ROCK FALLS — Frank Harts has hit what could be considered blue-collar celebrity status.
He’s not an A-lister. Droves of screaming fans don’t swarm around him on the street, waving magazine cut-outs or glossy photos, hoping for an autograph.
But he’s not exactly a D-lister, either.
Harts, 35, a native of Rock Falls, always has an acting gig, whether on stage or on screen, and thus tends to get the same sort of reaction from people.
“To me, it’s like ‘celebrity’ is not something I’m connected with,” he said in a phone interview from his home in New York City. “I can walk down the street here … and people will stop me and say, ‘You were that guy in that thing,’ or back home [in Rock Falls], they’ll say, ‘You were my neighbor.’
“It’s like they don’t know where to place me, but they’re happy to see me.”
Harts has appeared in numerous Broadway and off-Broadway shows, and had small, one-time roles in popular television shows; he’s been in a few movies and independent films, too.
But Harts now has a starring role to add to his list: Deputy Dennis Luckey on the new HBO series “The Leftovers.”
The series, based on the best-selling novel by the same name, comes from the co-creator of the popular, award-winning series “Lost.” The drama follows those who are left – the leftovers – after 2 percent of the population suddenly disappears after a rapture-like event.
The show stars Justin Theroux (“Mulholland Drive”) as the police chief in a small New York suburb and features an appearance by Liv Tyler, who makes her TV debut in the new series.
“It’s my first sort of television family,” Harts said. “It was one of thousand auditions, but it has opened up a brand new door.”
HBO has ordered 10 episodes of the show, which premieres June 29. Harts and the cast and crew already have filmed nine of the episodes; the cast doesn’t know how the season wraps up, though, as the actors don’t get the script until a week before filming.
Harts, who comes from a stage background, had to get used to learning his character and learning the plot on the fly.
“I’m used to getting the answers up front,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is going to be interesting. How am I going to create a character if I don’t know what’s coming?’”
Harts wasn’t even sure his character would stick around beyond the pilot.
“Damon (Lindelof, the creator) said to me and to all of us, ‘Do what you do based on what we have, and if I see you do anything that’s out of line for the vision I have for your character, I’ll let you know, and if I don’t say anything, then you’re right on point.’
“That was all the information I needed.”
‘A blue-collar actor’s life’
Harts, a product of the Rock Falls schools, developed a love for acting through Timber Lake Playhouse in Mount Carroll. He took an acting class there the summer between eighth grade and freshman year of high school, then stayed involved with the theater through high school.
He met a director from Chicago who introduced him to his first agents, also from Chicago, who got him an uncredited role (“second kid”) in the CBS television show “Early Edition” in 1998, as well as on a national commercial.
“I didn’t really know where to go from there,” he said.
Harts’ director told him about Julliard. He made it his sole goal to audition and get in to the prestigious arts school.
“They accept 20 people every year,” he recalled. “I bet everything on Julliard. It was the only college I applied for.
“I got in.”
Harts graduated from Rock Falls High School in 1998 and made his way to New York City. He graduated from Julliard in 2002, then tried to find a job as an actor.
“I had this idea that, coming out of Julliard, I was not entitled but almost guaranteed opportunities,” he recalled. “I realized shortly thereafter … that everybody ends up in the same place and you have to prove yourself to be the best.”
Harts got his first big break in 2004, when he was cast in the Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of “A Raisin In The Sun,” opposite rapper Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and Phylicia Rashad of “The Cosby Show” fame.
Harts always managed to have just enough acting work to make ends meet, but had other odd jobs – parking cars and shoveling popcorn at a movie theater, among others – along the way.
“I’ve lived a blue-collar actor’s life,” he said. “But just in the last few years, I’ve started to come into my own in the business. People have started to see me and cast me in roles that not only pay the rent but are well known.
“It’s started to make me a bit more visible.”
Harts’ credits include appearances on “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia,” “Law & Order,” and “30 Rock,” as well as several movies.
Harts’ role in “The Leftovers” is a big deal, but he already is looking ahead to his next gigs, one of which is the movie “Experimenter,” starring Winona Ryder and Peter Sarsgaard, due out next year.
“I’m always looking to what’s next,” he said. “I never get sentimental about these things.”
Harts is married to Shelley Thomas, an actress and singer, who is a touring background vocalist for Vanessa Williams.
His family, including his mother, Shirley; stepfather, Miguel; and grandparents, Frank Sr. and Bobbie Mae Harts, remains in the Sterling-Rock Falls area. He returns home about once a year.
To follow Frank
“The Leftovers” premieres on HBO at 9 p.m. Central time June 29.
Go to www.hbo.com/the-leftovers to learn more about the new show.
To learn more about Frank Harts and to stay up-to-date on his appearances, go to frankharts.blogspot.com or follow him on Twitter at @senatorharts.