NO ONE WAS MORE SHOOK UP THAN TERRENCE "T.C." Carson to see his own animated countenance—in living color and way larger than life—looming over a trendy section of Chicago's North Loop. "It's weird to look up and see my face on a billboard," says the star of the sassy film comedy Livin' Large, "knowing I've got, like, $5 in my pocket."

Though Carson may be startled by his sudden renown, the critics saw it coming. His performance as Dexter Jackson, a black laundry truck driver who sees himself turning white after realizing his dream of becoming a TV newsman, prompted New York Times critic Vincent Canby to call Carson "one of the year's movie discoveries."

Large hasn't brought the actor ready cash, but it has taken him far from Chicago's Le Claire Court houses, where he grew up. The only child of a seamstress, Carson was raised there, he says, by a loving extended family that "gave me pride in me."

At 17, he enrolled in the University of Illinois at Urbana—Champaign to study interior design and dabbled in student theater. A year shy of graduation, Carson chose the stage over the drawing table. He quit school and soon won parts in Chicago's Free Street Theater troupe and a national tour of Sesame Street Live.

In 1990 he took his first screen test, landing the Large lead, which, he says, teaches an important message: "Assimilation into the white world is what black Americans are taught. But you don't have to give up your central self to succeed. You don't have to give up who you are."

To date, Carson, 32, who has lived for the past eight years with fellow actor Tab Baker, hasn't taken a star turn: post-Large, he's currently living on unemployment benefits. "I want to work. I want to be able to send my mother on a round-the-world cruise," says Carson, singing the standard actor's lament: "I'm looking for a job."