Walking into his Rogers Park apartment as his phone rings for a scheduled interview, William Sandy Smillie needs a couple minutes to take off his coat and collect his thoughts before answering questions from a reporter.
Get news in your inbox. Sign up for the Patch newsletter.
Like Naperville Patch on Facebook.
Although Smillie said he had a short day -- wrapping up his regular job at 1 p.m., he ended up doing a last-minute voice-over job that kept him until the evening interview.
Such is life these days for Smillie, whose "regular job" is cast member of new NBC show "Chicago Fire" and after years of struggling now welcomes the busy schedule. Smillie, with his red hair and face that looks younger than his age of 38, likely would be mistaken for an anonymous working-class Chicago guy rather than a Hollywood actor, and that description would be more apt.
Smillie may be a budding star, but the 1992 graduate of Naperville Central High School has and continues to pay his dues, learning and trying to improve his skills along the way.
His story is not one of meteoric fame or riches, rather a decision to do what he loves and to stick to it. Despite falling in love with acting at the age of 9 upon seeing his older brother John in the NCHS production of Aunt Mame, Smillie didn't always pursue his passion. He acted in high school but after graduation and a short stint at University of Illinois at Chicago, where he said he "majored in dorm life before being politely asked to leave," Smillie worked several years in the service industry.
"I didn't want to be a starving artist," Smillie said.
However, working in different bars and restaurants wasn't what he wanted to do all his life. Smillie said one day in 1999 he turned on his television set and saw fellow NCHS alum Matt Armstrong (class of 1991) on the show "Turks." Smillie said it brought back memories of how Armstrong fell in love with acting.
Armstrong, who was a football star, fell in love with acting after a mutual friend convinced him to try out for a one-act play, which he landed. For Smillie, seeing Armstrong years later on television was the "aha" moment for him.
"He committed to it, while I hadn't," Smillie said.
After that, Smillie took some classes at College of DuPage, Columbia College and Truman College. He began doing theater, and began auditioning for small television and movie roles, in addition to doing work in commercials and voice-overs. Along the way, Smillie said things often got tough but he never really considered giving up.
"Throwing in the towel isn't the right phrase. It was more like 'can I get through this.' I did a play in Florida (Jewtopia) for six months and when I came back I worked in carpentry for $10 an hour."
He also later wrote in a blog about living most of his life in a financial hole, living on rice and beans for weeks at a time and staying in nights when friends were out, lessons that he described recently as having made him appreciate things more and made him balance his wants and needs.
Hearing Smillie talk about tough times one may wonder how he was so resilient, until he describes his mother, Marie Dobzynski, who he said is someone who worked all different types of jobs to feed her family after his father passed away when he was 13. Although neither parent worked in the arts, both were "hams," Smillie said.
"I remember my mom having to make business calls to all areas of the country and after a few minutes she often would adopt that dialect. It was funny but probably made them feel more comfortable," Smillie said.
Not ironically, Smillie's resume lists British, Irish, Scottish and German among the dialects he can do.Stories about struggling actors often involve tales feast or famine periods and Smillie has experienced both.
Along the way, he said he was never advised by his mother to try a more stable career.
"My father probably would have been the more practical one. The harshest thing my mother ever would say or do was to ask me if I was sure about what I was doing."
After acting for a while, Smillie became a member of the Buffalo Theatre Ensemble in Glen Ellyn, a position he plans to continue to hold for the foreseeable future. While he said he loves aspects of both film and theatre, acting in front of an audience is something he said he'll always come back to. Smillie said his favorite acting memory occurred at Buffalo, when his mother came back stage after a performance.
"She looked at me and said 'you're an actor, I get it.'
Smillie said his next role at Buffalo will likely be in the spring, depending on his schedule with Chicago Fire. Of course, he's hoping to be working on Chicago Fire for many years to come but knows from experience nothing is guaranteed.
Another television series set in Chicago was last year's Fox drama "The Chicago Code," in which Smillie landed a recurring role as the lead-character's younger brother. Smillie appeared in two episodes and was slated to appear in more, but the show wasn't picked up for a second season.
"It was disappointing because a lot of people in Chicago were earning a living because of that show. But that's the great thing about Chicago Fire, a lot of people are again making a living here in Chicago," Smillie said.
He said a typical day varies, but often goes 10-11 hours and longer for the crew. The show films at various locations in Chicago and has permanent sets at Cinespace Chicago Film Studios on Chicago's near West Side, where they have duplicated a fire station.
"I got lost," Smillie said. "I know it sounds crazy but I was convinced that I was in a firehouse."
As for critics, who sometimes can make or break a show, Smillie said years ago he made the conscious decision to avoid reading anything they write, pro or con. He said while he and his co-stars want people to like the show, it is equally rewarding to earn the praise of Chicago firefighters.
"It's amazing to see how much they are supporting us. This past Sunday, CFD Station 91 near Diversey Avenue and Pulaski Road invited cast members for brunch," Smillie said.
In addition, several Chicago firefighters are working on the show as consultants and extras. And while the real firefighters help to bring authenticity to the show, Smillie said they also enabled his fellow actors to connect with each other more.
"We go out as friends after the show. Seeing the camaraderie between the firefighters has allowed us to develop that type of relationship and bust each other's chops a lot," Smillie said.
As for learning and improving his craft, Smillie said he is lucky to be around such a great group of people and learns from all of them, including another NCHS alum who has a starring role, David Eigenberg, class of 1982, who is best known for playing Steve Brady on HBO's series Sex and the City.
"It was pretty cool, we were talking about which teachers we knew and that sort of thing," Smillie said, adding that he can learn a lot from Eigenberg.
Learning is something Smillie said he wants to continue to do as he has throughout his career. He said he's learned from everyone he's ever worked with, both good things and bad, and hopes to help those who are even newer to the business than he.
Smillie said he's been helped by a countless, constant stream of people along the way. And while he hasn't reached the top of the acting ladder, he tries to help those who want to follow his path by offering anyone the opportunity to write him for advice on working as a Chicago actor on his blog.
Asked what advice he'd give a high school senior debating going into acting or opting to study a more traditional major in college, Smilie said there's an old acting saying: "If you can do anything else, do it. If not, act." He added that he'd also advise to "find something to do in the interim."
For now, his main goal is to continue on Chicago Fire and get paid to do what he loves. He said his role on the show will be slightly larger as the season progresses, but do not expect “The Sandy Smillie Show."
"That's the great thing about it. We have a great ensemble cast that focuses on everyone," Smillie said. "I just want to work in what I love."
Chicago Fire airs Wednesdays at 9p.m. on NBC.