Polo grad striving for Hollywood ending
BURBANK, Calif. — In the shadow of some of the biggest movie studios in the country, Paul Lilley is pursuing his dream.
Lilley, 35, son of Marcia Wooden and the late Jack Lilley, is single and lives in Burbank, within a half-mile of Warner Bros. studios. He’s working hard to get on the inside – both in terms of the studio and also the acting business.
“I’ve only been in the LA area for 2 years and it’s a lot of work getting your career started. It’s tough to distinguish yourself,” the 2002 Polo High School graduate said Wednesday.
“There’s a vast difference in culture, and a huge learning curve. You just have to adjust to the way things are done.”
He does have the advantage of gaining valuable experience in Chicago where he lived before the move out West. Originally, though, he had no plans to pursue a career with his name in lights.
The acting bug bit him when he was working at a delivery company and his route took him through the set where the movie “Transformers 3” was filming in Chicago.
“I was walking through there and thought that was the coolest thing,” Lilley said. “I still had no desire to act, but I thought how cool it would be to be an extra.”
That led to him answering an ad for extras for the movie “Contagion;” he was selected right away. Unfortunately his scene was cut, but the experience was all it took to get him hooked and provide a direction for him.
It was a direction he desperately needed at the time.
Lilley is a combat veteran who served with the Dixon National Guard; as part of that duty, he was deployed to Iraq from 2004 to 2005. As with many soldiers, he found it hard to process what he had experienced after he returned home.
“When I got back, it was a hard adjustment period. The transition is not an easy one from combat,” Lilley said.
It soon became more difficult as a close friend he was deployed with took his own life on Thanksgiving after returning from Iraq.
“That took a big toll on me and made the adjustment a lot harder,” Lilley said. “I went through some PTSD, got treated, and it took a long time to figure out where I wanted to go.”
That led him to Chicago, to that delivery route and eventually to acting on a whim for his extra role. He thought that would be where it would end, until he stepped on the set.
“It was a really cool experience being on the set talking with actors, and they were open to me sharing my story. I needed to safely release the feelings and emotions I was burying,” Lilley said. ”(The movie set) was one of the first times I felt at home, where I could express myself and no one would judge me, so I decided to keep doing it.”
He took classes at Second City for some formal training and he secured roles in some short films and then was cast in “The Good Fight” web series as superhero/crime fighter Ryan Barlow/Electroman. He’s completed two seasons and a third is on the way.
Lilley knew if he really wanted to make acting a career, though, he needed to go to California.
Shortly after arriving in Burbank, Lilley joined a volunteer group called Veterans in Media and Entertainment, which helps veterans make the transition from military to civilian life and into various jobs in the entertainment world. He did a public service campaign posing as a homeless veteran for a donor ceremony for that group.
He’s also appeared in a public service campaign for CBS about veterans committing suicide; that got him an invite to a Los Angeles Rams game, where he met the cast of the TV series SEAL Team and later an invite to their season-premiere party.
There have been many other celebrity encounters as well. Lady Gaga walked by him at breakfast one day, and he had a chance to meet Jon Voight and have a long conversation. He’s met Gary Sinise, Wesley Snipes and even got barreled over by former MMA fighter Ronda Rousey, who was rushing out of a theater to head to another appearance when Lilley turned to go inside.
“She can put the hurt on somebody, but she seemed like the nicest lady,” he said.
He does try to make it home when he can, but as an actor, it’s difficult.
“I do miss the snow, but not the cold. As an actor it’s hard because once you land (back home) I could get a call from my agent saying I have an audition, and if you don’t show up, there’s thousands of others that will take that job.”