Chicago Fire: Combining Physical Strength And Emotional Sizzle
By Marjorie Galas
The actors in “Chicago Fire” are subjected to regular endurance tests: pulling victims from overturned cars, hoisting hoses and axes to battle raging fires, and carrying the unconscious through blinding smoke. For Jonathan Strauss, the actor’s physical abilities are a small part of what he’s looking for when casting each role.
“They have their fair share of fire and explosions,” chuckled Strauss. “The physicality is important, but it’s not the only thing that’s important. These characters are defined by their feelings and unspoken emotions. They have to be believable within all the demands: that’s the hardest thing to find.”
The leads in “Chicago Fire” are split between rescue squad members and fire fighters who are based at Chicago Firehouse 51. It was important to Strauss that the people he cast could authentically portray a familiarity with each other. The core group had to bond like a family, displaying a wide range of complex feelings: love, betrayal, animosity, loyalty, through body language and subtle glances rather than dialogue.
“Relationships, back-stories, subtext: these are the things an audience gravitates to,” said Strauss. “How these people relate to each other is a work in progress that grows as it would in life. Chemistry is very important.”
Strauss believes having the opportunity to do chemistry tests between actors is extremely beneficial for dramatic material such as “Chicago Fire.” Due to the physical challenges of their roles, the full cast was involved in a boot camp where Strauss was able to confirm that a natural chemistry was in place. However, in the casting world chemistry tests are not always possible due to time constraints. Strauss often has seven days to cast between 15-20 characters, a factor he views as a double-edged sword.
“There’s never enough and always just enough time,” said Strauss. “It’s kind of a conundrum, because the more time you have, the more time you have to second guess.”
In addition to casting the leads, Strauss is very involved in casting the special guests and day players. While a lot of local talent is considered, a wide net is cast, finding actors from all over the country for the roles. While actors with a familiarity with Chicago are beneficial, having been a resident is not always a requirement. Chicago, like New York and many major cities, is a melting pot. Actors with unique attributes, such as a British accent or a Midwestern look, can add authenticity to a scene.
Strauss loves the fact that the amazing architecture and unique aesthetics of Chicago plays as prominent a role as the actors he cast in “Chicago Fire.” The trend he has become accustomed to, however, is location subbing, especially as production incentives have become an increasing lure. As these types of shoots become the norm, casting agents have a greater responsibility in reinforcing the continuity of a script’s location.
“When you’re cheating one city for another, you have to over compensate to convince the audience,” said Strauss. “The impetus is placed on the casting director to provide that authenticity with the talent. But, advances in technology have made it much easier to find talent not just around the country but internationally. I have a reach I didn’t have five years ago. You can really make projects come to life through today’s technology.”
While advancements in technology have played an ever increasing role in assisting Strauss with his casting needs, he still believes in spending as much face time with actors as possible. He makes a point to get to know as much as possible about the actors so he may find roles suitable to their personal abilities.
“I try to match an actor’s disposition, such as how they are at rest, with roles that suit them the best,” said Strauss. “As I get to know them, I can stretch them further from their natural way of being. Some may find this detrimental, but the truth is that it’s a talent in itself to be oneself on camera. That takes years of training.”
Several of the actors cast in “Chicago Fire” were people Strauss has come to know well over the years. When he read the pilot he immediately thought of two actors he wanted to cast, David Eigenberg and Monica Raymund. Above all else, he knew he wanted to get Charlie Barnett involved. Strauss met Barnett after he graduated from Julliard and gave him his first TV credit on “Law and Order.”
“I learned that Charlie Barnett was in LA for pilot season,” said Strauss. “I really wanted to cast him for ‘Chicago Fire.’ I made it my mission to get him.”
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