Many professional actors have dreamed about acting their entire lives, their childhood full of plays performed for relatives with the hope of one day – if they’re lucky – making it big.

Cecilia Suarez ’95 wanted to be a lawyer. But while in high school, Suarez discovered that the justice system in her native Mexico didn’t involve the kind of big, theatrical lawyer speeches she’d seen in the movies. So Suarez found her way to acting – and then to Illinois State University.

“It all comes back to the fact that I wanted to be in front of an audience and trying to convince somebody of something,” Suarez told STATEside.

The accomplished School of Theatre and Dance graduate returns to Illinois State on October 29 for the Latino Cultural Dinner, hosted by University Housing Services. Since her time as a Redbird, Suarez has built a rich career in film, television and theater, appearing in such movies as The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and Spanglish. She became the first Spanish-speaking actress to be nominated for an International Emmy for Best Actress for her performance in the HBO series Capadocia.

Suarez kept busy at Illinois State too, receiving the Jean Scharfenberg Scholarship, given to a graduating acting major with “extraordinary potential.” Suarez’s favorite production while at Illinois State was Balm in Gilead, a play about drug users, prostitutes and thieves circling the drain in a New York café.

“It’s a very dark play,” she said. “It was such an ensemble work that I really had a good time.”

Suarez also received the Steppenwolf Theatre Acting Fellowship Award as she left Illinois State. That was a fitting end to her Redbird acting career, because the School of Theatre and Dance’s connection to Chicago’s Steppenwolf was one of the reasons Suarez chose Illinois State. (Another reason: Suarez’s cousin, Dr. Joaquin Vila-Ruiz, is chair of the School of Information Technology.)

That Steppenwolf award put Suarez inside the Chicago theatre troupe’s world for an entire year, during the 20th anniversary season, meaning Steppenwolf’s big-name alums were constantly around. Playwright Sam Shepard was on hand because he was re-writing his play Buried Child for a Steppenwolf production being directed by actor Gary Sinise.

“To me, that was a spectacular thing to be around,” Suarez said. “I couldn’t believe I got to meet Sam Shepard, to be around something he was re-writing. It blew my mind.”

Suarez’s last visit to Illinois State was about two years ago, when she revisited the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, where she spent her final summer in Bloomington-Normal. She’s reluctant to give advice to young actors, but she does stress that professional acting requires “enormous effort and enormous determination.”

“It takes a lot of strength – emotional and mental strength – to stay at it,” Suarez said. “If you do that, if you stay at it, it’s the most rewarding thing that you’ll ever dream of.”

Cultural Dinners are a University Housing Services event, and the Latino Cultural Dinner will be co-sponsored by Campus Dining Services, College of Fine Arts, Latin American and Latino/a Studies, Association of Residence Halls, Tri-Towers Area Government, West Campus Diversity Coalition, Association of Latin American Students. Find ticket information on Housing’s website.

VIDEO: Watch Suarez in a scene from Spanglish, opposite Tea Leoni and Paz Vega:

Ryan Denham can be reached at