the Sun-Times visited the “Exorcist” set at the cavernous Cinespace sound stages and got a behind-the-scenes peek at the production.
“How do you like my house?” jokes Hannah Kasulka, the Georgia native who plays Casey Rance, the youngest daughter in a Chicago family deeply entangled in a demon-invading horror.
Kasulka glances around the set of the living room, re-created to mirror a comfortable, middle-class Andersonville dwelling.
“A lot of people have asked me recently, ‘Why Chicago? Why couldn’t they shoot this anyplace else?’ I don’t think we could tell this particular story without Chicago,” says Kasulka, who had never spent any time in the city before taping the pilot for “The Exorcist” late last winter.
“The architecture here is so special. It feels so Gothic and rich. Plus, there’s so much history here to this city. In addition, Catholicism is such a big part of our show — and there are so many churches here.
“There seemingly is a church on every street corner. As we moved around the city filming, I kept going, ‘Oh, there’s a beautiful church … and, oh, my, there’s another beautiful church!’ They’re everywhere in this town.”
Kasulka says her Casey character “is the wallflower of the family. She’s sort of a tomboy. She has no airs about her. She’s a people-pleaser. She wants to do everything that she can to make her family happy. She burdens herself with other people’s problems.”
The demonic possession theme of the series gave her pause at first.
“Being raised as a Christian in the Bible Belt of Georgia, I think the fear of God was put in me at a very early age, as it is for many people down there,” she says. “Especially growing up that way, I was a little apprehensive about doing this. But after reading the script, I overcame those fears.
“It’s not just, like, a horror show,” she says. “There’s a lot in there about relationships. I think the series could stand alone without the horror aspect. But, of course, that would be another series. The horror is what makes for great TV.”
Brianne Howey, who plays her on-screen sister Katherine “Kat” Rance, smiles at being told something she and Kasulka have heard many times since they were cast for the show: “You could be sisters for real.”
“Yes, I know,” she says. “The casting team did a great job, didn’t they?”
Howey offers her interpretation of the Rances’ family dynamic.
“My character, Katherine, is a ballerina who goes to Juilliard. Then, unfortunately, she gets into a car accident and injures her knee.
“So we meet her at a very difficult time in her life, when she’s trying to grapple with no longer possibly having a career in dance at all. Considering she’s devoted her whole life to that pursuit, it obviously is devastating.
“That’s also coming at a time when her dad [Alan Ruck] is sick, so he can’t be there for her in the way she was hoping. On top of all that, her mom [Geena Davis] is distracted by the tension in the house at the time — and all the weird, scary stuff that is going on.”
Asked if she’s into horror movies, Howey says, “I do go to them but always with friends. I think horror films are such an adrenaline rush. I think that’s why a lot of people go to horror films, why they go to see very scary things. That’s true for me, too. When I’m in the right mood, I’ll go to a horror movie — but I need to go with friends.”
Father Tomas Ortega, the Rance family’s parish priest, is played by Alfonso Herrera, a huge telenovela and music star in his native Mexico.
“Look over there,” Herrera says on the set of a Chicago priest’s parish office. “Those amazing set decorators even put my character’s name on that diploma hanging on the wall — and his name on his parish soccer team’s trophy.”
Herrera says his background prepared him well for this role. “I was raised in Guadalajara, where my mother was very Catholic and we were raised very strictly Catholic. So I understand that culture completely.”
For Ruck, the “Exorcist” job brings him back to a city that’s been key to his career.
“Of course, I got my start here in theater in 1979,” Ruck says. “But it is a bit bizarre to be back working in Chicago on the 40th anniversary of ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.’ ”
He, of course, played Ferris’ on-screen best friend, Cameron Frye, in the movie that was a big break for both him and star Matthew Broderick.
“A week doesn’t go by when someone doesn’t remind me of that amazing film — and that car getting destroyed,” he says.
Ruck remembers seeing “The Exorcist” as a teenager.
“Like everyone else, it scared the hell out of me. But I do think we are carrying the torch forward with this new show — and honoring the film and the spirit of both it and the original novel.”
He agrees with Kasulka that setting this religion-vs.-evil series in Chicago was perfect.
“As Hannah says, ‘There’s a church on almost every corner.’ But there’s also a saloon on the other ones as well. I think that makes for a good balance.”
Sun-Times columnist Bill Zwecker also works as an entertainment reporter for Fox 32 News.