“I’ve forgotten how much I love rehearsing,” Jon Michael Hill says. Currently the youngest member of Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Hill plays night clerk Bill in Tina Landau’s production of The Hot L Baltimore. On a break from rehearsal last week, Hill, who last month completed filming on the first season of ABC’s police drama Detroit 1-8-7, seems delighted to be back at Steppenwolf.
“In television you don’t get any rehearsal, really,” Hill says, whereas in theater “you get a lot of time to figure out who it is you’re playing and figure out what the play is trying to do. There’s little discoveries every day.”
Waukegan native Hill, 25, first made an impression on Steppenwolf audiences in 2006’s The Unmentionables, as a young African man who opened the show with a monologue insulting the audience’s taste. Hill was a junior at the University of Illinois in Springfield when he was cast; by winter break of his senior year, he’d been invited to join the ensemble as part of the January 2007 class that also included Alana Arenas, Kate Arrington, Ian Barford, Ora Jones and James Vincent Meredith.
“Martha Lavey called me in over break to do a reading of a two-person play with Tracy Letts. So I thought I was just coming here for that,” Hill recalls. “But then Martha told me to meet her in her office. I was like, How’d I get in trouble? I just got here!” Lavey and Amy Morton, Hill’s Unmentionables costar—“I think she was my biggest champion”—made him the offer. “I was like, Of course! And then I had to pull myself together to do a reading with the most intense human being on the planet.”
That human being, Letts, would later write the character of Franco Wicks in Superior Donuts for Hill. Like Letts’s August: Osage County before it, the Steppenwolf production transferred to New York with its Chicago cast intact, earning Hill a Tony nomination last year for his Broadway debut. “It’s taken a while for me to get over how intimidating he can be,” Hill jokes. “He’s just very large, and I’m not. Us standing together is just a funny thing to look at.”
Hill got his first taste of theater in the first grade, when he wrote a story for school that was turned into a play, Barrel of Monkeys–style. “There was something about watching this actor flesh out this thing I’d put on paper. I was like, I want to do that, make people feel the way I feel watching this.”
By second grade, he was acting in plays. “My parents were always very supportive of me being in the arts. My dad’s a musician, so I think they just kind of wanted me to do what I loved,” Hill says. “ ’Cause I don’t think they really got the opportunities to do their dreams—they had a family pretty early, they got married at 17 and 18 and had my brother not long after that.”
Hill’s own dream took him to Detroit, where he spent much of the past year on location for 1-8-7. The show’s ratings declined as the season went on, and it’s uncertain if ABC will give it a second season. Hill says he’s making his plans as if the show’s not going to return. “If it does, that’s a pleasant surprise.”
Having bounced between Chicago, New York and Detroit since graduation, the actor doesn’t have a home base. “I’m homeless. I have to be able to put things in my car and drive away, that’s how I’ve always done it,” he says, laughing. “But whatever happens, I’m never gonna check out of here,” he says of Steppenwolf. “They’ve treated me like a prince. I don’t deserve it, but I want to earn everything that they’re giving me.”
Hill checks in to The Hot L Baltimore starting Thursday 24.