After breaking his ankle playing football during his freshman year of high school, Colin Donnell, BA’05, tried out for the school musical, Barnum.
Although it was a small role—walking on a big ball and juggling in the background—Donnell fell in love with acting.
“I figured I would see if anything happened with it and ended up making a career out of it, much to my surprise,” Donnell says.
He continued his acting career at IU, performing in plays and musicals all four years, including The Cherry Orchard, Parade, and Pal Joey.
“It was that perfect combination of a well-funded program, a great faculty, and some notable alumni,” he recalls fondly. “The theater department was pretty close-knit. Most of my activities outside the classroom were doing shows and hanging out with the theater crowd.”
Donnell’s mentor was George Pinney—the head of the Musical Theater Department until his retirement in May 2017.
“George guided me through my four years and took me under his wing,” Donnell says. “He really made those years very special.”
Pinney remembers meeting Donnell like it was yesterday, explaining that the two instantly “clicked.”
“Colin was an exceptional student who brought an intense and jovial light into the classroom,” the professor emeritus says. “He would approach any activity, be it a classroom exercise or an opening night, with a zeal of constant exploration to push the envelope of his abilities. Above all, his standards were high and his Irish humor contagious.”
Upon graduation, Donnell moved to New York City, auditioning for television and plays. He made his Broadway debut in Jersey Boys before going on to appear in national tours of Wicked and Mamma Mia! In 2011, he earned a Drama Desk Award nomination for Anything Goes, in which he starred opposite Sutton Foster. Pinney, an avid follower of Donnell’s career and a Broadway connoisseur, says the actor’s role as Billy Crocker made him particularly proud.
“I’ve been very lucky in my career,” Donnell says. “I’ve never worked a job outside of acting to sustain myself. It’s one of those rare cases, and I feel very lucky for it. I’ve been working as an actor ever since the day I moved to New York at the end of 2005.”
A pivot from stage to TV acting landed Donnell on The CW’s Arrow. Although his character Tommy Merlyn died in season one, Donnell returned to play different incarnations of Tommy, whether it was Green Arrow, the Human Target, Prometheus, or the Dark Archer.
“Don’t forget to put the ghosts, hallucinations, and flashbacks in there, too. That’s the beauty of comic book television,” says Donnell, laughing. “For me, it always felt like a bonus. After [season one], it was a real treat to revisit the old set and the friends I made. There was always a fun new take on the script to show a different side of a character people thought they knew. Getting to wear the suits for Prometheus, Green Arrow, and the Dark Archer was also fun.”
In 2015, Donnell introduced his fans to Dr. Connor Rhodes, a primary character on Chicago Med.
“That came about in a cool way. I’d done a pilot for NBC that wasn’t picked up. [The creators] were putting together the cast for Chicago Med, and I was offered the role,” Donnell explains. “I was very excited to be part of the Dick Wolf universe. I had watched [Chicago Fire] and [Chicago P.D.] over the years. Everyone knows Wolf’s Law & Order franchise, so it was very exciting to be part of Dick’s newest Chicago show.”
Much to his fans’ surprise, the IU alumnus was written off Chicago Med after four seasons.
“Our showrunners did a good job of giving some conclusion to [Dr. Rhodes’s] run on the show,” says Donnell. “I don’t think [the door] is shut completely [on a return]. He didn’t die, so I think there’s always hope.”
What’s next for Donnell? Definitely more storytelling.
“If I’m lucky, for the rest of my career, I’ll keep hopping back and forth between film and TV and being back on the stage,” he says. “Entertainment is a huge part of what’s important in humanity, and I’m just glad to be a part of it.”
But for now, his days will be spent caring for his first child—Cecily who was born in July 2020.
“[It’s] my biggest role yet,” Donnell says.