For Jon Michael Hill, star of the ABC police drama Detroit 1-8-7, the role of hotel night clerk Bill Lewis in The Hot L Baltimore, opening in April at Steppenwolf Theatre, is both a homecoming and a change of pace. “I don’t usually play the lover. I’m usually magical or getting mutilated,” Hill says with a laugh.
Having spent most of the past year taping Detroit 1-8-7 on location in the Motor City, he seized the chance to return home to Chicago and rejoin the ensemble in Lanford Wilson’s portrait of the residents of a rundown hotel facing demolition.
Hill grew up the younger of two sons in a working-class Waukegan family. He became fascinated with theatre in first grade, when a story he wrote about his older brother getting lost at the zoo was turned into a school play. He made his acting debut the following year, portraying a baby deer in another school production.
Helped by a recommendation from one of his theatre professors at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Hill landed a role in Steppenwolf’s 2006 production of The Unmentionables during the summer before his senior year. He so impressed the company that the following winter, at age 21, he was invited to join the ensemble, making him the youngest person ever tapped.
“He’s very gifted as an actor, but more than that, he’s a radiant soul,” says Martha Lavey, Steppenwolf’s artistic director.
“Jon is ceaselessly inventive. He doesn’t execute some idea I have or the script has of the character as much as start with what’s there and go someplace completely surprising,” says Tina Landau, the director of The Hot L Baltimore, who worked with Hill on 2008’s Superior Donuts, which transferred to Broadway in the fall of 2009.
Hill’s live-wire performance as a talented and troubled Uptown doughnut shop assistant garnered him a Tony Award nomination (he brought his mother to the ceremony). It also drew the attention of ABC casting, leading to his role in Detroit 1-8-7, which just concluded its first season.
“I want to be a virtuoso,” Hill says. “It’s one thing to be able to play opposite characters, but to be able to do it truthfully, undeniably, is something I always will be working toward until the end of my career.”
GO The Hot L Baltimore opens April 2nd at Steppenwolf; for info, steppenwolf.org.
Photograph: Saverio Truglia