A winding path to Hollywood

OHIO alumnus returns to campus to celebrate his recently-released feature film “The Private Eye.”

Kweku Diaw, MA '25 | February 29, 2024


Recognizing his passion for performance and certain natural charisma when he was a child, people often encouraged Elliot Hebeler, BS ‘12, to explore acting. That became Hebeler's dream, but it took some time to figure out how to make it come true.

Hebeler grew up in Cincinnati and majored in exercise physiology at OHIO. While a winding path to any career is nothing new, the fact that Habeler now stars in “The Private Eye,” a film in wide release across the U.S., begs the question: How did he go from studying exercise physiology in Athens to starring in a Hollywood movie? The answer lies somewhere between his sophomore and junior years.

Hebeler says he was doing well academically but began questioning whether he might want something else from his professional life.

“So I did a bit of soul searching and self-discovery a year and a half before graduation and realized that my childhood dream of becoming an actor finally made sense.”

Hebeler says a major factor that enabled him to entertain the thought of change and follow through was the atmosphere on OHIO’s campus.  

“This place has a special energy that helps kids transform into adults, discovering what is within us and what drives us to live.”  

The clarity he gained from his soul-searching saw him dedicate the rest of his college years to researching the film and acting industry. Knowing there were not too many opportunities for movie actors in Ohio, he sought a move that would be the most beneficial for him. Eventually, he settled on moving to Los Angeles, the center of the film industry. And with that, after graduation, having informed his (somewhat dubious) parents of his decision, Hebeler left for Hollywood to chase his dreams.   

Movie poster for "The Private Eye"

Promotional poster for Hebeler's new film.

A man with shoulder-length hair leans against a wall, speaking to someone who's back is to the camera

A still of Hebeler in character from "The Private Eye."

Paying his dues

“L.A. is a whole beast to take on. It’s a multicultural melting pot filled with diversity,” Hebeler says. “That was attractive to me because it reminded me of Athens. That’s why I decided to go there.”

The transition to L.A. and settling into the city was challenging. Even though it was a land of opportunity, it wasn’t without its barriers. The film industry is a paramount part of L.A., and Hebeler was aware of people like him who had come there with lofty ambitions only to end up disappointed.  

“I had to fight through the obstacles, knowing that people had come here with pockets full of dreams and had ended up with nothing. I had to be tenacious to keep my dream alive, regardless of how much I got derailed or disappointed.”  

He started his career doing commercials and modeling gigs, which gave him opportunities to showcase his talent and abilities. In his first seven years working in the film industry, he says his acting coaches frequently reminded him of the importance of finding the balance between authenticity and technicality.

“You must have your foundations laid to develop your technique,” Hebeler explains. “More importantly, you must bring yourself to a role and make it real for the viewers.”  

It was essential for him to get better at his craft with every commercial and gig he got, and it was equally important for him to keep his head up and stay ready for when the chance came, whenever that would happen.  

“I believe persistence and patience results in perseverance,” Hebeler says.  

That creed kept him going for more than 10 years in L.A.  

Hebeler’s perseverance led to an expanding network of industry professionals that came to include the well-known actor Eric Roberts, who starred in “The Dark Knight” and the first installment of “The Expendables” franchise, and the director Jack Cook, who would go on to direct "The Private Eye.” 

This [campus] has a special energy that helps kids transform into adults, discovering what is within us and what drives us to live.

Elliot Hebeler

Perseverance rewarded

Hebeler and a group of close friends started an independent production company called Illusion Islands in 2017. The production company, which has offices in Hollywood and Beverly Hills, opened a third Midwest office in Cincinnati in October 2023.  

"One of the company’s core goals, which resonates with myself and my colleagues, is to give back to the society and communities that raised us,” he says.

Hebeler and his colleagues had started early work on the film that would become “The Private Eye” before the COVID pandemic brought most production on other projects to a halt.  

“Investors pulled the plug, and we didn’t know when we’d be able to resume work on those projects. It was in that period that we pulled The Private Eye off the shelf and started working on it.”

Hebeler says he and his team believed strongly in the project, and that passion helped secure the involvement of rising industry professionals like Cook and the writer Hope Ayiyi. Matt Rife, the standup comic and actor, Denzel Whittaker, Chip the Ripper, and other notable actors also joined the project.  

The process of getting the project completed was challenging, with last-minute personnel changes and fundraising obstacles, but Hebeler says it was worth it.  

“Resistance builds character,” he says. “We faced a lot of challenges but the beautiful thing about everyone on this project was [that] they were willing to sacrifice.”  

It’s a project that was close to his heart and he says he only started talking about it when everything came together.  

“When you talk about stuff you’re doing, everyone asks where they can see it. So I waited until everything was ready before I started telling everyone I know about the movie.”

The film has been selected for distribution by Regal Cinemas and featured in major media outlets, including Entertainment Weekly and The Hollywood Reporter.  

“The crazy thing is initially a lot of people and corporations just liked the project,” he says. “But we didn’t see any proactive moves. But as time went on, cinemas started picking it up, digital publications started running it in their outlets.”  

Hebeler says the film’s debut in places like Athens and Cincinnati feels surreal and like a full-circle moment.  

"There are so many Ohio natives involved in this project, from me, my acting coaches, to Matt (Rife) and Chip (The Rapper) and because we’re from here, and want to give back to our community, having it premiere here was magical. It just felt right.” 

A man takes a selfie pointing to a large movie screen in Times Square

"The Private Eye" has taken Hebeler to several iconic locations, including Times Square, where the film was featured in lights...

A man smiles at the camera from a brick path on OHIO's College Green, with Cutler Hall behind him

...to College Green, where he reminisced about his days as a student.

"An opportunity to better the world"

“I look at the position I’m in with gratitude,” Hebeler says. “It doesn’t just provide me with a lifestyle and experiences that I enjoy but also puts me in a place where I can offer a helping hand and give back to society in my unique way.”    

Hebeler says he recognizes the chaos and challenges many have faced in recent years but still thinks we can bring goodness to the world.

“There’s a lot of good in this world. Even though we’ve been torn down these past few years in many ways, there remains good in the world. I see my position and craft as an opportunity to better the world.”   

Hebeler encourages current OHIO students to embrace the possibility of pursuing a dream, no matter how impossible it may seem, and to face challenges head-on.  

“Life is short, and we only get one chance at it,” he says. “There’s no reason not to chase dreams because the things we are the most passionate about bring us the satisfaction we search for in life. If you think it, and you believe it? You can achieve it.”  

“Chase the good things that will make you happy and fulfilled,” Hebeler continues. “Don’t give up because if you do, you’ll never know.”  

The vision for the future is to make more movies, tell impactful stories, travel the world and give back to the community, especially regarding mental health. Illusion Island’s mission is to work toward a universe meant for the dreamers.