At 13, Buffalo Grove kid Aaron Himelstein saw "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery" and became obsessed.
So much so that while working on the Steppenwolf Theatre play "Morning Star," he told fellow actor Yasen Peyankov, "I'm going to be in an Austin Powers movie someday!"
"Russian Transport"Where: Steppenwolf Theatre's Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650. steppenwolf.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, no shows May 3, no 7:30 p.m. show May 11; runs through May 11
And he was.
Better than that, Himelstein played Powers himself as an adolescent in the 2002 release "Austin Powers in Goldmember."
So, what was it like?
"Oh," he said. "I was asked to do my Austin Powers impression all the time for about three years after that movie came out. Eventually, I grew tired of that at a certain point. It began to haunt me!
"But the actual process of doing this with Mike Myers and director Jay Roach was pretty terrifying and satisfying and unforgettable. It was the kind of experience you couldn't even wish for."
Himelstein, now 28, has also been earning the kind of critical praise actors couldn't even wish for as a player in Steppenwolf's production of Erika Sheffer's drama "Russian Transport."
But Himelstein wouldn't really know about that.
"I don't read the reviews," Himelstein said. "I'll look at the headline to see if it's a positive review, I'll hear about reviews from my family, but I try not to read reviews, especially if they're good."
"That can be very distracting," he said. "I think the idea for me is not to go for something on the spectrum of good and bad. I think it's better to think in terms of truthfulness to the character."
In "Russian Transport," Himelstein plays Alex, the son of immigrants who run a car service.
"I think people can relate to him (Alex) and see everybody else in the show through his lens as an Americanized teenager obsessed with American culture while denying his Russian roots."
For Himelstein (pronounced Himel-stine, although he conceded that Himel-steen sounds better), acting at Steppenwolf is like coming home. He was 13 when he appeared in Steppenwolf's production of "Morning Star" with Peyankov, now the director of "Russian Transport."
Since 2000, when he made his movie debut in "High Fidelity," Himelstein has appeared on the TV series "Joan of Arcadia," "House" and recently, HBO's "Doll and Em." He also did movies, including the horror tale "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane."
Himelstein officially claims Fort Wayne, Ind., as his birthplace, although his family moved to Buffalo Grove when he turned 3.
"I was always sketching and drawing at a very early age," he recalled. "I remember pausing movies and then sketching the frames. I was really into movies when I was 5. I started making my own films, short films, when I was 10 or 11."
So, what's the appeal of being an actor?
"The most simple way I can put it is this: empathy," he said. "When you don't empathize with other people, that leads to apathy. So this keeps your heart open. You try to understand all kinds of people.
"I see the acting process in a mediumistic sort of way. I think you become a medium for something coming through you. There's something addictive about that process. And fulfilling."
Himelstein has worked with people on both coasts. Would he be able to spot a Chicagoan a mile away?
"No," he confessed. "But I can spot somebody from L.A. a mile away. The thing about people from L.A. is that there's this big ego. It's massive.
"When you come home to Chicago, there's a sense of normalcy that you don't even notice when you're living here, not until you leave and come back."
So, what does he notice about Chicagoans when he comes back?
"That they're just good people. It's about the quality and kindness of the people that's there just below the surface in a genuine way that's hard to find in a one-dimensional city like L.A. where everything revolves around the entertainment industry."
In fact, he says his Midwestern background is the best part of being Aaron Himelstein.
"I think that 'normal' thing I hold on to when I'm going through tough times in L.A. enables me to remind myself that I'm from the Midwest. And I can always go back."
-- Dann Gire
• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are looking for suburbanites working in showbiz. If you know of someone who would make an interesting feature, email them at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.