We have plenty of examples of sports stars using their athletic fame to open doors in Hollywood. There's Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Airplane!, Shaquille O'Neal in Kazaam, LeBron James in Trainwreck. Go back even further to the dawn of the modern NFL, when Jim Brown was starring in The Dirty Dozen or giving an award-winning performance in The Condor.
Fame is currency in Hollywood. Countless aspiring stars go there seeking it. For sports stars, it's an easy transition.
So it's odd to find Eddie George where he is: Freshly removed from Nashville's local theater scene, he's preparing for his first appearance on Broadway, starring as the lawyer Billy Flynn in the latest run of Chicago. It's an odd setting for a former Heisman winner and a long-time NFL star, and that says something about George's motivation.
"I could have done that [chased a career in Hollywood] and I did do that, but that's not where I wanted to live full-time," George says. "I wanted to find something that I could do forever, and something I wanted to do for free.
"Whoopi [Goldberg] on 'The View' said that if you want to be a superstar or movie star, you go to L.A. But if you want to be an actor, you can do it anywhere. You can go in your community and be an actor there."
George is full of quotes like that, referencing sources like Al Pacino and Inside the Actors' studio, showing he's done his homework and underlining an important distinction between himself and other athletes-turned-actors. It's one thing to lend your familiar face and name to a TV show or movie. Creating art is a separate endeavor -- and that is George's primary goal.
"All the great actors and actresses start in the theater," he says. "Meryl Streep, Viola Davis. If my goal is to be an actor, I've got to go to the foundation."
George's acting career is a testament to his focus on fundamentals. Retiring from the NFL after the 2004 season -- and ending his career with 10,441 career rushing yards in nine seasons -- George was in search of a new focus for his passion. He found himself drawn to the arts. As a child growing up in north Philadelphia, George remembers his mother bringing him to shows at the famous Freedom Theater and enrolling him in ballet and jazz. His artistic foundation was established well before he realized his potential on the football field.
"Little did I know that seed was planted in me, that I could do that," George says. "It's never been foreign to me. I just didn't know in the big scheme of things how would it play out."
With time to fill in the absence of football, George began taking private acting lessons. For the first few years, most of his acting experience was nothing more than training and waiting for an opportunity. Three years in, he was cast in a stage play, and was later invited to a table read. Two more stage productions followed. His acting career began to gain momentum even as others within the Nashville theater community wondered what he was doing in their scene.
"It was very much like that," says George, referring to the strange looks he would receive. "People were like, 'Eddie George is acting now, what’s this about.' People want to put you in a box.
"Eventually I decided I can't worry about what they're projecting onto me. I can't think about that. All I can do is be true to myself and see what opportunities come."
In 2012, George's theater career began to turn a corner. He was cast in the title role of Shakespeare's Othello, followed by the lead in Julius Caesar. The Nashville Repertory Theater cast him in Matthew Lopez's The Whipping Man, and George was finding regular work at the local level. Still, Broadway didn't seem to be on the horizon -- until George watched Chicago on tour in Nashville, and mentioned afterward to a CEO friend of his that if he were cast, he would play the role of Flynn, a lawyer in the musical notorious for representing murderous wives -- and who had never lost a case.
The comment was meant to be a semi-serious brag, but George's friend had an interesting connection: Producer Barry Weissler, who was putting together a new cast for Chicago's return to Broadway.
"Barry Weissler knew me as a football player, but he didn't think I'd have the chops," George says. "Long story short, they offered me an audition to see what was what. It took me two weeks to get my voice ready."
A year after that audition, George got the good news: An opportunity had opened up. George accepted the role and braced for a huge career leap.
George's weeks are now spent similar to the busy schedules kept in the NFL. Twice a week, he goes through dance training to remain "pliable and nimble." Three times a week, he has voice lessons. He works on his line with an acting coach and attends rehearsals to prepare for the show's opening on January 12 at New York's Ambassador Theatre.
Flynn's character has been the close study by George, who is aware of the names who has played the role before, including Richard Gere, Wayne Brady and Usher. He feels ready because of the years of preparation behind him, but the transition has still been an adjustment.
"It's almost equivalent to me going from -- no disrespect to Nashville -- going from college to pro, where I've done shows twice a week," George says. "But this is Broadway, this is the Super Bowl. This is the real deal. This theater is the equivalent to playing in Ohio Stadium or one of the other famous theaters that we know."
Football functions as an accurate metaphor for Broadway, but it's also been instructive in George's development as an actor. At its core, football offers its own version of theater, and George spent years as a member of its leading cast. In the theater, he's found similarities that help him understand his role within a production.
"You have to trust your castmates and have to do what [your part] calls for," he says. "I have to come through in a very honest way. It's much like in football -- I had to trust [my teammates] to do their thing, but sometimes I had to improvise.
"[In football] you're telling the story of battle on the field, when you don't really know the outcome of the football game, but you know the outcome of a play. But it's so important that you don't reveal that [ending] and stay moment-to-moment. It's the same in football, you have to stay present."
When George makes his Broadway debut, the audience will be watching him -- and they'll be watching Eddie George, not the character he plays. Or at least that's how they'll start. George knows much of that is out of his control. But he also believes his performance has the power to alter those perceptions and transform his identity, and the experience of those who come to see him.
"My thing is, I'm going to tell the story. I'm going to develop my character, stick to the script and not worry about if they see me or not," George says. "That's not my problem. My problem is to know my character and tell him in a truthful way.
"If I do that, they'll lose sight of me."