Paula Newsome hasn’t lived in Chicago for at least 25 years, but the actress still remembers almost every street and every venue where her journey to Broadway, movies and television began.
“Oh, yeah, it was a major part of my life,” Newsome says.
And it still is because she returns to see her parents and two sisters who live in Chicago and the suburbs.
Newsome, whose extensive credits include “Transparent” on TV, “Little Miss Sunshine” in theaters and “Carousel” on Broadway, now is starring opposite Bill Hader and Henry Winkler in HBO’s dark comedy “Barry” at 9:30 p.m. Sundays.
Hader stars as Barry Berkman, a hit man ordered to Los Angeles to kill an aspiring actor. When Barry enrolls in an acting class taught by Gene Cousineau (Winkler) so he can track his target, the acting bug bites him hard.
Newsome plays Janice Moss, a no-nonsense detective investigating the murders of that would-be actor and the Russian mobsters who killed him before Barry could.
Newsome says her interest in acting began long before chasing mobsters in “Barry.” She was living with her family in Chatham when her first-grade teacher pinned a note to her shirt telling her parents they should enroll her in a creative dramatics class.
“Isn’t that adorable?” she says. “We were living on 83rd and Champlain. They sent me to the YMCA, further east on 83rd. From then on, I had the bug.”
She transferred to Morgan Park Academy in eighth grade and met a teacher, Lillian Mackel, who encouraged her to get involved with the Pitt Players, a children’s theatrical program at the Beverly Arts Center, which at the time was housed on the school’s campus. Mackel, an English teacher at Morgan Park Academy at that time, changed her life.
“I was her protégé,” Newsome says. “She was the first person that let me know that I had a gift.”
After getting her bachelor’s degree from Webster University’s prestigious Conservatory of Theater Arts in Missouri, Newsome returned to Chicago. She appeared in numerous stage productions in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including “Little Shop of Horrors” at the Royal George Theatre, “Beehive” at the Briar Street Theater and “Book of the Night” at Goodman Theatre.
“I got my [Actors’] Equity card working at the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse,” she says. “Chicago was huge for me.”
In New York, she played Carrie in the 1994 Broadway revival of “Carousel” and did an award-winning turn as Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.”
Newsome credits a Chicago connection with getting her on TV. Denis O’Hare, a Northwestern grad and former Chicago theater heavyweight who has appeared in several seasons of “American Horror Story,” encouraged her in the early 1990s to make the trip from New York to Los Angeles.
She appeared in guest roles until landing series-regular roles in short-lived shows including “Conrad Bloom,” “The Lyon’s Den” and “Women’s Murder Club.” She also has had memorable recurring roles on “NCIS,” “Heroes,” “Pretty Little Liars” and “Suburgatory.” She’s currently shooting the NBC pilot “Suspicion.”
For the next several Sundays, you can see Newsome as the “fierce, feisty and fragile” Detective Moss in “Barry,” a role she was thrilled to play.
“You don’t find that a lot as an African-American woman who does television,” she says. “To be able to play a fully realized woman who gets to be good at her work and gets to be loved and gets to be human and gets to be vulnerable is really cool.”
Another perk was the chance to work with Winkler. In this weekend’s episode, Moss’ investigation leads to Barry’s acting class, where the arrogant acting coach played by Winkler takes a liking to the detective.
So was it fun being romanced by the Fonz — Winkler’s most famous character, from the 1970s sitcom “Happy Days ”— Newsome gave an emphatic yes.
“It is something I’ve never experienced before — being hit on by an icon,” she says. “He’s a fabulous guy. … He’s a generous, kind man and a wonderful actor. But it is weird having a romance with an icon.”
Newsome says Winkler is the latest of many great actors she’s worked with over a career she feels blessed to have had. She gives her Chicago upbringing and work experience a lot of credit.
“I guess what I’m aware of more than anything is that this skeletal frame of training at my core was created in Chicago,” she says. “You can learn things in college, but Chicago is where I applied them. Where I put meat on the bone.”
Read more from Curt Wagner at tvshowpatrol.com.