‘My Life Is So Much Cooler Than I Ever Dreamed’ — Emily Bergl

Over cheese fries, Emily Bergl recalls the advanced education, arts available in Glenview

It was considered the wrong side of the tracks, the winding street on which I grew up. “Ooo, Countryside, in unincorporated Glenview where they don’t have sidewalks and you have to get a special library card.” But it was a completely nice neighborhood, just not part of posh Glenview. Most of the houses there were built by G.I.’s coming home after World War II. They got money from the G.I. Bill and bought home kits from Sears and started their American dream. The homes have expanded now. Those tiny houses have turned into little Glenview McMansions.

By the time we moved to Glenview, I was ten. We originally came from England when I was six, but lived in Colorado for a few years. Then, my parents started a business with my aunt and grandfather, who lived together in a Glenview apartment at Dearlove Manor. For a while after we moved here, we all lived in that apartment. A gravedigger for the cemetery lived below us. He was a tough guy, kind of surly, rode a motorcycle. When my brother and I got too loud, he’d do the broomstick-on-the-ceiling thing. We had six people living in a two-bedroom apartment before my aunt and grandfather moved out. We stayed. And then my parents worked really hard to build up their business, and we bought the little house down the road on Revere. It was cute. It had dormer windows. The one on the right was my room. From there, I would go out on the roof sometimes. My parents were pretty chill, though, so I never had to really sneak out. We had a detached garage. I remember we would boil a pot of water and de-ice the car with it.

It was a culture shock for us coming from England, but also coming here from crunchy Colorado. It was more suburban here. You had to have the Guess jeans with the triangle on the back pocket, but we were wearing clothes from Venture.

My dad was an architect. We left England when he got a job in Denver. My parents eventually had to go into independent business because their immigration got messed up. We were actually illegals until I was seventeen years old. I couldn’t get a driver’s license. That’s why a lot of the current conversation is strange to me. There’s a big immigrant community here in Glenview; there’s Korean and Indian communities. I know people from here who on Facebook post about illegals and how terrible they are for this country. Number one, I was one of them, and number two, what is your issue with it? The only people you probably know like that own small businesses you enjoy; they provide a lot of your services. Why are you so angry? It’s difficult for me to understand. The suburbs were a great place to grow up, but it was also a very sheltered place where these ideas could remain insular. I think it has changed now, but Glenview was a very conservative place growing up. I got into a lot of trouble when I did my first interview with the Chicago Tribune at twenty-three years old when my first movie came out. I did the sequel to the movie “Carrie,” so all the questions were like, “How were you like your character, who was an outsider?” And I said, “Well, I came from a very liberal family and in class sometimes people would call me feminazi.” They made the article all about how closed-minded I thought Glenview was, and people were furious with me. I understood, and that was not my experience in its entirety, but it was some of my experience.

My parents’ business was part of why Wicker Park gentrified. The city had an incubator program where they subsidized rents for businesses to try to lift up the area. That’s a big reason Wicker Park became what it was. My parents were pioneers and moved in to that area when it was still “rough.” My mom would call me up and say, “Your father and I are in the dining room and we’re watching the prostitutes go by and we just saw a pimp.” I knew the city well because my parents had that business and I would work there over the summer. So I would be in the city through the summers, but some of my Glenview friends’ parents wouldn’t let them come into the city with me because it was dangerous.

We used to go to Thai restaurants downtown where my parents worked. And then the first Glenview Thai restaurant opened, Your Choice. It was this tiny place and nobody went there, because no one had heard of Thai food. You couldn’t even buy hummus in Glenview; you had to go to this place down the road. Whenever we went to the restaurant, we were nervous it would be closed. We tried to go all the time. I feel like we kept that Thai place in business for a while, but then it got more and more popular and moved across the street. It’s huge now, another successful immigrant business.

Emily Bergl credits Glenview, specifically Glenbrook South High School, for opening her mind and inspiring her to get out and pursue her dreams of performing.

On my first date, I went to that Little Caesar’s that is still on Glenview Road. We went kite flying at Flick Park, and then, he put me on the handlebars of his bike to get pizza. I was fifteen, and that was my first boyfriend. He was a bass player. I had a type. I have dated a few bass players since then. We played in the pit of the Glenbrook South Variety Show together. The V show was a huge deal. It was the pinnacle. My brother was in the V show, and after seeing my first one, I said, “That is the top. I want to get there.” My first year I played a lot of instruments, then I did comedy sketches, and my senior year I did a whole cabaret thing where I sat on the piano. This football player asked me out after he heard me sing that song. I thought, “Oh, this is cool,” and I did a cabaret act professionally where I performed the same song.

I was always into that scene. Even back at Dearlove Manor I was putting on plays. I organized an entire recital by teaching a bunch of kids who lived in the apartment complex songs and piano. I made programs. My mom actually brought one of those programs out to me in New York recently. It read, “Directed by Emily Bergl. Produced by Emily Bergl. Refreshments by Emily Bergl,” and it listed all the numbers. Though no one in my family is in entertainment, it’s one thing I always knew subconsciously that I’d do. It wasn’t actually until I was in the high school musical and failing English that I figured it out, though. I had gotten into college and decided I didn’t need to work hard anymore. They told me, “You need to pass English to be in the musical.” And I had to beg my English teacher, Mrs. Cannon, who was a real hard-ass and an amazing, incredible woman. She had like thirty jobs growing up, including working in the Bunny Club downtown. She gave me a hard time, but she was the first person to ask me, “Why are you doing these plays? Do you want to be an actor?” And I said, “Yes, I do.” I never articulated it until then.

The opportunities for arts education here were incredible. I went to a holiday concert at a great school in New York. It was in the cafeteria, they didn’t have a piano, and the choir was an after-school program. At Glenbrook South, there were five different choirs you could take as a class, musicals, jazz band, a seventy-piece orchestra. I played harp in a high school orchestra.

I always felt like an underdog in high school. I naturally think of myself that way. When I first moved here from Colorado for junior high, I was fully on the nerd spectrum. I had thick glasses and second-hand clothes and liked to raise my hand in class. Eventually I learned it was easier not to be socially assertive with my intelligence all the time. I feel like in a way that social experience prepares you and doesn’t prepare you. In some ways, you’re going to learn how to fit in, but later in life, you wish you had just been yourself the whole time. A lot of this was my own perception, though. In reality, it probably wasn’t like that. I remember someone saying, “Now that Emily Bergl’s gone maybe I can get a part in the play.” But I never really thought of myself that way. I guess I did get the starring roles at the end, but I was always scrappy and I still am. I have always perceived myself as the underdog. Who likes to think, “I’m on the inside. I’m cool”?

It was different at Grinnell, where I went to college. My GBS counselor basically told me weird people go there. He said, “It’s for really unique people.” But Grinnell ended up giving me a big scholarship. It was really the only place I could afford to go without loans. I’m not sure how I had the foresight to not take student loans. Grinnell turned out to be a really great place, hyper-intellectual and very liberal. I just really wanted to get a liberal arts education. When I first visited, I didn’t want to be in a place where one of the only places to go out is a Dairy Queen. But it turned out to be really good in a way because there was nowhere to really go, so there was an amazing life on campus. They also provide, this huge endowment, more financial aid than almost any other school. And graduates tend to do amazing things. I read my class newsletter and I feel like such a loser that I’m not working in a women’s health clinic in Uganda.

A good thing about Grinell was it wasn’t theatre school. There was no hierarchy. I could just start doing plays. No one said, “You’re just a freshman; you have to pay your dues.” My plan was always that I’d go and get a broad-based liberal arts education and then I’d go take a year off before getting a master’s degree. But I started working right away. I went into an understudy job at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City, and while I was doing that, I got “Carrie 2.” The first time I actually talked to my agent was when I found out I was going to star in a movie. I never had the experience of working in Chicago theatre, like in a cool, independent storefront, avant-garde. I just temped and waited tables and high-tailed it to New York because I thought there would be more work for me. It’s funny: I’m a Chicago girl, but I’m not a Chicago actress. And the only time I got to work here is when we shot “Shameless” here.

After “Carrie 2,” I didn’t want to do more horror movies. If I did, I didn’t think I could have the kind of career I wanted. So I used it to get a Broadway career. I did a few more films, and most of the work now is in television. When I started in the business, it was like “You’ve done movies; I don’t know if you want to do television.” Now, we really are in the golden age of television. We are also in the golden age of theatre. The sheer volume of amazing plays that go on right now is incredible. I think we’re really going to look back and think this was a really exciting time to be.

I just finished the third season of “American Crime” and a play at the Public Theatre. I started teaching, and I’ve actually written a play that is possibly being produced. It’s an interesting time for me because I’m just now showing to be pregnant. I’m not sure what type of acting work I’ll get right now. It’s really weird to come back to Glenview at a time where I’m starting a family. I never gave thought to that. I never laid in my bedroom and pictured getting married and wearing a white dress and all that. But when I think about it, in a lot of ways, my life is so much cooler than I ever dreamed. I never really thought I’d become an actress.

I’m a Chicago girl. I can house some ribs and some wings no problem. Well, usually. I can’t eat the way I used to now that I’m pregnant; a milkshake can take me down. When I asked if they had cheese fries at (P.J.’s) Moon Doggies, she said, “Of course.” It’s a given. You can’t get cheese fries in New York. It’s rare. Sometimes they’ll have actual cheese melting on them. That’s not cheese fries. You need the cheese sauce. In a play I just did at the Public, there was another girl from Chicago in it, Anne Sanders. We just fell in this YouTube hole during rehearsal, watching old Chicago commercials, like Victory Auto Wreckers, when the guy goes to open his car and the door falls off; Empire, of course; and the best was always Celozzi-Ettleson Chevrolet, “at the corner of York and Roosevelt Road, where you always save more money.”

Being back here, I’m tinged with a sense of nostalgia. I feel emotion. During that junior high-high school time, I was a pretty emotional kid. I think about a lot of the wonderful highs that I had—winning speech team tournaments, going with my speech team teachers to Florida for a tournament, trying Japanese food when I’d never had sushi. I really had my mind expanded. The flip side to that is I remember a lot of pressure. I did a lot of that to myself, but there’s getting good grades, doing all the extra-curriculars, being on that college track. If I’m honest, I also feel the sense of longing, and not longing for that time of my life, but the sense of longing I had when I was here. In a way, I don’t think I ever felt like I fit in here; even though, if you look at it logically, I had great friends and success. I always felt that pressure that goes with having a life in the arts. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Not a lot of great playwrights say, “This is it. I’m happy right here.” I was always very attracted to an urban environment. I always felt this rush of energy when we’d go to the Loop. My dad was a modernist architect, so we’d always go look at skyscrapers. There was this feeling of excitement. Now, I live in Midtown. My block is quiet, and I am in the center of it. Walking around my neighborhood in New York, I love seeing that I am living among skyscrapers. I’m sure for a lot of people who live in Glenview or other areas that would be a nightmare. In a lot of ways, it was a very protective place.

There was a lot of excitement for me here. I was very involved. It was wonderful to do these plays and musicals. The education I got here was incredible, world religions and international studies. At the same time, I felt this drive to get out there and see the world. I was so crazy to just get out there, to be out in the world and experience new things. But there’s a part of me that will always be a Glenview girl eating cheese fries in a strip mall.

— As told to Publisher Joe Coughlin

Emily Bergl is a stage and screen actress out of Glenview. She was the lead in her first movie, “Carrie 2.” She is otherwise known for her recurring roles in popular television series such as “Men in Trees,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Southland,” and “Shameless.” She has starred in five Broadway shows, most recently in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” opposite Scarlett Johansson, and many other plays. The New York resident most recently acted in Season 3 of ABC’s “American Crime” and “Plenty” opposite Rachel Weisz at the Public Theater.

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