I remember being tired for much of my childhood. I can’t really explain it. We moved around a lot. I was born in Rogers Park, but we moved to the western suburbs early on. Then bounced around there—Woodridge, Bolingbrook, Naperville. It didn’t matter; school would start at eight in the morning, and I wasn’t ready. You’d have to be up at six and at the bus stop by six forty-five. It would be freezing out. I’d come in at noon. Or I’d blow it off. Related, I also remember being in the principal’s office a lot.
In Naperville, we were on Willow Way and then at 321 Cottonwood Lane. There, we had a two-story, three-bedroom home. I had two brothers. I remember riding bikes, eating Pixy Stix and other pure sugar. We had Big Wheel races. There were a lot of kids, which was great. When I was there, it was all cornfields, but all the sudden Naperville was the fastest-growing suburb.
Growing up, I was dealing with some stuff. Stuff I didn’t know how to handle. Those were my rebellious years. It’s funny that we are at the Riverwalk, because back then this is where all the bad suburban teens hung out. It was punk kids on one side and the rock kids on the other. I gravitated toward both. I angrily questioned everything. I was looking for some sort of power as a kid. I had no sense of right or wrong. I was 11 years old and doing cocaine under a bridge in a beautiful park.
I loved music. Music was everything. It was the eighties. Back then, they let bands have one song and then they would sign them; so you got exposed to a lot of different bands and musical styles. My favorite thing was putting on roller skates, shutting the garage door, and roller skating for hours on end to Prince and Queen. And I remember when Walkmans came out, and I could take my music with me. I remember listening to WGCI when I visited my cousins in Chicago Heights. That was the beginning of house music. Music was my passion. It did something to me that I didn’t know if it did to anyone else. I would escape into different songs and different music, and it was everything. When I could, I was going to clubs in Chicago, like Medusa. It was a whole new experience.
I didn’t realize how bad I had gotten. My freshman year at Naperville North I got suspended after I blew up this row of lockers. I was just messing around in the hallways trying to open lockers like a stupid kid, and one was open. I was probably half-asleep. Probably half-drunk. It was a popular girl’s, and back then I had a pretty big chip on my shoulder. I was the girl wondering who to sit with at lunch and picked last for things. The locker had one of those butane curling irons. A couple friends and I flipped it on, wrapped it in a paper towel, and left. It was stupid. Stupid.
The next year, my sophomore year, I was in the principal’s office and was told I had basically missed the entire month of October. I had no idea. I was kicked out of Naperville North High, which I still love by the way, and went to this special school for two years. When I was seventeen, we moved to Hinsdale, and by that time, I was done with all that stuff. I looked around and said, “If I don’t knock it off, this is going to be the rest of my life.” I was doing my last six months of high school at Hinsdale Central, and all the kids there were just discovering pot. I already had so much experience with all that stuff. It was easier for me to say, “Nah, I’m quitting everything.” It seems like a lot of fun, but if you wake up enough times and you don’t know where you are, you don’t know what you did the night before, it’s scary. I was young, but I started at frickin’ eleven years old. Now, I was growing up. I was about to be eighteen, an adult. I had to knock it off or else I wasn’t going to do anything with my life. I saw the writing on the wall. I’m really thankful I had the brains and enough of me left over to take a look around and say, “I’m done.” I think kids deserve more credit than they get. Sometimes they think they know it all, I definitely thought I knew it all, but I was smart enough to know that I did not have this thing under control. It was bad. That’s how I got out of it. I’m one of the lucky ones.
I say that because I was able to get out, but also because I never got caught. I mean really caught. The stuff that I did—and I’m talking about the stuff I’m not talking about in this interview—I’m really lucky I’m still here, which I attribute to being in Naperville and not downtown. If I would have done half the stuff I did downtown, or on the South Side, where there are cops every few blocks, I would have gone to juvi. I would have been gone. I only got away with it because it was Naperville.
After high school, I still wasn’t in a good place. I wasn’t good at anything. But the College of DuPage saved my life. A girl I was hanging out with said there were tryouts for a play. I had never done anything like that in my life, but I had nothing to do, so said, “What the hell? Maybe I’ll be an extra.” Afterward, though, my friend said we didn’t make it. I thought, “Well, whatever.” Then, out of the blue, I got a call from the director. He asked, “Why didn’t you show up today?” I didn’t know what he was talking about. “You had a callback,” he said. My “friend” was the one who checked for both of us and told me I didn’t make it. He asked if I could make it right then. So I went in and read for him, and he gave me the lead, Catherine, in “A View From the Bridge.”
I freaked out. I didn’t want to ruin the play. I said, “No. You don’t want to hire me. I’m a troublemaker.” That was just my mind-set at the time. I had no confidence. But he took a chance on me, and that changed everything. I always tear up when I tell this story. Someone was taking a chance on me and seeing past all the bullshit I was doing. They changed everything, the entire course of my life. During the first read-through was probably the first time I really had fun doing something since I was a kid riding my Big Wheel.
Finally, I was good at something. It was the best feeling in the world. They cast me in that play, and then they had me come out for the speech team. College of DuPage has an amazing speech competition team. John Belushi and Jim Belushi were on that team. Within three months, I won a national championship. That’s how I knew I was good at this. I was terrified—I’m still terrified—but I could just stare at a spot on the back wall and act and people liked it. It was really funny because my dad would always accuse me of being dramatic, so I could be like, “Yea, and it’s working!” I was using it for something good.
I earned a theatre scholarship to the Eastern Michigan University. But, you know, it’s cold in Michigan. And I didn’t want to do two more years of school—I hated school—so, I said, “Nah, I’m going to move to the city, do whatever plays I can do, get an agent, and make my way to California.” I said it so flippantly. I had nothing to lose. No one ever told me I couldn’t do this. I’ve been told I couldn’t do a lot of things; I was never told I couldn’t act. So, I would be a starving artist; isn’t that what you’re supposed to be? I’ll eat ramen noodles. I’ll work at this place and that place and I’ll apply here or there.
I loved being a waitress, by the way. Some people hate it; I loved it. For a while, I was at this place called Vivo, a beautiful Italian restaurant on Randolph and Halsted. I learned everything about Italian wines, it was great food, I talked to great people, we played great music, and I made awesome money. I loved it. I heard it closed down and was so bummed.
I always tear up when I tell this story. Someone was taking a chance on me and seeing past all the bullshit I was doing. They changed everything, the entire course of my life.
Chicago is an amazing place to learn how to act, and the best learning is done onstage. You’ll never beat that with any acting class. Get onstage, man. You’ll find out if it’s working or not when you bomb. And then you’ll learn how to change it on a dime. That’s the best school in the world. I was fortunate—because in Chicago you can throw a rock and hit a theatre—to get hired. So I did a bunch of plays.
I was in Chicago four years. Then, I got a gig. There was a scout coming through from CBS, and instead of having me do a monologue, like the others, she said I looked like a character they were imagining and had me read sides for the character. I did it, and they liked it, apparently, because three months later they wanted me to come out to L.A. for the show, “My Guys.” We did the pilot, and the show got picked up. I was dating a boyfriend at the time, and it was the perfect excuse to get rid of the asshole. I went to L.A.
That gig lasted six weeks before it was canceled. And I had to audition again, and I’ve been auditioning and doing gigs ever since. That’s kinda the life. I’ve been really lucky to do some great stuff. I’ve also had fifty auditions in a row and nothing. Around then, I went on to do an episode of “ER” and got my first movie, “Vegas Vacation,” six months later.
I get back to Chicago at least once a year, but I try for more. My family’s here—my dad, my daughter’s cousins. Everyone is out here. And everyone is so nice. I have a theory about that. In Chicago, as opposed to L.A., you have a big working class. If a guy is a waiter, he can be a waiter for twenty-five years at a great place in Chicago. You have career guys—the guy who is cleaning tables or delivering your mail or driving the bus. This is their job. Therefore, they can take some pride in the work, in what they’re doing. When you have pride in what you do, you generally are happier. In L.A., you don’t have that. You have a lot of people who are either doing what they’re doing just because there’s nothing else to do—even the taxi driver has a script—or if they are in that career, it’s because they never did what they wanted to do. So in L.A. you are missing that pride, you’re missing that joy in hard work. That’s my theory. So in Chicago, people are happy doing what they’re doing.
Also in L.A., you can’t get pizza. When I first moved to L.A., I flew out Giordano’s. I still fly out Garrett’s or Wells Street popcorn once a year. I tell people, “You don’t understand: I have this popcorn coming. You gotta try it.” Chicago has the best popcorn. I got to L.A., and no one could cook. Everything was so bland. I love good food.
When I’m out here, I have to see my family. I have to do Portillo’s. I still keep in touch with some of my high school friends. And the one other thing I need to do when I’m here is drive. Yes, drive! I love driving in Chicago. People know how to drive in Chicago. Crossing the street, without having to wait for a private invitation, is brilliant. I can look both ways. I am very capable of that. And I can cross the street wherever I want here, and a car doesn’t freak out. It’ll either slow down or it’ll go past me. We can figure it out. That makes me very happy. And if there are three lanes, I’m not going to see two lanes backed up and one completely empty. You’re going to see all the lanes full, because people know how to drive. They don’t have it figured out in L.A. or Vancouver. Chicago is a joy to drive in. Lots of traffic, but at least people know what they’re doing.
We shoot in Vancouver, so I’m splitting time with L.A. I wish it was some amazing story how I landed “Riverdale.” I just auditioned. It was one of thirty auditions I was going on during pilot season. I didn’t want to go on it. I thought, “Eh, it’s about the Archie books,” and “Eh, it’s The CW.” My manager said, “No, take a look.” I read it, thought it was different, and went in. In the room, our creator, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, explained to me where he wanted to take the character: that Fred and I were going to have an affair and my husband was in prison and on and on and on. I was like, “Oh, none of that was in the script. That I’m into. That I really like.”
— As told to Publisher Joe Coughlin
Marisol Nichols, who grew up in Naperville, is a television actress who stars in the CW show “Riverdale.” The show’s second season debuts Tuesday, Oct. 10. She also starred as Audrey in the fourth Vacation series, “Vegas Vacation,” and has had roles in many other hit television shows, like “24,” “Criminal Minds,” and “Friends.”