Actor Namir Smallwood never intended to attend theater school in Minnesota, let alone stay here after graduating. But his mom liked the looks of a flyer that the University of Minnesota sent to Smallwood's New Jersey home circa 2001, so they checked out the U. After earning his BFA from the Guthrie’s Actor Training Program, he took on roles that ranged from Puck at the Guthrie to a Spanish prince for Ten Thousand Things.
 
Smallwood moved on to the Midwest's other theater town six years ago, but has frequently returned to the Twin Cities to take on choice parts, most recently an aspiring opera singer murdered for his Air Jordans in "The Gospel of Lovingkindness," at Pillsbury House in 2015. 
 
In Chicago, Smallwood has worked in theaters of all sizes. His 2015 performance as a young man weirded out by a transgender manners coach in the world premiere of "Charm" landed on the Chicago Tribune's best performance of the year list, but he's also been praised for his work in period dramas. Smallwood is currently starring in the young adult juvenille justice play "Monster" at Steppenwolf Theatre, and the folks at that venerable Chicago institution have been so impressed by his work, they named him the company's 48th ensemble member on Monday. 
 
Smallwood's name now joins a long list of theatermakers who have found success at Steppenwolf and beyond, including Tracey Letts, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Bruce Norris, Jim True-Frost and Steppenwolf co-founder Gary Sinise. 
 
“I have been a fan of Namir's since the first time I saw him onstage, here at Steppenwolf. His ability to completely transform, inhabit and magnify each moment is truly astonishing and we are excited for all that he will bring to the company,” artistic director Anna D. Shapiro said in a statement. 
 
Via email, the Star Tribune caught up with Smallwood to congratulate him on the honor.
 
You've said you never intended to come to Minnesota, but your mom found a flyer in the mail. Why did you stick around so long after graduation?
 
I was fortunate enough to start working even before I graduated. Everything just snowballed from there. I've gotten the chance to do some really cool projects with some amazing people, who have become family.
 
What are some strengths (and/or weaknesses) of the Chicago and Twin Cities theater scenes?
 
Both places provide the chance to do amazing work, with amazing people. On the flip side, amazing people don't always get to do the amazing work--for whatever reason. Really great playwrights will develop their work in both places as well. I think that offers the artist the chance to lend their expertise to the making of the art and, possibly, develop an artistic partnership in the process.
 
In a Pillsbury House production at the Guthrie, you starred in McCraney's "The Brothers Size." What was that acting experience like for you, and what's it like to join him as a Steppenwolf ensemble member now that he's basking in the Oscar glow of "Moonlight"? (The screenplay is based on one of McCraney's earlier works.) 
 
It was an unforgettable experience. Tarell's work is a gift. Ironically enough, I saw "The Brothers Size" at Steppenwolf a couple years before and was mesmerized. I wanted to do it and Marion McClinton asked me to! Now that I am [an ensemble member at Steppenwolf] hopefully our paths will cross and I can breathe some life into one of his newest creations.  That will be a blessing.
 
Photo of Namir Smallwood in "The Brothers Size" by Michal Daniel

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