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Tyler Young’s Chicago roots prepared him for ‘Eyewitness’ fame

Tyler Young plays Philip Shea on "Eyewitness." | Shane Mahood/USA Network

With just a few small roles on his resume before starring in “Eyewitness,” Chicago area native Tyler Young wasn’t expecting his fan base to explode once the thriller began to air.

Young has gained tens of thousands more Twitter and Instagram followers than he previously had.

“Social media has been insane and completely unexpected. I had Twitter and Instagram for years and I had a couple hundred followers — mostly my friends,” Young said. “Now I think I’ve got like 45,000 or something like that on those platforms.”

He’s not far off: @itstyleryoung has more than 41,000 Twitter followers, while @tyler.matthew.young has almost 57,000 Instagram followers.

Young’s online fame shouldn’t be surprising to anyone watching “Eyewitness,” which explores the repercussions of a murder investigation in a small town near New York City and how it threatens to expose the relationship between two gay teens who witnessed the killings.

Young, 25, grew up in the northwest suburb of Kildeer, where his love of TV and movies drew him to acting.

“As a kid, I started doing impressions of people,” he recalled. “I did an impression of someone who was building my parents’ first house when I was just this 4- or 5-year-old kid. My parents thought it was hysterical. I would notice little quirks about people, little subtleties, and take on their physicality. I loved the reaction from my parents when I would do that.

“I think that was when I realized, ‘Hey, why can’t I do what they are doing on TV? Can’t that be me?’ ”

Young took advantage of the theater programs while attending Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, and although he studied public relations and advertising at DePaul University, he “kind of didn’t really commit to that career,” he said, laughing.

During college Young landed a children’s show that filmed in Spain, “The Avatars,” but was back in Chicago after two seasons.

He took acting classes at the Green Room Studio and the Second City, but he credits Janelle Snow, his acting coach at Acting Studio Chicago, as helping him the most.

“She was sort of my biggest influence and my biggest coach in terms of getting me to be the strongest performer that I could be,” he said, adding a bit of advice to would-be actors. “If you’re planning on moving up to one of the bigger markets, I think Chicago offers a lot of good classes and has a lot of support for people.”

Small roles in “Chicago Fire” and “Empire” led Young to decide he should move to Los Angeles to pursue acting fully. But he had to tick off one more Chicago accomplishment before making the move in 2015.

“All of a sudden I was moving to L.A. and I was like, ‘I can’t leave Chicago without doing a small storefront kind of show.’ It was really fun,” he said.

Young landed his first local theatrical production for Infusion Theater Company called “Another Kind of Love.” It premiered in summer 2015 at Chopin Theatre, and by the fall he was living in Los Angeles and auditioning constantly.

“Eyewitness” came along just six months after his move to the West Coast. With such a big role under his belt, Young probably won’t be wanting for job offers. He’s already shot a guest spot for a series (although he can’t say which one yet) and a role in the upcoming ABC miniseries “When We Rise,” which chronicles the early days of the gay rights movement.

In “Eyewitness,” Young turns in a compelling performance as Philip Shea. Philip, who has spent most of his life dealing with a drug-addicted mother, is the foster child of the town’s sheriff (Julianne Nicholson).

Philip is secretly dating closeted popular kid Lukas Waldenbeck (James Paxton), and during one of their clandestine meetings they witness the murders. But as the killer closes in on them, it becomes more difficult for the boys to remain silent about what they saw — and their relationship.

In the premiere season that concluded Dec. 18, the drama averaged about 879,000 total viewers for its live plus 3-day ratings. (Episodes are available for viewing at www.usanetwork.com, the USA Now app and on demand.)

The Philip and Lukas story has captured the attention of young and gay viewers alike. Fans have dubbed the duo “Philkas,” created fictional stories about the pair and tons of artwork depicting Young and Paxton. The younger users of Tumblr fill their pages with “thousands and thousands” of GIFs and photos of the two actors both in and out of character.

Young says the positive reception has been a surprise and extremely gratifying.

“They’re loving the LGBTQ representation,” he said. “They’re loving seeing people that they can relate to put into the forefront of an awesome, edgy crime thriller and not just on some LGBT-specific genre type show.”

The series has delved into Lukas’s battle with his internalized homophobia as well as the duo’s fight against homophobia from others. It also has sent positive messages about acceptance that Young says has helped viewers come out to their families or friends — or deal with homophobia in their own lives.

These online interactions and his research to play someone in foster care have helped Young realize that he is an “extremely fortunate individual.” Growing up in a supportive family environment, he said, he has never faced the struggles someone like Philip has.

“It’s opened my eyes to a lot of young people who have so much weight on their shoulders and pressure to be certain things in their lives,” Young said. “It’s really helped me sort of live in the shoes of someone else and to empathize and to understand what that struggle is at such a young age.”

And as for the fate of Philip and Lukas in the season finale, which airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on USA Network, Young says fans should be prepared for a shocking conclusion.

“Philip and Lukas are not in the clear by any means,” he said. “I’m going to be bold and say someone dies. I’m not saying who, but someone does die and it’s going to hit hard.”

For more from Tyler Young and James Paxton, visit http://tvshowpatrol.com/.