Knew him as teen, now Chicago native returns as lead in new movie, ‘Killian & the Comeback Kids’
As a teen, John Donchak played video games with my son in the basement, part of a multiracial crew of five buddies navigating high school together at Loyola Academy. Friday, the rising actor returned home for the Chicago opening of “Killian & the Comeback Kids,” his first lead role in a movie.
It’s always interesting to watch your kids and their close friends grow into their life callings.
This past weekend, I got to see one of them — a teen who once could be found playing video games with my youngest in the basement — return home all grown up, with a lead role in a new movie that opened here Friday, “Killian & the Comeback Kids.”
The indie film is one of a handful of fully theatrical screen gems set to open in the area this fall. But unfortunately, the pandemic is raining on Hollywood’s parade. Set for a two-week run at Regal City North, 2600 N. Western Ave., it now can be seen only through Thursday.
That’s because the parent company of Regal Theaters, which owns nine Chicago area movie houses, announced Monday it will temporarily close theaters in the wake of the postponement of the new James Bond film, which left a hole in its schedules.
“The bigger productions don’t want to release their films because they have more money to lose. The silver lining was it gave indie filmmakers the opportunity to take those empty screens,” said Donchak, now 28, of New York City.
“We opened in Pennsylvania, then Atlanta last week; Chicago this week; Minneapolis, next week. That level of distribution, we wouldn’t have been able to afford in normal times. Because theaters have empty screens, indie films can say, ‘Hey, we’re here.’”
Donchak and my son were part of a multiracial crew of five buddies navigating teen years together at Loyola Academy. They were closer than close. I remember crying as I saw the five off with their dates on prom; again at graduation, as they bid each other farewell.
Donchak attended Fordham University’s theater program, Denzel Washington’s alma mater.
“It’s my big break into actually speaking lines on camera, instead of just falling and getting beat up. It’s kind of literally the dream, coming home with your first film,” said the young thespian, who participated in a Q&A after Saturday’s screening.
It’s a cool film, with beautiful music and cinematography, set in the lush rolling hills of rural Pennsylvania. It centers on a young, mixed-race musician played by fellow rising actor Taylor Purdee, forced to return to his hometown jobless, after graduating from a top-tier college. It is, of course, art mimicking the growing millennial dilemma.
He and his childhood buddy, played by Donchak, build a rag-tag band with other struggling locals — for a moonshot at playing a major music festival headed to the once prosperous steel town.
“It does a lot of exploring of the millennial dilemma — you graduate from college, buried in college debt, and more often than before, have to move back in with parents. We wanted to kind of address how you navigate that — when you do everything you’re supposed to, and it doesn’t work out,” said Donchak, who was happy to come home and see parents Geri and John Donchak and little brother Andrew.
“This is a little bit about how the system is not really working. The movie explores how these students experience this, find solidarity, and then sort of carve out their own paths,” he said.
The cast includes soap opera icons Kassie DePaiva (Eve Donovan on Days of Our Lives, Blair Cramer on One Life to Live) and Nathan Purdee (Nathan Hastings on The Young and the Restless, Hank Gannon on One Life to Live, Jeb on Santa Barbara); and Academy Award winning actress/filmmaker Lee Grant. Taylor Purdee, son of Nathan Purdee, is writer/director.
While pursuing his acting career, Donchak primarily has worked as a production assistant and stunt man, and of course, as film extras.
“Each accomplishment stems from opportunities made possible through someone else. The people you have around you make all the difference,” said Donchak, who’s had background roles in New York-based films like Amazon Prime’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” USA Network’s “Mr. Robot,” and HBO’s “The Deuce.”
His production work includes the “John Wick 3” film, and music videos, such as BJ the Chicago Kid’s “Time Today.” He stumbled into stunt work through his Aikido martial arts skills, stunt doubling for lead actors in USA Network’s “The Sinner,” FOX-TV’s “Gotham,” Netflix’ “The Good Cop.”
“I grew up watching and loving Jackie Chan and Jim Carrey movies. I loved seeing the fun they had on camera. At a young age, I wanted to have those adventures,” he said.
“I was fortunate my path exposed me to people who have done it, and the belief it was possible. Actor Bill Murray attended Loyola, and when you’re reciting Shakespeare monologues on the same stage Denzel performed on as a kid, and Denzel comes in and speaks to your acting classes, you know it’s possible.”
If you love music, and miss movies, he encourages you to see the film before it leaves the Regal. Advanced tickets are required. All films are screened with limited seating.
“It’s a taste of the summer we missed out on this year — gorgeous sunsets, green hills, summer concerts and outdoor time with friends,” Donchak said. “The idea, in acting, is always trying to build momentum with each opportunity that comes up, to be able to expand on it for the next one. I’m looking forward to what’s next.”