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William Petersen hopes to make a star with ‘Slowgirl’

William PetersRae Gray star 'Slowgirll' Steppenwolf Theatre.

William Peterson and Rae Gray star in "Slowgirll" at Steppenwolf Theatre.

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‘Slowgirl,’ through Aug. 25, Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. $20-$78. (312) 335-1650,

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Updated: July 18, 2013 9:27PM

He (William Petersen) is among the founding fathers of the Chicago theater scene, who also has enjoyed great success in movies and on television, starring as Dr. Gilbert “Gil” Grissom on the hit CBS series “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” from 2000-2010.

She (Rae Gray), is the 21-year-old actress who has been “in the business” since the age of four, has worked continuously in the city’s big-name theaters and storefronts, and has amassed a list of credits (“Jailbait” at Profiles, “Completeness” at Theater Wit, “The Real Thing” at Writers’ Theatre, as well as a recurring role in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”), that, as Petersen quickly points out, comes close to rivaling his own.

Gray also just happens to be gearing up for her final year at the University of Chicago, where she is studying theater and creative writing, has maintained a 3.5 grade point average, and is endlessly grateful to the school for accommodating her crazy schedule.

Together, Petersen and Gray form the cast of Greg Pierce’s “Slowgirl,” which debuted at Lincoln Center’s intimate new LCT3 space last year and opens July 27 in its Midwest premiere (it’s currently in previews) at Steppenwolf Theatre — a production, directed by Randall Arney, that will be remounted at the Geffen Theatre in Los Angeles next year.

As Gray explains the story: “I play Becky, a 17-year-old from an upscale Boston suburb who is popular, and all about having a good time. She also is very outspoken, with no filter — a person who doesn’t check in about where the things she says fits in ‘on the appropriate topics scale’.”

“Becky is NOT the girl of the title,” Gray explained. “She is the one who invited a shy ‘outsider’ type to a party, plied her with Jello shots, and ultimately is facing some serious consequences for what happened to the girl. Her mom sends her to Costa Rica to spend time with Sterling, her uncle, who became something of a recluse after facing his own legal troubles in the past. It takes a while for them to get past their differences, but they bond over their troubled pasts.”

Neither Petersen nor Arney (a former artistic director at Steppenwolf who is now head of the Geffen) had ever seen Gray perform when they began looking for a Becky. But Gray (whose mom, Dawn Gray, is president of the Gray Talent Group, which represents scores of Chicago performers), was widely known at Steppenwolf. So she videotaped an audition of a couple of monologues from “Slowgirl,” sent it to L.A., and the decision was made.

It was Gray’s brother, Zach, three years her senior, who triggered her earliest interest in acting. (A busy child actor, Zach left “the biz,” earned a degree at Northwestern, and now works as an associate agent at Gray Talent.)

“I wanted to do everything my brother did, whether it was acting or playing baseball and softball,” said the actress. “I was a kid with a lot of energy, quite reckless, and I was used to being around older people. My first professional show was at Apple Tree’s Theater for Young Adults. I also did lots of commercials. I wasn’t quite as busy when I hit 15 and 16 because I still looked like I was ten. But then things started to pick up again.”

And her hunger to see theater never waned.

“I love watching theater almost as much as I love doing the acting,” said Gray. “One of the biggest impressions on me was Steppenwolf’s production of ‘The Time of Your Life,’ which I saw about 20 times. My brother had a role in it, and my parents always see our shows millions of times. I was so starstruck when Zach took me down to the basement to see his dressing room and I met the cast. It was really life-changing.”

Gray has learned her art primarily by “watching Chicago actors” and just getting up on stage herself.

“I don’t really have a technique,” said Gray. “It’s pretty much instinctual. The only class I’ve ever taken was an auditioning workshop at The Acting Studio. But character development is important for me. I do a lot of writing and create a lot of back stories.”

As for balancing school and stage, Gray noted: “Going to the Latin School prepared me incredibly well for college. There was really no difference in the work load. And I’m disciplined. I don’t waste time, don’t watch TV very often. I’m pretty busy all the time, and I’ve learned not to procrastinate with writing papers. My calculus homework is a different matter.”

Slender, leggy and athletic, Gray, whose gamine face retains a pre-teen glow and impishness, headed to L.A. for ‘Slowgirl’ rehearsals just a week after final exams. And she celebrated her 21st birthday there.

“Billy and Randy [Arney] took me to a French restaurant, Bouchon, in Beverly Hills, my brother flew out to surprise me, and we all hung out and did a lot of storytelling,” she said.

For Petersen, “Slowgirl” is the ideal property.

“I like plays with small casts and no intermissions,” he quipped. “But really, the best acting is always the interaction between two people, and that is what happens throughout this whole play. It’s like a scene study class.”

And the actor admits to having little interest in movies or TV now.

“I just hate being in a situation where I have to yell at people to get things right,” said Petersen. “And I don’t want to do all the attendant publicity — the ‘Entertainment Tonight’ appearances, the awards shows, the tribute dinners. I come back to the theater because it’s the only place where you can really tell a story in one piece, without editors ultimately telling the story.”

Petersen also is looking forward to making his L.A. stage debut in “Slowgirl” at the Geffen next spring.

“Mostly I just want to get Rae out there so she can meet my agents and become famous.”

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