Like many students in Roosevelt University’s Theatre Conservatory, Damon Gillespie dreamed of one day becoming a star.
The lightning speed of his success in achieving that goal has yet to sink in for Gillespie, a 2012-14 musical theatre major who will star in the upcoming NBC drama series Rise, premiering March 13.
“I always wanted to be on TV someday, but thought it would happen for me when I was 35 or 40 years of age,” said Gillespie, 23.
Gillespie plays Robbie Thorne, a football quarterback who reluctantly takes theatre at his working-class high school, discovering along the way his love for acting, dancing and singing.
“We knew from the beginning that Damon had talent. He had the look, the physique and ability to get acting gigs early on as a Roosevelt student,” said Sean Kelley, director of the Theatre Conservatory and associate dean of Chicago College of Performing Arts (CCPA).
Gillespie left Roosevelt in summer 2014 to join a national tour of the Tony award-winning musical Newsies, and at the last moment replaced an ensemble member in the Broadway version of the show.
“[Kelley] told me, “Keep on going on the path that life is taking you. Take the road that God has given you. Don’t follow. Lead your dream.’ It’s been good advice, because I love performing.”– Damon Gillespie, (’12–’14)
He also played Chino in Carnegie Hall’s production of West Side Story that was staged at the Knockdown Center in Queens, New York, and joined the casts of Disney’s Aladdin on Broadway and The Prom in Atlanta later that year.
About six months later, he auditioned for Rise, earning the role in the drama series set to debut in spring 2018.
“My professors at Roosevelt University helped me to open up and not be afraid to look ugly, cry or be vulnerable when I’m performing,” said Gillespie, who aims to be a natural in the role that he believes mirrors his own life.
“I played football in much of my childhood,” said the Chattanooga, Tennessee native. “Then my mom put me in a performing arts high school and I had to make a decision about football or theater. I chose theater.”
Written by Jason Katims of Friday Night Lights and produced by Jeffrey Seller of Broadway’s Hamilton, Rise is based on the true story of a high school teacher, played by How I Met Your Mother‘s Josh Radnor, who takes over the school’s failing theater department, galvanizing faculty, students and an entire working-class community.
“I wish I could have finished two more years at Roosevelt,” Gillespie said. “I wanted to be the first in my family to receive a college degree, but my career took me other places.”
In his decision to stay the career course, Gillespie followed the advice of Kelley, who to this day is one of the young actor’s mentors.
“He [Kelley] told me, ‘Keep on going on the path that life is taking you. Take the road that God has given you. Don’t follow. Lead your dream.’ It’s been good advice because I love performing,” Gillespie said. “Every day I try to lead my dream.”