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Humans of the Hilltop: Brian O’Donnell


Brian O’Donnel, a 2016 Bradley graduate, acted in the 2011 Hollywood movie “Contagion.” photo via Brian O’Donnell
Brian O’Donnel, a 2016 Bradley graduate, acted in the 2011 Hollywood movie “Contagion.”
photo via Brian O’Donnell

Despite growing up in the Midwest, living in Los Angeles has always been inevitable for 2016 Bradley graduate and “Contagion” actor Brian O’Donnell.

During his junior year of high school, O’Donnell’s acting agent in Chicago booked his first big audition. Although he has always been passionate about acting, prior to the audition he mainly did print and voice over work for companies like McDonald’s, Kohl’s, Target and Abercrombie and Fitch.

Then O’Donnell landed a role in the Hollywood film, “Contagion,” alongside the likes of Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Kate Winslet. He found out three months after auditions when he received a phone call inquiring about how he wanted his name to look in the film’s credits. That was the beginning of what he said he believes was the most amazing experience of his life.

“Being on set was a surreal experience, not only because it was shot in Elgin, only a one-and-a-half hour drive from my house, but because it was like a different world,” O’Donnell said. “For my first big project, it couldn’t have been better.”

O’Donnell said his fondest memories were with Matt Damon, someone he describes as down-to-earth, comforting and completely professional. O’Donnell said Damon never made anyone feel like he was better than them.

“That year, the Boston Bruins were playing the [Vancouver] Canucks in the Stanley Cup Finals, and I’ll never forget hanging out on set in between takes, watching the hockey game with Matt Damon, Steven Soderbergh, who was the director, and the cast and crew,” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell said the premiere was an incredible event, which he attended with his parents at the Lincoln Center in New York.

“The red carpet was really cool, [and] watching the movie for the first time next to Elliott Gould and Jennifer Ehle was also insanely amazing,” O’Donnell said. “I actually met my current manager at that after-party, thanks to another star of the film, Chin Han.”

When “Contagion” came out in 2011, O’Donnell was a senior in high school, and he said he was eager to continue with his acting career. But his parents wanted him to receive a college education first.

“By then, I had already taken the ACT, applied to colleges, scholarships, et cetera,” O’Donnell said. “I had every opportunity to move to L.A. and start my career out there, but my parents were stubborn in their decision.”

He said schools in California were too expensive, so initially his top choices were at larger schools like the University of Iowa and University of Illinois. But then O’Donnell visited Bradley, and he said he spotted a major that would be useful in both real life and in his dream of acting.

“[Entrepreneurship] is not offered anywhere, but Bradley stood out as a clear contender,” O’Donnell said. “A nationally-ranked program at a close, private school that could provide financial aid sounded like the obvious choice.”

Along with majoring in entrepreneurship, O’Donnell minored in social media marketing and was involved with Bradley’s club hockey team for all four years, first as a player and then doing camera work.

“I think my degree is awesome; I really liked my major classes and developed a great skill set that is very useful to me in pursuing a career in which I have to pitch myself, like a product, to the consumer [in acting] as well as the financial backer [production/creative team],” O’Donnell said. “It also gave me backup skills in accounting, business management, computer systems, and other things that matter mostly in getting a day job.”

O’Donnell moved to L.A. in September, and he said he loves being in the casting room now, instead of taping his auditions in Constance Hall and sending them to his manager to give to the client.

“Now’s the time I have to put my nose to the grindstone with making money to sustain myself, but also working on acting, learning and experiencing as much as I possibly can,” O’Donnell said.

He may be California dreaming now, but O’Donnell said he will always be grateful to Bradley for introducing him to his best friends, people he said he knows he will have for the rest of his life.

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