When Ethan Cutkosky landed a part in the Showtime series "Shameless" three years ago, producers thought the 10-year-old from St. Charles had just the perfect face for the role.
What they didn't expect was for Ethan, now 12, to blossom into a talented actor with a serious shot at a career in Hollywood.
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Ethan CutkoskyAge: 12
Hometown: St. Charles
School: Thompson Middle School
Who inspires you? Heath Ledger, because he was a method actor; Paul Rodriguez, a skateboarder who teaches you to never give up
What's on your iPod? Rap, dubstep, hip hop
What book are you reading? I just finished "Ashes" by Ilsa J. Bick.
The three words that best describe you? Outgoing. Loud. Funny.
"Shameless" executive producer Mark Mylod said Ethan "had the most fantastic face" to play Carl, one of six kids in a dysfunctional Chicago family led by an alcoholic father played by William H. Macy. "When we first cast him we had no expectation of his acting ability," Mylod said.
At the beginning of the first season, which aired in 2011, Ethan had a few lines per episode, at best, Mylod said. As the boy's acting talent became apparent, his character was written into more interesting plot lines. By the second season, he was carrying entire scenes in the episode's primary storyline, he said.
"We completely trust him now. It's evolved from, 'Can Ethan handle this?' to 'We know he can,'" Mylod said. "It was an incredibly pleasant surprise. We absolutely love him here."
Ethan and his parents, Yvonne and David Cutkosky, have been splitting their time between California and Illinois for the past three years. They rent an apartment in the Los Angeles area during filming season from June to mid-November, and stay in St. Charles -- where Ethan is an honor-roll student heading into the seventh grade at Thompson Middle School -- for the rest of the year. They are now in California, where the third season of "Shameless" is being filmed. The season will air in 2013.
Being part of the cast of "Shameless" has been a lot of fun, Ethan said.
"The best part was getting to meet all of (the cast members) and being so close," said Ethan, adding he has bonded most with Jeremy Allen White and Emma Greenwell, who play his older brother and his brother's girlfriend on the show. They hang out offset, and sometimes go to the movies, he said.
There definitely are similarities between Ethan and his character, Carl.
"We just both like to get in trouble," said Ethan, whose favorite memory is of the time he pretended to disappear at O'Hare International Airport when the cast was on its way back to L.A. after filming in Chicago. "They were like, 'Where is Ethan?' That was fun."
Being a Hollywood actor may sound glamorous, but it's actually a lot of work, as Ethan juggles filming and classes with a tutor on the set at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, Calif. Sometimes his work day starts as early as 8 a.m. Other days start later, but go late into the night, he said.
Still, the job definitely has its perks, like meeting George Lopez, who was "really nice and cool," and being near the sets of shows like "Two and a Half Men," Ethan said.
Away from the set Ethan enjoys skateboarding and spending time with his 3-year-old Crested Gecko, Colby.
He admires the late actor Heath Ledger, and loves working with stunts, like the time he hung from a ceiling attached to a harness in a scene where his head suddenly popped out of the attic.
Ethan said he's picked up a lot of acting tips from his castmates.
For example, Macy taught him that "if you're having trouble with your lines, you go to one sentence of the line, you say it six times in your head until you got it. Then go to the next line, you say it six times, and you keep going."
Oscar-winner Louise Fletcher, who plays Carl's grandmother, also gave him good advice.
"She helped me improve my English, my language, how you talk. Like, don't say 'like' so much," he said.
Indeed, Ethan's evolution from a cute kid into a full-fledged actor happened by osmosis, by watching actors Macy, Joan Cusack and Emmy Rossum, producer Mylod said.
"He has an inquiring brain, and that combination of intelligence and that Darwinian quality that you need to make it here (in Hollywood)," he said.
Ethan started acting at age 4, already a spunky kid with a lot to say.
"He had a really big personality when he was little, he was very articulate," Yvonne Cutkosky said.
Print ads led to TV commercials and then a small movie role in "Fred Claus." Eventually he landed a part in the horror film "The Unborn" when he was 8 years old.
"That was so long ago, I don't really remember," he said.
Despite how great it's all been so far, Ethan is not sure he wants to be an actor when he grows up.
"I'm interested in microbiology," he said. "I want to do medical research with diseases. I think it would be really interesting, like with the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)."
His parents said they are saving all of Ethan's earnings for his future, and are determined to see him go to college.
"If he's a one-hit-wonder, then what has he got? I want him to know that," Yvonne Cutkosky said.
Having a child actor is definitely no easy task, the couple said. David, a computer software engineer, works remotely and is on set with Ethan every day; Yvonne, a former teacher, travels back-and-forth to St. Charles to tend to their house.
"We don't know his schedule from day to day. It's hectic for scheduling business calls and conference calls. It takes a lot of coordination," David said.
The Cutkoskys said they never pushed Ethan to act.
"We are not stage parents. I feel like I should have a career, my husband should have a career, not live through Ethan," Yvonne said.
"If he didn't enjoy it, we wouldn't be doing it," David said. "He's really been a natural at it. It's not something he's been pushed into. The opportunities have really seemed to fall his way, and it just worked out. We told him, 'If you want do to this, we'll just make it work.'"
Ethan's agent, Brooke Shoemaker of Gray Talent Group in Chicago, said the acting business can be hard on kids. Ethan and his parents, however, have not let anything get out of hand -- or go to his head, said Shoemaker, whose agency represents almost 100 child actors.
"(Ethan) has a lovely perspective. He enjoys it and it's fun, and he doesn't get all in his head about everything," she said. "He has a really grounded, good perspective, and a lot of this has to do with how great his parents are."
As for his future, producer Mylod predicts all good things.
"He's a down-to-earth kid from Chicago. He has a good head on his shoulders, a good work ethic. I have nothing but the highest expectation for him, whatever he chooses to do in life -- whether it's acting or something else," he said.
• Elena Ferrarin wrote today's column. She and Kimberly Pohl always are looking for Suburban Standouts to profile. If you know of someone whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to firstname.lastname@example.org or call our Standouts hotline at (847) 608-2733.