Can Cincinnati Ever Be An “Actor’s Town”?

Nik Pajic worked his way into a big deal film—<i>worked</i> being the operative word.
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Actors are like athletes. They better love this thing they’re doing, because it will take everything they’ve got. Money, time, relationships—all of it is fair game to be sacrificed for the next role, the next audition, the next chance. Veterans advise up-and-comers that if they can imagine themselves doing literally anything else as a career, they should choose that instead. Because acting will only end in tears.

But that’s the bleak version of this story. To hear many of the local acting pros talk—and yes, there are many of them—they feel the exact opposite. Some chose this life, others stumbled in, but most consider themselves lucky as hell to be here. In spite of the grueling schedule and endless rejection, the job offers a satisfaction like no other: Actors live on stage and on screen. Getting there is part of the process.

Nik Pajic knows the feeling. The Glen Este grad had never even considered the profession when he started his English degree at the University of Cincinnati. “I saw Our Town at the College-Conservatory of Music my senior year,” Pajic says. “I know it’s the play everyone sees in high school. But I’d never seen any theater. I just had no idea.” The experience stuck. When Footlighters Theater in Newport staged the same show in 2012, Pajic rode a wave of instinct and auditioned, landing the role of Sam Craig, a 15-line part. “It was really small,” he says. “But it changed everything.” Two years later, Pajic auditioned for a speaking role in Carol, Todd Haynes’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt starring Cate Blanchett, which filmed here last spring. And he got it.

When an actor is right for a role, it seems like kismet. It isn’t. Working full-time is about making yourself perpetually available for any role that might come along. By the time Pajic was cast in Carol, he had long since torpedoed the stability of a 9–5 career. After three shows, he hired an agent and later traded his sales job for shifts at the café in The Booksellers on Fountain Square. He was all-in. “I got to work with so many Cincinnati acting veterans, people in command of their lives, who just knew what they wanted,” he says. “I thought, I can’t stop doing this. Whatever it’s going to be, I don’t know. But this is it.

A year in the life...
A year in the life…

Photograph by Annette Navarro

Cincinnati doesn’t exactly scream “actor’s town,” but that might just be bicoastal bias. “It’s a very diverse market for actors,” says D. Lynn Meyers, producing artistic director of Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati and an accredited casting director. It was Meyers who cast dozens of regional actors in 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption (filmed in Mansfield), along with Miles Ahead and Marauders, both shot here in the last year. She also cast Pajic in Carol.

The 28-year-old has a look, a Slavic James Dean thing—think unbuttoned Oxford, white undershirt, sleeve cuffs rolled up. On any given day, he looks like he could be escorting Baby to the staff party in Dirty Dancing. Which is one reason why his role in Carol as Phil McElroy—a mildly ill-mannered Eisenhower-era New Yorker who pals around with Rooney Mara’s character Therese Belivet—makes perfect sense.

But since it’s not every day that a Cate Blanchett movie rolls through town, is it possible to make a career in Cincinnati as an actor? For many, yes. They get regular work on stages like Ensemble (an Equity theater), Know Theatre (which champions local talent), and in film and commercial work. “Also, video auditions are changing the industry,” Meyers says. “It’s a little different than needing to be in L.A. waiting for the phone to ring.”

Pajic admits that he has one foot here and one in New York, where he sees himself living someday. But in the meantime, he hustles: he’s playing Dave Moss in Glengarry Glen Ross at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater in April, slinging coffee at Booksellers, and holding out for that next big thing. Wherever it might be.

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