Tribune senior correspondent
5:02 PM EDT, August 13, 2010
Kate Arrington seems not a bit actress-y, just interesting.
For one thing, she's not particularly concerned about how she looks. For another, through unlikely serendipity, lifestyle czarina Martha Stewart was an early backer of Arrington's stage career. And, perhaps most intriguing, for three months back in 1998, Kate Arrington shared a tiny New York sublet with Barack Obama's sister.
"Isn't that bizarre?" she laughs. Very.
"My whole life I've had clear ideas of what's going to be and most of them have come to fruition," says Arrington, co-starring in "A Parallelogram" at Steppenwolf Theatre, where she has been an ensemble member since 2007.
To illustrate, she points out that she has known that she wanted to be a stage actress since she was 6 years old and has been working at it ever since.
"I started seeing plays when I was so young. To me, that was the closest you came to, like, magic. It was like being on a drug or something. I had no doubt that was what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be," she says.
She got her first part, in a production of "Camelot" in her hometown of Raleigh, N.C., when she was 7, from connections made at a theater camp that she loved and attended every summer. The role? "I have no idea. Little girl who gets carried around," she laughs. "They probably passed me from person to person during 'The Merry Month of May' or whatever that song is." (It's "The Lusty Month of May.")
Although Arrington, 35, contends that the trajectory of her life has perked along pretty much as she envisioned — a Northwestern University degree in performance studies ('97), moving to New York to look for acting jobs — the Obama connection and the intersection with Stewart surely weren't part of her plan.
Arrington met Obama's half-sister, Maya Soetoro, when they both had slashes in their career titles. Arrington was an actress-slash-waitress and Soetoro (now Soetoro-Ng) was a schoolteacher-slash-bartender, both working at an Upper West Side restaurant.
The young women "had just gone through these terrible breakups" and were looking for a place to live, so they decided to share an apartment. "It was me, Maya, my cat Kobe, and her giant dog named Malu. Neither my cat nor her dog had been around cats or dogs. It was great, actually.
"She would talk about her brother who was a politician," says Arrington. "She would talk about him all the time. She worships him." In 1998, Obama was a junior member of the Illinois Senate and "had a lot of political ambitions," his sister told Arrington. Ten years later he was the most famous politician on earth.
"Here's another odd connection," says Brooklyn-based Arrington, sitting on a beige couch in her Steppenwolf-provided apartment just up the block from the theater on North Halsted Street. It's the tale of how she met Martha Stewart.
"When I first moved to New York I started a theater company called Eyases Ensemble" with her then-boyfriend, actor David Harbour, and his Dartmouth classmate Aliza Waksal.
Waksal is the daughter of ImClone Systems CEO Sam Waksal, a close friend of Stewart's. Both went to jail on charges related to insider trading in ImClone shares.
"We actually used to rehearse at ImClone, which is the company that took everybody down," says Arrington. "She (Stewart) was one of our donors. … We didn't know what not to do. We'd just ask anybody (for donations), call Martha Stewart and, like, 'When are you coming to the show and can we tell people you're coming?'"
Since those early days of "let's put on a show," Arrington has become known as a creative, risk-taking performer.
"She's a really brilliant actress," says Goodman Theatre artistic director Robert Falls, who cast Arrington as Regan in "King Lear."
"Besides being a wonderful actor and a considerable person," says Falls, "there's just a sort of fullness. Just really smart. Really fun to be around. … It's not easy to be an actor, and it's not easy to be a good person." But, says Falls, Arrington manages both.
"She's got a wonderful sense of humor about all this stuff. Serious, too, but she does it with a great deal of wit," he says.
"All this stuff" includes what Arrington's youngest sister, Anne, 25, calls "Kate's No. 1 role." That's as mother to Sylvia Grace, who turned 2 in June.
Sylvie's dad is Arrington's partner, longtime Chicago actor Michael Shannon. They met when they were performing in different plays here.
In what Arrington's middle sister, Louise, 32, calls "awkward, terrible happenstance," both Shannon and Arrington's ex, Harbour, appeared in the movie " Revolutionary Road." (Shannon was nominated for an Oscar for his role as the electroshocked mathematician John Givings.)
"What's funny is I had given both of them ('Revolutionary Road') because that was my favorite book. Isn't that ridiculous?" Kate Arrington says, roaring. "I should get casting credit on that movie."
This summer, Shannon worked on films in Grafton, Ohio, and in Detroit. A third movie shooting soon is a "huge budget" action thriller, "Premium Rush," about a bike messenger and a dirty cop, played by Shannon.
"It's hilarious," says Arrington, accustomed to the pared-down staff (and low wages) of most stage productions. "The movie's costume designer and his assistant showed up here yesterday. They flew to Chicago to try a suit on him!"
Those who have worked with Arrington describe her as the un-diva. "I don't find her at all demanding. There's nothing self-dramatizing. … She's not vain," says Steppenwolf artistic director Martha Lavey. That became evident when Arrington sat for the photos for this story after a morning outdoors with Sylvie, falling down and skinning her knee and remarking cavalierly, "I haven't showered … I'm fine." On with the show.
Shannon's out-of-town film schedule means that the family can be together in Chicago only once a week.
Meanwhile, Arrington does the heavy-duty parenting, tootling around town with Sylvie all day, then leaving her with family or a Steppenwolf school actress-slash-baby sitter so she can go to work — eight or nine performances a week in the new play written by one of her college idols, Bruce Norris. She also will open the new Steppenwolf season next month in the debut of "Detroit."
Arrington is close to her parents, both teachers with doctorates in literature, who have nurtured her career and visit her often on the road and at her Brooklyn apartment, which has a view of the Statue of Liberty. They and her sisters see virtually every play she performs in — across the country — and she texts them with updates on Sylvie when they're not there to see the little girl.
"Out of the blue she sent me a text message today," says Arrington's dad, Tom Bauso, saying, "Sylvie has learned her mother's name is 'Kate Arrington Shannon Mommy.'"
During a Chicago visit, Arrington's mom, Jean, would take Sylvie to watch a little of the rehearsal and to meet her mom for the dinner break.
"Sylvie knew she had to be absolutely silent and she was. And was absolutely fascinated. I think Sylvie has already got theater entirely in her blood," Jean Arrington says.
"The most telling thing about Kate is the way she undertook motherhood," says Steppenwolf's Lavey. "They get pregnant and 'Yes, so now we'll have this family and by the way, Sylvia will sort of come with us everywhere.' I love how game all that is. I'm sure it's difficult. I've never heard Kate speak of it in a sense of weariness or complaint. It's something she just made a part of her life. There's a kind of fortitude and acceptance of life on happy terms.
"It's her way."
"A Parallelogram," the last play in Steppenwolf's 2009-10 season, closes Aug. 29. Arrington will appear in "Detroit," a new play by Lisa D'Amour that debuts for the opening of Steppenwolf's 2010-11 season. "Detroit" will be in previews Sept. 9-18 and officially opens Sept. 21.