For Usman Ally, the time he spent in Chicago was a “second master’s degree. In many ways, it was my more important master’s degree.”
The actor and comedian, now appearing on TV’s “Veep” and “Nobodies,” explained during a recent phone chat that learned both how to be a better actor and “who I was and what I was really all about” during the eight-plus years Ally lived in the city, before moving to Los Angeles roughly three years ago.
After he got his master’s in acting from the University of Florida, Ally came to Chicago and “first had an internship at Lookingglass Theatre, and then things started happening pretty quickly for me. Along with Lookingglass, I worked in plays in a lot of the storefront theaters around town.” The reason Ally compares his working experience with getting an advanced degree is that “those Chicago experiences taught me how to really be a working actor.
“The amazing thing about doing theater in Chicago is the size of the theaters are so different and varied. You learn how to perform, for example, at the Lyric Opera, where you have 4,000 people in the audience, and you learn how to do that kind of large-scale theater.
“But at the same time, when you’re doing a play at A Red Orchid Theatre, which has 40 to 50 people, it is in many ways like acting for television or film, because you’re performing in front of a similar size group on the set of a movie or a TV show.
Another important chapter of Ally’s Chicago period was the time he spent at Steppenwolf Theatre, where the late great Martha Lavey was the artistic director. “She was such an incredibly immense force of nature,” Ally said. “Martha was one of the few people I was intimidated by during those years. But that intimidation was built on the admiration and respect I had for her — plus I was desperate to get her approval!”
As for Ally’s TV work, he just returned on Sunday’s episode of “Veep” as the Qatari envoy to the United States, Ambassador Al Jaffar. On the “Nobodies” TV Land comedy series about Hollywood, he portrays a jerk of a studio exec and will be in the final episodes of the season June 14 and 21.
Both series feature many folks who got their start in Chicago, in one way or another. Plainfield’s Melissa McCarthy is the executive producer of “Nobodies” and “actually co-directed the pilot for the series with her husband Ben. … ‘Veep’ is loaded with people who have worked in Chicago or went to Northwestern or started at Second City. Along with Julia [Louis-Dreyfus], there’s Matt Walsh, Kevin Dunn, Anna Chlumsky and even David Pasquesi, who comes and goes on the show.
“Hollywood is so full of Chicago people — really a big part of the creative community out there. You run into somebody and learn they lived in Chicago, and right away you go, ‘Where did you live? … Oh, so you took the Brown Line too?’ ”
Most important, Ally noted that when key casting directors in Los Angeles learn an actor has spent time working in Chicago, “they speak to you differently. They treat you as a real actor., and not as a person who just in Hollywood trying to become a celebrity. There is a natural assumption that if you have had some degree of success in Chicago theater, you know what you’re doing. Your head is firmly on your shoulders. It’s a big plus.”
Ally, who was born in Swaziland, spent his youth in Kenya, Botswana and Tanzania before emigrating with his family to the U.S. at age 18. Given his birthright, Ally said, “I’ve been very fortunate that I have both been given a wide variety of roles to play — especially for an actor of color — and not been pigeonholed, as was the case for actors of previous generations.”
For the actor, it is important to offset “the images I always saw when I was a young boy. Whenever I would see a person who looked like me on television, I remember the effect it had on me. While they were a reflection of me, they oftentimes were representations that were not the best characters. Often they were one-dimensional and also frequently antagonists — the villains.
“For me it’s important to be out there to show more diversity of the country or the world in which we live. I also want to do characters who are multi-faceted and have a level of humanity in them. I especially want to showcase that humanity as being part of characters who come from the Middle East.”