Chicago Fire’s Jesse Spencer

Chicago Fire star Jesse Spencer talks to TV Drama about learning firefighting skills, the risks of the job, the loyalty of the firehouse community and mastering an American accent.

After starring on the soap Neighbours in his native Australia, actor Jesse Spencer was cast as Dr. Robert Chase, an empathetic, morally scrupulous doctor on the critically acclaimed series House. Following House, Spencer found a new TV home as firefighter Matthew Casey on the Dick Wolf drama Chicago Fire, the first in a new franchise for Wolf—creator of the Law & Order shows—that has grown to include Chicago P.D.Chicago Med and, in 2017, Chicago Justice. Casey is a strong lieutenant dedicated to his job and the firefighters he leads.

***Image***TV DRAMA: How did you prepare for the role of Matthew Casey? I understand that in a Wolf Films production there is a lot of training.
SPENCER: Yes, and it’s essential. When I first started I was still finishing up House, and they very kindly let me shoot the pilot for Chicago Fire. I was flying to Chicago on weekends to shoot it and flying back to Los Angeles to shoot House, back and forth for a month. [When I arrived in Chicago to shoot the pilot] I met Steve Chikerotis, who’s the chief fire consultant on the show. He picked me up from the airport and he took me straight to the fire academy. I just pressed record on my phone like you reporters do and listened to him talk. He gave a class on fire safety. Lieutenants from different houses showed me how to break down the door, how to kick down the door, their SCBA [self-contained breathing apparatus] gear, which is the mask and oxygen, and I just got familiar with the equipment.

TV DRAMA: You use real gear on the show, right? It’s not pretend gear?
SPENCER: No, it’s real stuff. It’s 65 pounds. When the real firemen go on a call, very rarely do they wear the gear for 12 hours. Normally it’s go in, get out, and they wear the gear for about half an hour or so. But we end up wearing it for 12 hours, so we’re constantly trying to take it off and put it on because it gets heavy. It’s a very physical job, and it can be pretty dangerous, so I try, as most of the cast does, to keep up a certain level of physical fitness just to help offset the physicality [required]. But we’re getting fit for free. They are paying me to stay fit, so there! [Laughs]

TV DRAMA: As an actor, what was the mental and physical shift you had to make going from Dr. Chase to Matthew Casey?
SPENCER: They loosely based Casey on a real guy who’s called Casey, one of Chikerotis’s friends, but also on Chik himself, because he’s such a natural-born leader. He’s a really nice, humble guy. He has a huge heart and he’s very knowledgeable. He’s really good at what he does and his men have total respect for him. He respects his men and he loves the fire department. It’s all these great qualities that Casey embodies as the lieutenant leading the guys. That’s sort of who we based Casey on; Chikerotis is my go-to guy. What would Chik do? And then we go from there. He’s a loving guy, but he’s not afraid to throw down either! I wouldn’t want to mess with that guy! [Laughs]

TV DRAMA: You’ve been on this series for four years. What have you learned about the toll the job takes on these really dedicated firemen?
SPENCER: A lot. The biggest cause of death is actually heart attacks. I don’t know why that is, but obviously they breathe a lot of bad stuff. We breathe a lot of bad stuff. We don’t use CGI fire; we’re burning stuff, so every day you can be picking a lot of black shit out of your nose. [Laughs] But we’re in it and we love it.

TV DRAMA: What have you learned about the firefighters’ community?
SPENCER: Well, it’s just such a tight-knit community and that’s how they need to operate, otherwise it wouldn’t work. So we really had to adopt that sense of togetherness. It’s a dysfunctional family, like any good family is, but they always help each other, and there’s that real sense of community and pride in their vocation. Hopefully, we are translating that onto the screen so that the audience feels like they, too, are a part of the firehouse community.

They’re also adrenaline junkies. You’ve got to have something in you that wants to run into a burning building—other people don’t have that. And they’ve got a sense of danger. They want to fight fires. These guys want to experience these situations, but the reality is, while techniques and equipment and technology have improved and vastly decreased firefighter fatalities, it still happens. And that’s when they come together again. We went to a firehouse down the street when it lost a guy and firefighters came from all over. They came from New York and Toronto and St. Louis. That really drives home [the reality and risks of being a fireman] so much. You can’t ignore it. The reality is palpable, and that informs us and informs the show. So whenever we think we’re just making a TV show, something will happen and we’ll go, Wow, it’s art imitates life and it feels really real. Because we know those guys experience that and they’re our friends; we’re close to them.

TV DRAMA: You worked with David Shore and now with Dick Wolf, two successful showrunners. The level of television nowadays is pretty amazing, isn’t it?
SPENCER: There’s so much good stuff around. Take your pick—what style do you want? These are great days for television and stories. I mean there’ll always be a market for [film], but….

TV DRAMA: So much film talent has moved over to television.
SPENCER: It has moved over to television. There’s so much more choice. I don’t know all the ins and outs, but TV is where the stories are and I think it’s going to continue to go that way. Chicago Fire and the Dick Wolf shows are an old-school way of making TV, that’s for sure—spawning all these shows and these crossovers. But Chicago Fire is a show that has a positive message and that makes it unique. On TV there aren’t a lot of shows that really do have a positive spin and I think that’s why it’s been so successful.

TV DRAMA: As a viewer of Fire and Med, what I take away is an incredible level of humanity, even though the characters aren’t perfect.
SPENCER: Yes, exactly, and that’s the thing that sets these shows apart from other genres. Those other genres are great, too, but Dick has built an empire here! [Laughs] They thought he wouldn’t be able to do it, so it just goes to show that the procedural has a home, and [so do] stories with a positive message. It doesn’t have to be dark and murderous. We can delve into those areas, but it’s not what the show is about.

TV DRAMA: Nowadays after watching the news, I don’t particularly want to watch anything that’s too dark and murderous.
SPENCER: No! And that’s the thing; I think people want an escape from that. They want to see people trying to get together, not trying to separate each other.

TV DRAMA: Was switching to an American accent a problem for you? I remember interviewing Hugh Laurie. On House, he’d stay in character most of the day, right?
SPENCER: He did.

TV DRAMA: Have you followed that lead?
SPENCER: No. I did for the pilot, purely because I thought it was a better option to just stay in character for the times I was in Chicago—only on the set, not when I went home. But my go-to is Eamonn Walker, who plays Chief Wallace Boden [on Chicago Fire]. Eamonn worked on Oz and he’d done numerous American accents. We ended up having the same dialect coach, and we constantly bounced back and forth about placement, sounds, tone and muscles.

TV DRAMA: I’m from Chicago; you have the Midwestern twang down perfectly!
SPENCER: Oh good, great! I wanted to get it right because I know they didn’t want a false Chicago accent. It wouldn’t have suited Casey. I wanted him to be a good Midwest boy! And Eamonn normally does New York stuff so he was working to get rid of his Brooklyn accent! [Laughs] So we’ve had some funny times on set.

We actually did a scene once where we had an Australian actress, Daisy Betts, for quite a few episodes. We were in this office, and we were like, We’re three foreigners here all playing Americans. So we did the scene in our native accents, and it was the most bizarre thing because you work so hard against [your native] sounds. And to have a new set of sounds, it was actually hard to be Australian in the wardrobe, on set. Looking at the chief, for me to talk to him as I talk was extremely difficult, but we got the scene out. I never saw it, but it just sounded so jarring to the ears. It was so wrong! [Laughs] It was like, What’s going on here? It was like an out-of-body experience. It was very, very strange!