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Photography by Andrew Stiles

Robin’s Hood

by Matt Lee | Men's Book Chicago magazine | August 24, 2011

You can’t get much more Chicago than actress Robin Tunney. The South Side native and star of CBS’ hit The Mentalist spent the first 18 years of her life here before heading west to make a name for herself in movies like The Craft and Empire Records. Beyond that, though, Tunney’s family has its imprint all over town, from her cousin, 44th Ward Alderman Tom Tunney, to her (other) cousin, Bill Maheras, who owns Bucktown’s Olivia’s Market, to her father, Patrick, a fixture at Joe’s Stone Crab. We caught up with the candid and hilarious actress to talk about Chicago, showbiz and her formidable poker game.

The Internet, in all its reliability, has you attending three different high schools: St. Ignatius, Carl Sandburg and the Chicago Academy for the Arts. Please clarify. I didn’t go to the Chicago Academy for the Arts. I did the summer programs. My sister went there. I went to St. Ignatius for the first two years. I’m so glad I went there, I made a lot of friends I still have, but it was really difficult because it’s one of those schools where the smartest people from every school go. So I thought, ‘Maybe I should just become an actor.’ I left and went to Carl Sandburg. You know, in between going to [nightclub] Medusa on the weekends.

Aside from not wanting to hit the books, how did you start acting? You moved to L.A. when you were 18 and had success very quickly. I modeled and did commercials when I was a kid. I’ve been in SAG [Screen Actors Guild] since I was 11 months old. I had an amazing agent in Chicago, Maureen Brookman, who used to run Stewart Talent. She found me representation out here, booked me auditions. She represented Chris O’Donnell and other actors and gave all of us our starts. I owe her everything.

Do you come back to town a lot? Your parents still live here, right? My parents, my sister, and I have 36 first cousins.

Woah! My cousin owns Olivia’s Market in Bucktown. My cousin Billy owns that with my best girlfriend, Joy, from childhood. I introduced them and they got married. I’m kind of like a cupid for everyone else’s life but my own.

And your other cousin, Alderman Tom Tunney, owns Ann Sather. Do you go there often? Yes. I worked there for a while. I wasn’t built for the restaurant business. It was immediately apparent that I was not a hard enough worker to expedite food.

What else do you like to do when you’re in town? My dad works at Joe’s Crab so we always go there. He’s like the mayor of Joe’s; he’s everybody’s favorite. My dad is this amazing, charismatic personality. He calls and tells me what the specials are every Saturday and Sunday. It’s so delicious; I love it. I like Lula’s for breakfast. And every time I’m in town I inevitably end up at one of Billy Dec’s places because he’s another friend from high school. It’s funny because you wouldn’t catch me dead in a nightclub in L.A. or New York but for some reason when I’m in Chicago I’ll be out until 3 in the morning.

Do a lot of people recognize and approach you? My ex-fiancé used to joke that I was like Madonna in Chicago. But people are really nice to me. I think there’s a cultural thing in some other places where if somebody leaves and does well everyone wants to tear you down, but in Chicago they’re really proud of you. That’s super cool.

Career-wise, what has it meant to be part of a show as successful as The Mentalist? It’s like winning the lottery. Most shows are not successful. Look at how many pilots there are and even the shows that get made, most of them don’t succeed.

And also, to be totally frank, you don’t get to choose the actors you’re working with. I could have just as easily ended up with somebody I didn’t respect and like. I spend 16 hours a day with [co-star Simon Baker] and he’s hilarious and talented and kind and supportive. I could have ended up on a successful show with a guy I hated. So it’s like winning the lottery on all those levels.

The reality in this business is you have a short shelf life. It’s not one of those careers where more jobs come as you get older. And to be fortunate enough to accrue enough money that you’re going to be able to have a roof over your head and support yourself as you get older is a blessing. I don’t want to be a 60-year-old putting on my best miniskirt to try and look 45 and get a job because I have to pay my mortgage.

As an artist, what sounds attractive to you after The Mentalist? I’d like to try and do some writing. I’m curious about it. I was joking around with my attorney and he said, ‘Come on Robin, you have another show in you.’ And I said I’d rather be a writer. You can sleep as late as you want, get fat, have wrinkles, nobody cares.

We’ve heard you’re quite the poker player. What’s the attraction? That’s funny; I’m playing in a tournament tonight. What I initially liked about it was that I won. I had an aptitude for it and I also got lucky, so that’s what sucked me in. Sometimes I have these dreams that I’ll become a professional poker player and not act anymore. But I’d want it to be like a James-Bond-movie Montenegro casino, not a fluorescent-lit, disgusting casino.

It’s a mental game. You need a memory, to remember what the person’s hand was six hands ago, how they played it, how they raised. There are a certain amount of rules you can follow. It’s not all chance. But I never gamble huge amounts of money. I work too hard for my money.