By Sara Olkon
Photo by Jason Smith

At 18, Rae Gray already knows what she wants to do with her life. She wants to act—on stage, in television, and in film.

That is why she chose to get a liberal arts education at the University of Chicago, she says.

“Really, every piece of knowledge in any field can help you with acting because you never know what kind of character you will have to portray,” says the first-year student. “Life experience and depth of knowledge are ultimately what contributes most to one’s acting skills.”

Gray already had built a substantial acting resume before she arrived at the College. An actress since age 4, she has performed on the famed stages of the Steppenwolf and Goodman theaters in Chicago. In January, she is set to reprise her lead role in the play Jailbait at The Second Stage on the city’s North Side. A month later, she will begin rehearsals for the Chicago premiere of Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation at Victory Gardens Theater, in which she will play a pouty 16-year-old.

Growing as an artist and a student will put her intellect and energy to the test. During one especially hairy week recently, Gray managed two midterms and three auditions—one for a show at the Goodman, and two for television pilots. “This is a bad week for sleep,” she says.

She hopes her full load of classes will help enrich her performances. This quarter, she is taking calculus, Spanish, a social sciences course titled “Mind,” and “Language and the Human,” a Core humanities course.

Her route to becoming a well-rounded artist follows the example of performers such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and actress Jodie Foster, who pursued liberal educations instead of more narrow training. Gray says the diverse subjects help her understand a broader set of roles—“You can play characters more authentically.”

From Bit Parts to Chicago co-star

A native of Chicago, Gray was drawn to acting through her older brother, Zach. He got excited about performing after seeing the 1994 movie The Mask with actor Jim Carrey.

She was four years old when she got her first job, cast in an Auto Safety Council commercial. At five, she had a small part in an independent film called One Small Step.

By 13, she had booked more than 100 commercial voice-overs, including some national radio ads for McDonald’s.

“He started acting, but now I’ve gotten more into it,” she says of her older brother, who is a junior at Northwestern University.

Gray went on to play a girl scout in a New York University thesis film, and was “the girl on a bike” alongside her brother (“the boy on a bike”) in the 2010 film Drunkboat, starring John Malkovich and John Goodman.

But theater is her first love, she says, a passion she has explored at the Steppenwolf (as Princess in the “Wedding Band”) and the Goodman (Fan and Emily in “A Christmas Carol.”)

“I’m always happiest when I’m doing a show,” she says. That was especially the case in “Jailbait,” in which Gray drew rave reviews for her portrayal of Claire, one of two 15-year-old girls who seduces a pair of older men.

Chicago Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss described Gray as “reed-thin, with cornsilk hair, a delicate gamine face, a slight gawkiness, and perfect instincts. A standout in the Gift Theatre’s ‘Summer People,’ she confirms her talent here.”

Character Studies Through her Classes

School is Gray’s first priority, however. It doesn’t hurt that her classes have direct relevance to her long-term goals. Social science and humanities are especially relevant to acting, she says, since they offer windows into the motivations of different kinds of people. “Comprehension of behavior is extremely helpful,” Gray says.

She expects eventually to double major in Theater and English.

“They both involve analyzation of texts and character study,” she says. “They both rely heavily on creativity.”

Heidi Coleman, director of Undergraduate Studies Theater and Performance Studies at UChicago, says increasingly, students are choosing UChicago over conservatory training programs due to its equally rigorous work in the Core and in the arts.

“We seek to redefine the discourse around the arts, even with regard to splits between theory and practice, believing that thinking critically is an essential tool for an artist,” says Coleman. “Because of our collaborations with arts institutions in Chicago, like Court Theatre, MCA, Steppenwolf, Hubbard Street, students are able to take courses with some of the top artists in the country in the same day as Western Civ.”

While Gray enrolled at UChicago for its academic rigor, she hadn’t anticipated the warmth of her fellow students.

Gray smiled as she described looking out during one of the “Jailbait” performances and spying several of her housemates from Max Palevsky Central in the audience.

The trip was planned by one of her dorm’s resident heads.

“I didn’t think it would be as nurturing as it is,” Gray says of the College.

She and her housemates also find time to decompress. After that rough week of exams and auditions, Gray and five friends enjoyed a Friday night dinner at Harold’s Chicken Shack on 53rd Street, followed by ice cream, and a showing at Max Palevsky of the comedy Blades of Glory.

They topped off the night with a joyful rendition of Miley Cyrus’ “See You Again” inside their hallway—fittingly, acted out in front of a camera..