Two-time Screen Actors Guild Award winner Chris Sullivan earned his first individual Emmy nomination last September for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series for his work on NBC’s flagship family drama This is Us. While his fan-favorite character Toby introduced Chris to the households and hearts of many, he has been working for a number of years, from his incognito Taserface in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy 2 to his Irish ambulance driver Tom Cleary in Showtime’s The Knick and his oxycontin addicted Joe in HBO’s Camping. He is also a musician who plays under the pseudonym Joseph the Spouse and his album Six Feet From Under, made with Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith, is now out. He recently collaborated on the Country Pop/EDM song “Divided” with Shane Patterson, and also hosts a podcast with Michael Rosenbaum, In Love With…, which analyzes the universal language of love in all of its avenues. (Photo by Maarten de Boer/NBC.)
Sunday morning in Chicago is a quiet and somber time. For a city that enjoys its food, drink and art with a religious fervor, Saturday night is the city’s temple. The dark beer, comfort food and dirty Blues of the Saturday night service make Sunday morning a time for repentance and recovery. Sabbath streets are cleared for those who attend more traditional religious services and for young twentysomethings who worship at the altar of Del Close.
Like the rest, this Sunday morning was quiet, but the rain and overcast nature of the day seemed to ease the swelling from the previous night’s activities. I was financially on the way to penniless, emotionally on the way to despair and physically hungover, making my way down Halstead Avenue, toward The iO. I had decided to spend what little money I wasn’t putting in the Saturday night offering plate on improv classes.
At this point in my life, I was three years a “working actor,” but I hadn’t leveled up in a while. The stagnation was beginning to self-perpetuate and I was feeling the weight of that despair. On this morning when I seemed to be questioning everything, the light rain ceased, the clouds literally parted and I experienced an honest-to-goodness cliché. Sharp beams of warm sunlight landed on my face and a powerful sense of calm pushed any remaining alcohol out of my bloodstream.
Never having experienced such a powerful cliché before, I was struck still in my tracks and in spite of all of my doubt, I just knew everything was going to be OK. The only way to describe this feeling was an overwhelming sensation of … faith. Faith that I was on the right path. A peaceful understanding that the way I express myself as an artist could be my chance to put my purpose in action. Now, if I could just figure out what my purpose was … I wish I could say that I experienced and understood all of this in that moment, but that was not the case. It was a simple moment of peace. A brief awakening, when I identified my passion and was delivered the faith and fortitude to pursue that passion in search of my purpose.
Many years ago, I was warned that identifying too closely with what I did, rather than who I am, would drag me into a place of depression and anxiety. What is an actor if they’re not on a stage? What is a surfer if the ocean is calm? What is a dragonslayer if there are no more dragons to slay? The life of an artist is full of rejection and failure. A continuous cycle of expression, promotion and vulnerability. I had chosen a path where the opportunities to put my craft in action were mostly going to be granted by others. How could I differentiate between the commerce of my profession and the art in my purpose?
My purpose, as an artist is to challenge myself to understand the human condition in a way that I can accurately reflect it back to an audience, challenging them to think, encouraging them to ask questions and reflecting back to them a present and focused representation of my experience in this world.
Sometimes I attempt to fulfill my purpose by playing a role in a TV show or film, other times I can help stories unfold on stage, but most recently I have been able to communicate through a collection of songs. I released an album called Six Feet From Under as Joseph the Spouse. Joseph, of the famed Irish exclamation “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” is best known for being witness to a miracle, a quiet, unsung facilitator in the unfolding of a story.
That is how I feel when I collaborate with other artists. I feel as if I am witnessing a miracle. A song appears to be conjured out of thin air. A story gets processed into existence through a multitude of hearts. An artist has a thought or an emotion and it pours out of them through fingers on piano keys or brush strokes on canvas. Every time I am involved in a creative collaboration, I am inspired and encouraged to learn new things and reveal undiscovered parts of myself. Each collaboration, each creation is a little miracle. A miraculous expression of someone’s purpose, attempting to inspire the viewer, the listener, the witness to find and follow their own.
Talent can be cultivated. Ability can be practiced. But purpose must be forged in the fire of doubt, risk and rebirth. A cycle of order, disorder and reorder, occurring over and over again, refining the spirit.
Those who have made the biggest impact on me as an artist are those who have the strongest sense of purpose in their life. They are not always the most objectively successful. They are rarely the loudest voice in the room. They carry peace with them and it seems to wash over everyone they encounter. I have bathed in that peace and I want to imbue the same in others. I want to be of service. I want people to feel better for having been in my presence.
I want to sing my songs in a way that makes you feel safe to sing your own.
Identify your passion.
Follow it to your purpose.
Obey your purpose above all else.
Featured image shows Chris Sullivan performing as Joseph the Spouse.