North Central College alumnus Peter Sipla.

Alumni Q&A with Peter Sipla '07

Local actor went from North Central stage to appearing alongside Tom Hanks

Apr 25, 2023

Peter Sipla ’07 is a veteran of Chicago-area stages. Recently, he made his wide-release film debut in “A Man Called Otto,” opposite Tom Hanks. Sipla studied theater and music performance at North Central, where he performed in 14 mainstage productions and discovered his love of dialect and voice work. The Warrenville, Ill., native has been acting since he was six years old.

Q: You've done a great deal of acting in your career on stage, in voiceover, on television and in films. How is live acting different from acting on camera or mic, and what do you prefer, if anything?

A: Live acting onstage is a bit different from recorded mediums in a few ways, but let’s start with how they are similar. At their roots, the preparation is the same: reading the script over and over to know the the story as best you can; studying and analyzing the script for how characters and scenes fit into that story; allowing time for asking questions and making decisions about your character, in terms of their backstory and their relationships; testing those choices while running through the scenes: seeing how they feel in your body, seeing if they feel true to the words and the spirit of the piece, as a whole; and so forth.

Paramount to this preparation is rehearsing your lines out loud as much as you can. Much like practice in sports or reps in the weight room, ingraining a muscle memory for your actual mouth musculature helps the words literally feel more natural as you say them in performance. This preparation allow the words to tumble out of your mouth, as if you were freshly thinking and speaking them in that moment. This “muscle memory” also lets your body assist you when nerves are high and stimuli abounds, whether from the energy of a live audience, or the pressure or anxiety that can occur on a film set, acting opposite seasoned and storied professionals when time is literally money.

I enjoy the different mediums of acting for different reasons. Acting on stage has the aforementioned energy of the live audience, as well as the enjoyment and congruity of conveying a character’s entire story arc every night, whether you’re the lead or a supporting character. Of course, there’s also the often-mentioned vocal energy and projection, let alone physical energy needed to fill the space you’re performing in.

Film acting is more about focused energy and navigating a bit more of the unknown. You’ve done all the preparation you can, in terms of character and story, but you don’t have the hours and weeks of rehearsals for planning and setting physical movement, known as blocking, like you do for the stage. There is a different kind of electricity and energy that occurs when you know who you are and how you generally interact with the world, but don’t know exactly how the other people around you are going to act. It creates a feeling of being fully present, all your senses primed and receiving, almost like you felt on your first day of school, or your first middle school dance, or a first date.

The voiceover booth has some of the same prep, in terms of character choices, especially your point-of-view, your opinions, your current state of mind, and your intention in communicating those specific words. But it also has a nice side of strategy built-in. You get to craft each moment of the performance with the editor/director through a lot of different runs through the script, adjusting and refining both your vocal quality and your intentions as you go.

Q: How did your role in "A Man Called Otto" come about?

A: The role itself came about much like any other, through the production company hiring casting directors, those casting directors putting out notices to the agents and the industry in general, my agent submitting me, and the casting and production team being interested in seeing me submit an audition tape.

Taping the audition was interesting in the fact that it felt like every other day. I was staying with Adam '06 and Kaylee Billman-Galuhn '11, both NCC theater alumni, for a three-month stint between gigs, that turned into two and a half years, due to the pandemic. Throughout that time, Adam would be my off-camera reader for all of the auditions I submitted. So, we literally taped the initial scene from their basement! When we finished, I said to him, “Well, whatever happens from here, we will have both performed for Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson!” (Who are both producers of the film, as well).

A few weeks later, I received a virtual callback audition for the director, Marc Forster (known for films like "Stranger than Fiction," "Quantum of Solace," and "World War Z"), which also occurred in Adam and Kaylee’s basement!

North Central College alumnus Peter Sipla poses in front of the poster for the movie "A Man Called Otto."

Q: Have you had any special experiences meeting Tom Hanks or other actors you admire?

A: Incredibly, I’ve had quite a few within the first decade and a half of my professional career: learning from and working with JoBe Cerny, the voice of the Pillsbury Doughboy, working with Danielle Deadwyler and Timothy Simons on "Station Eleven," working with theater legends, like Mike Nussbaum, Kate Baldwin, Robert Cuccioli, Kathy Voytko, Greg Watanabe, and Joe Foronda, to name a few. 

For this project, I had a handful of memorable experiences. Auditioning for and then working with Marc Forster on set is high on that list. As was meeting Rita Wilson as I walked onto set. She and Tom, as well as the entire cast and crew were incredibly welcoming and gracious. It was great to see that, even at that level of success, they hold being kind and supportive just as important as being highly skilled, focused, and professional.

During our lunch break on set, I chatted up the guy behind me in line, and then sat and ate lunch with him. A few minutes into our conversation I realized that he was David Magee, the writer of the film, and also the Oscar-nomiated writer of "Life of Pi," "Finding Neverland," (which he worked with our director on) and "Mary Poppins Returns," to name a few. We really connected through our shared background working in voiceover, which was what led to him adapting books into abridged audiobooks that he also narrated, and then into writing and adapting screenplays.      

On set, I was able to act with and opposite Tom Hanks for about 10 and a half hours that day! To say that it was paradigm-shifting, might be an understatement. Being able to watch a master at their craft, see how they work in between takes, and then having the immense privilege to ply my own craft opposite them, is a gift. Tom was laser-focused, yet relaxed between takes. Midway through the afternoon, maybe because he sensed we could all use an energy boost post-lunch, he amped up the playfulness, entertaining us between takes with that youthful energy and brilliant comedic timing that he’s known for from movies like "Big" and his guest appearances on "Saturday Night Live."

Q: What are some of your goals for the next steps in your career?

My long-term goals on that front have not changed since I set them almost two decades ago. I think it’s important to set large, almost unfathomable, long-term goals that keep you inspired, like, “I want to be one of the greatest actors of my generation, creating a legendary body of work by continually deepening and showcasing my skills.” That can apply to range, depth, ease, realism, theatricality, humor, your vocal and physical instruments–whatever aspect you’d like to focus on at that time.

I set smaller, specific goals for each season, whether that be a few months or a year, so that I’m intentional in growing and honing my skills. I think I will always strive to be the best actor and teammate that I can be at the present moment.

As far as next steps, I’d love to continue to gain momentum in the film and television field. I just wrapped my second episode of a streaming TV show, that marks my first recurring character on a show. I’d love to continue into larger roles in film, as well as more recurring and season regular roles in television.

North Central College alumnus Peter Sipla and his family.

Peter Sipla gathers with his loved ones to see "A Man Called Otto."

Q: How would you advise theater students on how to have a successful career in acting?

A: Learn by doing. Ever since acting with my dad and my sister Bequita (also an NCC theater alum) from the age of 14 in NCC’s Community Theatre Summer Musicals, directed by the incomparable Brian Lynch, I have had a voracious appetite to learn new skills and then put them into practice on the stage, in the classroom, or in a coffee shop reading a script. Up until the pandemic, I had been in three to five different productions a year over the span of 20 years, starting in community and children’s theater and transitioning into professional theater. Having that many opportunities to test and refine has been indelible.  

Use your imagination. From imagining myself in far off places with the neighborhood kids while we played in our yards, to creating storylines and “entire worlds,” as my Mom put it, with my action figures in my youth, my love for creating has just found new mediums in adulthood. And whenever I find that I feel unsatisfied with my work, it’s usually because I’ve done the technical and intellectual preparation, but have neglected to go deep enough into the imagination-driven aspects of creating a character.

Take your time. Though having little sense of urgency had to be remedied on the professionalism front, so that I actually showed up places on time, it has served me well in my preparation. When you’re in the early stages of reading a script, take your time. Let the images that the playwright provokes in you flood your senses. Take notes on what resonates with you on a visceral level. When you finish reading it for the first time, sit in silence for a bit. Let the weight of the story affect you, and take note of how it affected you. And, again, literally write down those notes. Take time to imagine yourself in those situations, make some guesses, and try out some things when reading it scene-by-scene. In the rare moments you have the value of more time to prep for an audition, read all of your lines in the script out loud so you’ve had at least one pass through your character’s entire story. Take note of what words and intentions feel very different from your own natural inclinations, and start to work out how they would be pulled out of you: what circumstances would have to surround you for you to need to say them.        

Learn from great teachers. Find and work with people who are good at what they do, and are passionate about your development. Observe, asks questions, mimic their useful work habits, and integrate what works for you. The opportunity to work with professors like Brian Lynch, Carin Silkaitis, Deborah Palmes, Jack Phend, Pete Martinez, Dr. Ramona Wis, James Falzone, Dr. Larry Van Oyen, Linda Ogden Hagen, Paul Grizzell, Barb Vanderwall, and many, many others throughout my college career was an integral part of my growth as a professional actor and as a well-rounded human being. I’ve continued to seek out and work with great coaches and directors throughout my professional career.

Work with a great team. Dawn Gray and the entire team at Gray Talent Group have represented me since 2009, and they have been incredible partners to work with on my acting journey.

Teach and empower others to pursue their own artistic endeavors.

And lastly, pursue excellence in whatever you do. Be kind to yourself when you fall short. Refine your process, persist anyways, and enjoy every single moment.

North Central College alumnus Peter Sipla.