The saying “When one door closes, another door opens” couldn’t be truer for Samuel Hunt.
He was a sophomore living in Oak Park, athletic, a fan of the World Cup and ready to play soccer at Oak Park River Forest (OPRF) High School. But, he didn’t make the team. Looking for something to do that fall, he turned to the school’s theater department.
Now he is the star of a Hollywood movie, “Unbroken: Path to Redemption,” the sequel to “Unbroken,” which tells the true story of Louis Zamperini, an Army Air Corps bombardier in WWII, and the five-year period back in the U.S after being stranded at sea for 47 days, then captured and tortured by the Japanese.
“I’ve always had a deep love of movies as an artistic medium and story-telling device,” said Hunt, who is 31 and lives in Los Angeles.
Hunt was exposed to theater at an early age in Oak Park, where he moved with his family, including his three older siblings, from the West Side of Chicago around age 8. He attended Hatch Elementary and then Emerson Middle School (now Brooks).
His mother, Cheryl Iverson, who lives in River Forest, recalled watching movies and going to live theater as things they had always done together. The family regularly attended Oak Park Festival Theatre’s Shakespeare shows in the summers at Austin Gardens.
“We’d put a blanket in front and the kids were enamored,” Iverson said. “One time, the show had an opportunity to see the combat choreography. Samuel was intrigued by the struggle of good and evil.”
After appearing in one to two shows per year at OPRF and being told he had some talent, Hunt chose the path of majoring in political science in college for his first year. He then decided to see if he could get into the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in Los Angeles. His audition was a success and, at 19, he moved to California.
Hunt may be recognized for the recurring roles he’s had on NBC’s “Chicago PD” where the character he played for two seasons (2014-16), Greg “Mouse” Gerwitz, also crossed over to appear on “Chicago Fire,” and on Fox’s “Empire” for one season (2016-17).
When Hunt auditioned and got the film role of Zamperini, he felt “excitement but trepidation” at playing the biographical part. Both Luke Zamperini and Cynthia Zamperini Garris, Louis’ children, were part of the casting process and very supportive of Hunt getting the part, he said.
“They wanted the story told and wanted the good and the bad,” Hunt said. “He’s at his most vulnerable at this time.”
The actor had to physically prepare for the role. Zamperini was an Olympic runner. Although Hunt “exercises more days than not,” he said he does not like running, finding it “atrociously boring,” but he hit the track, listening to the audiobook version of “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption,” the bestseller by Laura Hillenbrand.
Both movie scripts are based on the 2010 book. Hunt also used it as a reference for its great detail, which Hillenbrand wrote from first-hand accounts told by the war hero, who died in 2014.
Zamperini experienced what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). How, with the help of his wife, he learns to cope is a major theme of the new film.
Through understanding their stories, as well as tapping into his own experiences with pain and suffering, he endeavored to make the character relatable, especially to those that serve in the military, and have a positive impact on viewers, he explained.
While Zamperini turns to religion to heal, the actor does not believe the film “draws hard lines on how to deal with trauma,” and believes it is a film for everyone.
“The things he experiences and to not give up – it’s about empathy, finding hope, perseverance and forgiveness,” Hunt said.
“Unbroken: Path to Redemption” premieres in theaters across the U.S. on Friday, Sept. 14.