Colin Donnell first debuted on Broadway understudying three roles—Nick Massi, Bob Gaudio, Hank Majewski—in the long-running hit about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons Jersey Boys. Now, scooped up by Hollywood, the actor spends his days playing one leading character on three different TV shows: Chicago Med, Chicago P.D., and Chicago Fire.
“Being a part of the One Chicago universe is really a wonderfully unique experience. We get to bring our characters experiences into a new space and what we always try to do is maintain the integrity of the characters across all the shows,” Donnell says. But Donnell finds home base on Med as Dr. Connor Rhodes. “He’s strong and he’s smart and he’s deeply flawed,” Donnell tells Playbill. “He tackles his personal life and his work like it could disappear in a moment because he knows that could happen. It’s that ability to see the fragility of life that allows him to be bold and sometimes it comes back to bite him.”
And it’s Donnell’s acting chops, sensitivity, and talent that allows him to traverse stage and screen. After Jersey Boys, Donnell starred as Billy Crocker in the 2011 revival of Anything Goes, starring Sutton Foster, Joel Grey, and Laura Osnes and later originated the role of Monty in the Broadway revival of Violet—again opposite Foster. But his regional experiences—including stints at the St. Louis Muny in Miss Saigon, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Holiday Inn—and an outing at Shakespeare in the Park (where he met his future wife, Frozen star Patti Murin) have left some of the most lasting impact. Here, he spills all the details about working with the greats, lessons he’s learned, and watching his wife live her Disney dreams.
What was your first professional job?
Colin Donnell: I got my Equity card doing one of the first regional productions of Miss Saigon at The Muny, which coincidentally is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year! I’m from St. Louis and grew up going to The Muny. I never imagined growing up that I’d one day be onstage there, let alone kicking off a career. It starred the late, great Kevin Gray, Erik Kunze and Joan Almedilla among others.
What was the stage show that has most influenced you?
It’s a bit of a mixed bag. My grandmother had always played show tunes from classic musicals at the piano when we were growing up so that helped me fall in love with Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Lerner and Loewe, etc. Then I really remember falling in love with the PBS Into the Woods and that opened up this whole other world of musicals. That was the show that really got me to imagine what it’d be like to be onstage with them.
Is there a stage moment you witnessed (from the audience, from the wings, in rehearsal) that stays with you?
Too many to choose. The first is watching Patti open Frozen. I’ll never forget seeing Hamilton for the first time at the Public. Aside from knowing Lin[-Manuel Miranda] and having heard about the show for a bit, I just wasn’t prepared for the experience. It was watching a new step in an art form. It was watching a show that I knew I couldn’t take in all in one viewing. I got to sit back and just let the show wash over me and go along for the ride. One last one: Stephen Karam’s The Humans. It was just a spectacularly rewarding and moving piece of theatre. The writing was brilliant, the performances were so raw and gorgeous. It was the kind of play you hope to get to be a part of one day.
What’s been the most rewarding experience onstage for you?
I’m picking two because why not? Anything Goes and Love’s Labours Lost. The first because it was my first major role in a Broadway show, my first time working with Kathleen Marshall and Sutton Foster. It was one of the biggest learning experiences of my entire career and I think it’s probably responsible for where my career has gone. Love’s Labours Lost had been a project that I had worked on a long time with [director/book writer] Alex Timbers and [songwriter] Michael Friedman and, while I still thought I was going to do a second season of Arrow [on The CW], I had been devastated that I wouldn’t be able to do it in the Park because of where it fell in the season. After learning I wouldn’t be coming back to the TV show, the second call I made was to Alex asking if they’d recast the role yet. The most lasting reward from that summer? Falling in love and eventually marrying Patti Murin.
Who is a collaborator from theatre who has made you better?
Doing Merrily We Roll Along for Encores! was so special for so many reasons, not the least of which was getting to work with that spectacular cast. Lin, Celia [Keenan-Bolger], Betsy [Wolfe] and that whole team with James Lapine at the helm, we all wanted to do something special and we only had a short time to make it happen. It was such a bonding experience and one that I’ve carried forward since then.
What is your favorite part of doing TV that’s different from theatre?
It’s like comparing apples and oranges. When I’m doing TV, I miss theatre and when I’m doing theatre I miss being in front of the camera. I really enjoy the constant change in TV. It’s fun to play a character that is, hopefully, growing and developing over a long period of time.
You’ve worked with Sutton Foster twice, Josh Henry, Joel Grey… what’s something you’ve learned from these performers that you take with you?
I consider myself very lucky to have worked with amazing actors, including the ones you named and I have walked away from each those experiences a better performer because they each made me step up and be better. I did the world premiere of Edward Albee’s Me, Myself and I with Tyne Daly at the McCarter Theater and I’ll never forget a compliment she gave me towards the end of the run: She told me that she loved that I never stopped trying to learn every rehearsal and performance. I’ve never forgotten that and I try as hard as I can to take that with me. I try to never stop exploring and never stop learning.
As you mentioned, your wife, Patti, just made her debut as Anna in Frozen. Congrats! Does it make navigating your stage/screen career easier being married to someone in the business?
She’s the best partner I could ever ask for. She knows what the highs are and, probably more importantly, the lows. It’s not always easy having to live and work in different cities but we are very lucky that we both get it and are incredibly supportive of each other. At the end of the day, always a nice reminder that no matter how crazy things get, we have each other to sit on the couch with dogs and watch The Bachelor with—and that makes life a lot better.
So what was your experience watching her on opening night?
It’s hard to really describe. I’m her biggest fan and I was surrounded by family and friends who are all also her biggest fans. She’s magnificent in the role and it’s so exciting to watch the culmination of what has a been a bit of a long road for her. I got to sit there and cry and be proud and laugh and cry some more. I don’t think the smile has disappeared from my face quite yet.
Chicago Med airs Tuesdays at 10PM ET.