“I think the whole cast felt that way,” says the 50-year-old British actor who plays Chief Wallace Boden. “When we went to the academy and started training, we saw the wall honoring the firemen who’d fallen in the line of duty and it gave us a sense of who we were portraying and what we were intending to undertake.”
Halfway into the season, Walker is at ease. The show is a Wednesday night favorite (“TV’s best new drama,” according to the Cincinnati Enquirer), ratings hit a series high in early January before the show took a brief hiatus, and Walker is getting high-fives from real life firemen on the Windy City streets.
With XFINITY TV offering a full-season catch-up of Chicago Fire before it returns with a brand new, emotionally-charged, story-packed episode on January 30th, we called up Walker to discuss his journey from the London stage to prime time in the States. But his role as the complex fire chief naturally led to a conversation that also touched on race, working with Denzel Washington on Broadway, his groundbreaking role on the HBO series Oz, and of course the latest on the Dick Wolfe-produced series.
What is going on with Chief Boden on Chicago Fire right now? Catch us up? There are a few things happening to him, to make him kind of slightly come off his axis. He likes to keep a steady ship, but it’s a firehouse of individuals – a special type of individual that runs into a fire as opposed to run away from the fire. They take careful handling and he himself is one of those. In particular, Boden going through an emotional his journey fueled by a young boy he thinks is a complete fire bug. But as he looks deeper, thinking there’s got to be a real reason for this kid’s behavior, it takes him into his own issues, family issues that will be revealed when the episode comes out.
It sounds strong. It is a good episode, and the young boy is fantastic. It has been a good relationship for me as an actor to be working with that young man, because it steps outside of the firehouse, and I enjoy that. It gives you another level and another layer to who Boden is.
Before the show took a break, ratings were at a new high. Why do you think the show is catching on? These fire fighters are everyday people who are doing something good for the society. They feel most alive and when they are helping other people, but away from that they are normal people with normal problems. They mess up. They want to find love and be loved … it’s not always easy for them. I think people can relate to that.
I read that you were the first actor cast on the show. It makes sense: find the chief. But what attracted you to Chicago Fire? It was the script. I always feel that I do my best work when I can connect in some shape or form to any of the roles I am being given to play and I could see straight away from the way that my character – and the whole show – was written that this was going to be good. One of the things that the audiences will take note is there’s lots of silences and you can stay with the characters in these silences and they are speaking volumes with a look, with a feeling, with a vibe … and it was that way from the very beginning. I loved that.
What’s been the reaction from real life Chicago fire-fighters? They are right behind me – and right behind the whole cast. When we started, we asked them to give us a chance. It was a work-in-progress. Now, every week I get texts from firemen going it is getting better, it’s getting better.
Do you have a favorite episode? In terms of finding our voice in writing, filming, who these people are, and everything else, I think Chicago Fire really hit home for me – when we showed that we are not like anything else out there – was episode 6 [titled "Rear View Mirror"]. It was the blend the drama and the action and the acting and the characters and everything else. It was our stamp.
What made you first want to become an actor? Really simple. It was the film In the Heat of the Night with Sidney Poitier.
What about that movie? The very famous line, “They call me Mister Tibbs.” It lit a fire in me. Sidney Poitier hit me in my heart with a ball of lightening of the possibilities of how I could be.
Do you ever think about that while playing Boden on Chicago Fire? Sure, anytime I get a good character – and hopefully some in the audience feel that. There’s a history involved, the history of the firemen and the black firemen in Chicago is long and deep, and we’ll eventually get into that on the show. But the shadow of those things are always kind of moving and around. Boden carries that history. He walks with a wealth of experience. And I am proud to be that man.
So will the show get into the issues of race in the fire department and the city itself? It’s not a question I’ve asked the writers directly, but I feel fairly sure that it will turn up at some point.
You grew up and were educated in London – and still live there with your wife and children. What do you consider your big break as an actor? My break, funny enough, was a comedy show in England called In Sickness and in Health (ed. a sequel to Till Death Do Us Part, which inspired the classic All in the Family). I did comedy for 2 years, although most people don’t even think of me as being funny. But I can be very funny. I worked with Warren Mitchell, who played Alf Garnett. He took me under his wing. Taught me comedy. Taught me timing. And I got to work with some of the great British stars. I worked with a bunch of people in Britain long before America even saw me.
Did anyone along the way give you advice that stands out? Oh yeah. I got advice from all over the place, and most of it stands out. But there are two that are really important.
The first is simple and quick. I was in a play with Norman Beaton, a black actor in Britain who was leading the way for black actors there at a time when there wasn’t much work for black actors. I was playing a preacher, losing my voice in rehearsals trying to get it right, and I finally asked him, “How do I play this role? How do I do it night after night?” He just turned to me and said, “Just do it, young man.” I was like that’s it? That’s all you’ve got? It was gold, but it took me 20 years to understand what he meant – that you have to study and bring your experience to every role, but when it comes to it, you have to throw all that away and just do it.
The other one was when I was a young actor in theater. I was in a three hour play, but I was onstage only five minutes. One day, one of the actors turned to me and said, “What are you doing back there while the play is going on?” I said, “I don’t know. Play pool, listen to music, wait for it to be over so we can all go out drinking later.” He said, “Do you realize you have got an opportunity of a lifetime here? You have got experienced actors sweating and giving their all in front of one of the biggest European theaters in the world. It’s full every night. And you are back here playing pool? You could stand in the wings and learn. And that is what I did from that point on. “
Great story. Good lesson. Yeah. Some of the best things I ever learned came from standing in the wings watching amazing actors do their thing. When I was on Broadway with Denzel [Washington] in Julius Caesar – I was Mark Antony, he was Brutus – I used to watch him and Colm Fiore … I learned so much from watching those two actors go at it every night.
I wanted to ask about working with Denzel on Broadway, which you did back in 2005 and received excellent reviews, as I recall. What was that like? With one of my heroes, are you kidding me? He is an icon. I come from across the water. At the first read-through, I could barely talk. I couldn’t even say my name. He was sitting next to me. I couldn’t even turn my head to turn to the right and see that it was him that was sitting next to me. I just looked at my script and got on with my scene. That is how that was.
Race is figured in so many of your roles and what you talk about. You know, how has it figured in your career? You know, from both the challenges you faced maybe to the statement and difference you try to make? Race is a big part of life. There is no two ways. There is no escaping it. Right now we have the first black President. Everybody is aware of that – whether we talk about it or not, it is a part of everybody’s psyche. So the world has come a long way from when I was a young man.
As a young man I suffered under the oppression of race at the time in England. My childhood was what it was. It taught me certain things. One of the things it taught me was I have no limitations and I will not let anybody limit me. Just because you see me in a particular light, it doesn’t mean I have to see myself in that light. One of the steps towards that point of view came from In the Heat of the Night … “They call me Mister Tibbs.”
I have never forgotten the power of that moment coming through the television screen as it was at the time, when I was a child watching that movie. I know that that power is going out all the time. Television is an atom bomb that goes off in somebody’s house every day with information, with education, with laughter, with frivolity, with whatever we want to do with it. That informs the choices I make as an artist, as a person who wants to make a difference in the world.
Which of your roles do you think has made a difference, has made a statement? I have done several. The most recent was an episode on [popular English actor] Martin Shaw’s show, Inspector George Gently. It’s a show set in the late ‘50s, just after the Second World War, and in this particular episode I played a black pilot. But black soldiers weren’t acknowledged as part of the empire before. My particular character had decided to settle in England and had to deal with the races. It was about three months ago, and my phone and my email blew up after it aired.
I thought you were going to say your character on the HBO series Oz, Kareem Said, the Muslim prisoner… Yes. There has never been a Muslim character that had been given so much time and weight on American television or film other than Malcolm X. It was – for me I took it on board as a responsibility. I know that Tom Fontana did. I know the work and the research I did for that going to the mosque on 115th Street in New York every week to meet with a friend of mine Kareem who taught me about what it was to be a Muslim in New York, about Islam. So I know from the times when I walked down the street, and I still get it every day somebody says to me, [inaudible] and I know they are talking about the character. You touched me and you helped me. Some of these guys were in prison. It was some of the – so I know it’s working. No matter what, I already know that whatever choice I made as a young man I wanted to touch people. I know that that is true.
Oz was a very powerful, provocative series. That was groundbreaking television. I was young enough I guess and I didn’t know the American market or how it worked. It is different now. I have found out quite a lot about America. But at the time I just kind of stepped off the plane, walked straight into [Oz producer] Tom Fontana’s camp and I was just very lucky to be a part of that. I remember his first words to his cast were, “I have got an idea of some of the subject matter and some taboo subject matter that most people in society don’t want to touch, look at, think about, because they don’t want to escape somewhere else. So it is going to be scary. I’m going to take you to places where you may not feel secure and I’m going to need your trust. Will you give me that?” And we all just went you got it. And he and we created Oz, and I think it stands up alone, will stand up alone as groundbreaking television that allowed many other shows to do what they do now. And Tom wrote that then. And it still stands up. I am very proud of that.