Joan Cusack, 47, is braving a new frontier of her own by raising sons Dylan, 13, and Miles, 9, to be fearless when she's so shy.

By Patty A. Martinez

Unlike many people in the entertainment industry, you chose to stay in your hometown, Chicago. Why was that important to you?

As my kids would say, "Chicago is awesome!" It has rich culture and history, as well as some of the best museums, architecture, and restaurants in the world. Plus, it prevents our family life from revolving around TV and the movies. In L.A. it's easy to get caught up in what you look like or how much money you have, and those aren't values I want my kids to adopt.

Illinois is known for its hockey fans. Were your boys born with pucks and sticks in their hands?

You betcha! My husband, Dick (an attorney), and I are always watching one of their games or taking them to see the Blackhawks play.

What about when summer rolls around?

More sports. We'll check out the Cubs or the White Sox. And my kids love it when their uncle (actor John Cusack) comes to town to take them to a game. He's a huge sports fan too.

So besides the love of the game—any game—what else have you tried to instill in the boys?

Characteristics like honesty, integrity, and compassion are important but I really want to foster each one's sense of self. I want them to be able to recognize a challenge and meet it head-on without fear.

Are there any attributes that you're trying to pass down that were inspired by your own parents?

My dad was a very funny man—he's the one who taught me life would be awfully hard without humor! I'm sure his Irish wit in some way influenced my decision to become an actress. And my mom was politically active, so I try to educate Dylan and Miles about what's going on in the world.

Which causes are particularly important to you?

I support Cookies for Kids' Cancer. My dad died of pancreatic cancer, so I hate to see anyone suffer through the pain of illness, let alone children. It was also a sensible fit since I do kids' films.

It also sounds like a good way to teach compassion to your boys. But are there traits you don't want them to pick up from you?

I hope they're never as shy as I am—whether it's around new people, big groups, or in a job interview. I want them to be able to relax without getting nervous. I think acting has helped me come out of my shell, because when I play a character I can't be self-conscious.

What's your best advice for other parents?

Don't live vicariously through your kids or try to shape them into who you wanted to be, like the popular kid or an athlete. Children should be given the opportunity to be themselves.

Tell us the hardest part about being a mom.

Juggling parental responsibilities with those of being a wife and a career woman—while also being a member of school and church communities—is difficult. Every day I feel like I dropped the ball somewhere, but I've learned not to beat myself up over it because that won't help. I try to be a role model to my sons by showing them that no matter what kind of mistake a person makes, she can always get back up again and give it another shot.

Fast Facts

Career highlights: She's been nominated for two Academy Awards and has appeared in 10 movies with her brother John, including Sixteen Candles, Say Anything, and High Fidelity.

Hidden talents: "I'm great at memorization, which makes learning lines easy. I also know geometry—my mom was a math teacher—and I did water ballet as a kid."

Favorite family getaway: "Skiing—we can be found anywhere there's fresh snow!"

I scored cool points with my kids by: "Being in Toy Story 2 with Buzz Lightyear when Dylan was younger. But now they're more impressed that I was in School of Rock. Their friends thought it was awesome that I played the principal."

Originally published in the June 2010 issue of Family Circle magazine.