With his handsome good looks and boy-next-door charm, actor Chris O’Donnell has been captivating audiences for more than 30 years.
As a young boy growing up in Winnetka, Illinois, O’Donnell dreamed of becoming an actor. “My mom has been a diehard movie fan her whole life; her dad owned a little theater in a small town in Kentucky where she grew up (it’s still there), and every day after school she would go to the movies.” Blown away by films like “Star Wars,” and “The Goonies,” and seeing kids his own age up on screen led the youngest of seven kids to think, “Wow, who are they and how do they get to do that?”
O’Donnell got his acting start while in high school, appearing in commercials, but “nothing too serious,” he says. “Just getting your picture in the paper and being on TV brought a certain sense of wow, and it was very exciting for me.”
In what would have been his first semester of college, O’Donnell appeared in his first feature film, “Men Don’t Leave,” with Jessica Lange. “That film really opened Hollywood doors to me,” he says. Despite these opportunities, O’Donnell, who describes himself as a realist, believed that as much as he wanted to follow his dream, he was raised to make a living and doing so as an actor seemed far-fetched. “It seemed like such a pipe dream that this could actually be my career.”
While the film didn’t make a splash at the box office, people in the industry began to take notice. “It wasn’t until a few years later, however, when I did ‘Scent of a Woman,’ that people really started to know my name,” says O’Donnell. The critically acclaimed film had audiences buzzing, propelling the actor to the next level.
“When I read the script, it was the best I had ever read and it was an amazing part for such a young actor,” he says. “I knew it would be life-changing, and I either had to be serious and really focus, or just get out of the business for good.” He recalls never having worked harder to prepare for any audition than he did for this film; fortunately, it paid off.
“This was something I really wanted,” says O’Donnell. Landing the part gave him a sense of validation and the confidence to believe he could make a career out of acting. “I’ve always been someone who hates to build things up; more than anything, I don’t like disappointment,” he says. “I’ll always downplay things. It’s kind of the way I am.”
Finding His Place
Having already shared the screen with the immensely talented Lange, O’Donnell was comfortable performing alongside another Hollywood legend, Al Pacino. “This wasn’t my first go at it, but I knew at the time — and I was right — [that] this was going to be the best experience I would have working on a film,” says O’Donnell. He recounts those five months he spent every day watching and interacting with Pacino as “magical.”
The opportunity to observe and learn from someone whom he describes as a “real master at his craft,” was one the best lessons he took away from the experience. “I could take all the acting classes I wanted and I still wouldn’t have gained the kind of insight I did being one-on-one with Al Pacino.”
The third step that launched his career even further came in 1995 with his portrayal of Robin in “Batman Forever.” A huge fan of the series growing up, O’Donnell remembers watching reruns after school.
When the opportunity to play Robin came along, O’Donnell was all for it. “When I read the script, there was a totally different take on Robin than the one portrayed in the TV version, so it was one of those decisions where I thought, how can I not do this?” he says. O’Donnell knew that very few people ever get such an opportunity to star in these massive cultural films, so the decision was a no-brainer.
With the overwhelming success that had come on so fast, O’Donnell says he reached a point where his head was spinning. Things were getting crazy as we went from film to film, he says. Then, after getting married, he decided he needed a break. “It’s easy to look back and play Monday-morning quarterback and think you should have done this film or that film, but it’s hard because you just don’t know.”
Making his Mark on Television
These days, the hardworking actor and father of five appears as Special Agent G. Callen alongside an ensemble cast, including good friend LL Cool J in the CBS crime drama, “NCIS: Los Angeles.” Working on his first TV series is a dream job, he says, because it allows him the opportunity to be at home with his family in Los Angeles. “At this point in my career, my family is my priority.”
As the show heads into its eighth season, he describes the cast and crew as extensions of his family. “I’ve never done a TV show – I’ve done films where you spend months with people, but I’ve never done anything like this; it’s unique,” he says.
For the seasoned actor, it still blows his mind at times that he spends what he describes as “every waking hour” with LL, especially as he remembers watching him on “Friday Night Videos” when he was younger. Their friendship off-screen is genuine and one O’Donnell says is a “special experience.” “I’ve never had that before with someone I’ve worked with.”
Although O’Donnell has been in the business for 30 years and has had amazing opportunities and experiences along the way, seeing the excitement of his friends from back home or the people visiting the set remind him just how lucky he is to do what he does and to not take it for granted. “I can’t believe I live the life I do.”
When it comes to finding a balance between work and family, he credits his wife of 18 years, Caroline Fentress. “I am very fortunate to have a wife who is an amazing mom,” says the actor. And while at times he misses out on things like school events and coaching his kids sports teams like he used to, it’s all about priorities, and for him that’s family. “I always knew I was going to get married and have a big family since I was a kid,” says O’Donnell. “It’s how I was raised.”
Right now O’Donnell spends 10 months of the year focusing on the show, with the other two dedicated strictly to being with his family. That means escaping the Hollywood hustle and heading to their home in Maine. There are moments the actor misses working on films, being on location, and playing different characters, but he knows those opportunities will happen again in the future.
“It’s all about keeping priorities, and for me it’s never been tough because my family has always been most important. We’re all doing the best we can.”
Contributed by Alexandra Anastasio