Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between Nick Offermanand his “Parks and Recreation” character Ron Swanson. Both talk in a slow, deep, deadpan manner and are unabashedly masculine. And, like Swanson, Offerman is an expert woodcraftsman and advocates a lifestyle centered around beer, meat and the outdoors.
But the real Offerman comes from the small farm town of Minooka, Ill., where he would spend his hours working outside and playing sports. It’s also where he came to realize his dream of acting, which led him to University of Illinois and finally Chicago, where he started Defiant Theater.
He’ll be making his return to the Chicago stage for the TBS Just For Laughs Festival, where he’ll perform his show named, what else, “American Ham,” which promises to offer laughs, his life philosophy and minor nudity. We caught up with Offerman …
I saw you a couple weeks ago and you had blonde hair, what’s the story behind that?
I felt like I wasn’t having enough fun.
Has it worked?
I weighed my options, and I figured blonde hair was the way to go. I’m really having a gas now.
Is it strange thing for you to be yourself on stage?
It is a strange new world. I’ve spent my career playing other characters, and it creates safety when you can hide behind someone else’s writing and it gives you a great freedom to do anything because it’s not Nick Offerman committing these acts. It’s much more vulnerable when it’s just me and the audience and I sink or swim when it’s my material. It’s been really interesting but really gratifying. When I fill these 2,000-seat college auditoriums and they have a great time, it feels really good in a different way than performing a Harold Pinter play.
In the promotional piece I got about the performance, it promises minor nudity.
For some reason, nobody ever asks me to take my shirt off to see my abs. They would need particularly good eyesight to see those muscle groups. I have a history of disrobing on stage. I’m not sure why people find it so amusing, but as long as they’re laughing I’m happy to show some skin and some fur.
How did a boy from the farms of Minooka, Ill., end up wanting to act?
That’s a good question. There was certainly no culture in town of any sort. There’s no one in my entire existence who was in the arts. For some reason I needed people’s attention as a kid. I wanted to entertain people. I never knew you could have a career in theater and yet my whole childhood I was inadvertently developing performance skills. I was always the cut-up, the class clown. Even as an altar boy in the Catholic church in Minooka, I was looking for ways to get a laugh from the crowd.
When you moved to Chicago was it a big time of adjustment for you?
It was incredibly jarring. Fortunately I had the coddling transitional city of Champagne-Urbana to ease me into a more urban lifestyle. When I arrived at the University of Illinois I was terrified of all the people and the city buses. I eventually learned to quell those fears. I wanted a career in the theater so my fears were easily overcome by the desire to be where there was a large audience.
Where did you live?
Most of the time I lived in a warehouse at North and Clybourn. My first apartment was out near Chicago and Ashland. I lived in Rogers Park for a year, and then I mainly lived in this warehouse where I had this scenery shop and I kind of lived in the corner.
What was life like for you when you first came to Chicago?
We formed a company at the University of Illinois, Defiant Theater, and when we graduated in ’93 we moved the company wholesale to Chicago and went into production. Really, right away I had a rich life in the theater. We never made much money [laughs]. But other than that, we lived like kings. We just had a great time. There wasn’t enough time in the day to put on the plays we would do, and I would build scenery for other plays and then I started working at the Goodman and Steppenwolf. I was a fight choreographer. Year-round I had a full plate. There’s nothing like the Chicago theater community for a young actor to cut their teeth.
There were so many people around the city who went on to have success. Did you realize there was so much talent there at the time?
I’m not surprised. I would have been surprised 15 years ago that we would get to the level that some of us have gotten to. Now that it’s water under the bridge, it makes perfect sense to me. There’s something about the Chicago theater community that breeds a pure artistic work ethic. It’s common knowledge in Los Angeles and New York that actors from Chicago are a really dependable crop. I see it all around me, year in and year out, when they need somebody good in comedy and drama, they turn to Chicago theater.