At Agape Latte, Chris O’Donnell Talks Balancing School, Acting

chris o'donnell

NCIS: Los Angeles and Grey’s Anatomy star Chris O’Donnell, BC ’92, spoke at the Agape Latte Beanpot in Hillside Cafe Thursday night about his college experience of balancing an acting career with school.

After opening performances by Sexual Chocolate, the all-male step team, and Christian Rougeau MCAS ’17, the electronic violinist from Boston College band Juice, O’Donnell, an actor and Golden Globe nominee, took the stage to speak about his life journey.  

O’Donnell grew up in Winnetka, Ill., as the youngest of seven children in a Catholic family. He talked about how thankful he feels for having grown up in a large family that provided a built-in support system.

“I always felt secure because I had this real great support system with my brothers and sisters and my parents, and that was important,” he said.

While attending Loyola Catholic High School, O’Donnell discovered his passion for acting. O’Donnell recalled his many failed attempts at age 14 to find an agent who would agree to meet with him. Through the help of his sister, however, he was able to connect with an agent and begin acting.

O’Donnell explained how he acted in commercials and did photoshoots throughout high school. He was given the opportunity to pursue acting in a more serious capacity when, after many auditions, he was offered a role in the comedy-drama film Men Don’t Leave. The movie was set to begin filming the summer before his freshman year of college and would not wrap until the fall.

Throughout his talk, O’Donnell stressed that he always intended to complete college and had promised his father he would finish. He did not want to take a role that would derail his college career. He recalled how it almost seemed fated that, after being placed on the waitlist at BC, he was accepted for the spring semester. This gave him the opportunity to shoot the movie.


“It’s OK to fail, because those are the experiences that are going to make you better, and you’ll become the person you were meant to be and you have to find that at some point in your life.”


From here, O’Donnell landed a series of roles, including a key role in Scent of a Woman, in which he starred alongside Al Pacino, which led to a Golden Globe nomination.  

During his time at BC he was starring in high-profile movies, but he did not let fame take over his life. He shared what his father told him during his rise to fame.

“He said, ‘You can’t get too built up by the excitement, because it’s never gonna last and when it collapses you’re going to be devastated,’” O’Donnell said.

He said he enjoyed spending time at BC with his friends more than being a part of the crazy Los Angeles lifestyle.

“I’d fly to LA for a meeting and come back the next day,” he said. “I’d go for one night just because I didn’t want to be away from BC.”

After graduating, O’Donnell continued to act in movies for a few years but, after a few of his movies did not do well, he decided to take a hiatus from the business to focus on himself and his family.

When he felt ready to go back, he found it difficult to land the type of roles he wanted. This was extremely discouraging for him, he said.

During this period, he auditioned for and got the lead role in an Arthur Miller play called The Man Who Had All the Luck. He explained that he thinks it is the biggest risk he has ever taken in his career, having never done live theater prior to that role. The play was a success, both personally and critically, and went on to run for a limited time on Broadway.

Shortly after that success, O’Donnell landed a guest role on Grey’s Anatomy. He said that this part renewed his confidence and made him feel like he could take on any role. It helped to launch his career again and eventually led to his being cast in NCIS: LA, which is currently in its eighth season.

The discussion then turned to faith, and O’Donnell talked about how, growing up in a Catholic family, faith was a part of his life from a young age. He said his faith has helped him throughout his life.

He ended his talk with a word of advice to the audience—to try things that are out of your comfort zone or seem risky. These are the times when you can experience the greatest successes, he said.

“It’s OK to fail, because those are the experiences that are going to make you better, and you’ll become the person you were meant to be and you have to find that at some point in your life,” he said.

Featured Image by Keith Carroll / Heights Staff