From the stage to the lecture hall

Professor of law Charlie Korsmo broke a 20-year acting hiatus to star in a film last year

Justin Hu, Staff Reporter

“I have always enjoyed learning a new job and getting to have new experiences.”

It’s a simple and common sentiment, but with these words, Charles Korsmo perfectly characterizes himself. Now a professor of law at Case Western Reserve University, Korsmo has had a distinguished career spanning a number of fields. He started as one of Hollywood’s child stars, then went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as an undergraduate student to study physics, received a law degree from Yale Law School and worked on the Homeland Security Committee.

Korsmo was born in Fargo, North Dakota. He later moved to Minneapolis, the city which would eventually kick-start his acting career.

“[Minneapolis] was an advertising hub of a sort, so it had a bit of an infrastructure for talent agencies, making commercials, stuff like that,” recalls Korsmo.

Still, it was not until a family vacation to Los Angeles when he was 8 years old that he developed an interest in film. He and his family were in the studio audience of the sitcom “Punky Brewster,” and as he watched the show unfold, a young Korsmo thought to himself, “Boy, this looks like something anyone could do. They pay these people for this?”

When Korsmo returned to Minneapolis, he and his family searched for talent agencies in the Yellow Pages, interviewed with a couple, and he subsequently secured roles in a few commercials. Although he was more than a thousand miles away from Hollywood, his location actually ended up being a boon and helped him land a part in his first movie.

“When a movie was looking for kids [who] were non-Hollywood kids to star in it, Minneapolis was one of the cities they would go to,” said Korsmo, “so I attended an open audition, a cattle call audition for a movie called ‘Men Don’t Leave.’”

“Men Don’t Leave” was the catalyst of Korsmo’s acting career, earning him attention from Hollywood talent agencies and springboarding him into five other movie roles within the next two years. One of these roles included working alongside names like Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman and Julia Roberts in the classic Peter Pan movie “Hook,” immortalizing Korsmo in movie history.

Despite his success, Korsmo decided to walk away from acting after filming “Hook,” which finished when he was 13. A number of factors attributed to his leave from acting; working nonstop for three to four years caused him to burn out, and he had few friends his age. But more importantly, upon seeing his brothers going through school, Korsmo felt stuck in acting. He became tired of watching everyone else around move forward with their lives while he felt he was staying in one place.

“You only get one shot to go into high school and to have that experience,” he said. “So I quit at that point to just go straight through high school for four years.”

However, he would later return to acting, but this time, as a student at MIT. Although he intended to quit acting to go through high school uninterrupted, his relationship between working in film and attending school wasn’t always a negative one. In fact, Korsmo feels that one of the positive aspects of acting was having a brief interlude from school.

“A lot of my [experience with acting was because] I hated school when I was in junior high and I wanted to get out of it,” said Korsmo. “I went to MIT and studied physics, and I’d say that was an intense experience. After I’d been there for a year, I was thinking I wouldn’t mind getting out of school again if something came up.”

Korsmo decided to retain an agent and submitted audition tapes, made in his dorm room, which eventually got him the role of William Lichter in the 90’s teen comedy “Can’t Hardly Wait.” The film is exactly what one would expect from a 90’s teen comedy: its main character, Preston, wants to profess his love to the most popular girl in the school, Amanda, who coincidentally has just broken up with the school jock. As for Korsmo, he portrays a nerdy character whose goal is to exact revenge on said jock after years of bullying.

“[‘Can’t Hardly Wait’] killed my career stone dead,” laughed Korsmo.

Despite majoring in physics as an undergraduate student with the intention of working a science or engineering job, Korsmo got a position at the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which would eventually lead him to his current job as a law professor. Then again, this unpredictability is not surprising given Korsmo’s, who chose to study physics on a whim, history. It was a field he said he had no prior experience with, and he chose to study it because it was a subject a person couldn’t self-study, and in that sense, he felt he would be getting the most value from college.

“Frankly, there’s never been a 10-year plan or anything like that,” he said. “I wouldn’t have been able to predict all the twists and turns my career’s taken.”

What followed Korsmo’s graduation was a job with a congressional committee, and then, in 2002, a position on the Homeland Security Committee. Since his work revolved around legal policy, he decided to attend law school and spent a few years in New York working at a major law firm until he heard from a friend of his who was a law professor.

“A friend of mine who had the same legal career path had become a professor a couple of years earlier, and really loved [the idea of following a similar path]. I saw his lifestyle, and he set me up with an opportunity to be a visiting professor for two years,” said Korsmo. “I thought, well, let’s give this a shot. Now, ten years later, I’m still [a law professor]. This is the first time in my life I’ve done the same thing for more than a few years at a time.”

While he has always enjoyed trying different opportunities and gaining fresh experiences, Korsmo bore the burden of switching fields so frequently; the steep learning curve of a new job, the need to prove oneself in a differing field and, of course, the stress. So, while not changing jobs is something that Korsmo did not have much familiarity with before working as a professor of law, he has enjoyed the opportunity to relax a little.

“As I get older, I’m enjoying having settled into the position I’m in,” he said. “I have to have kids at this point. I have a six-year-old and an eight-year-old. It’s nice to have the kind of stability of being in one place now.”

Just last year, Korsmo broke his 20-year hiatus from film to work on the movie “Chained for Life.” The film was directed by a childhood friend of his, Aaron Schimberg, who has produced several independent films. Schimberg called Korsmo, telling him that he had Korsmo in mind when he initially wrote the script and encouraged him to jump back in the acting game. Originally, Korsmo intended on saying no, but the director persisted.

“You could do it in only a week, I think you would have fun with it,” Schimberg told him.

That was enough to convince Korsmo, who figured out the scheduling and worked on the project during the summer.

“[‘Chained for Life’] was a lot of fun to do,” he said. “I sort of forgot how much I enjoyed doing that kind of thing.”

Beyond teaching law courses, Korsmo has been busy with corporate law, focusing on mergers and acquisitions. If history holds true, it may be another decade—or two or three—before he goes in front of the camera again, but be on the lookout.

“If any independent Brooklyn filmmakers want to give me a call, have a part they can film in two days,” he said, “I’m happy to do it.”