Most Americans—and by most I mean I— became familiar with Eamonn Walker from his role as Muslim inmate Kareem Said on HBO’s groundbreaking series, “Oz.” But before he landed that gig in 1997, his first in the U.S., Walker built a reputation in his native England as a solid thespian who’d been on Brits’ radars since the mid-1980s. Nowadays, he’s charged with ensuring Firehouse 51 is at its best as Battalion Chief Wallace Boden on NBC’s “Chicago Fire,” which is in its second season. Walker says it’s an honor to play a Chicago firefighter.
“I swear to God. They touch people’s souls and hearts every single day. You see it on people’s faces,” says Walker who spends time with real-life firefighters. “And they’ve introduced me to people who they’ve saved and these people— Oh my God, they know they wouldn’t be on the planet if it wasn’t for that man in that uniform saving them from a burning building. “
Before “Chicago Fire,” Walker appeared on shows like “E.R.” and in movies like “Tears of the Sun” and as blues musician Howlin’ Wolf in 2008’s “Cadillac Records.” In 2005 he starred as Mark Anthony on Broadway with Denzel Washington in “Julius Caesar.”
Walker sat down exclusively with XFINITY TV to talk about his favorite role, the men and women of Firehouse 51 and how “In the Heat of the Night” changed his life.
I along with many “Oz” fans assumed you were American. You disguised your British accent very well.
I’m a North London boy … and I speak with a Cockney accent. Even if I was to do that accent now it would seem odd to me because I don’t speak like that. I have no need to speak like that. Me as an actor, I speak with my voice. I’m either American, I’m African— I’m working the whole range because I believe that is a tool. My body is a tool. My voice is a tool. When I combine all of those things together that’s when I start to make a character. Said [in “Oz’] is completely different than to say Boden in “Chicago Fire” who is completely different to Howlin’ Wolf because I’m starting with characters from the very nub and building them up as people.
Now Howlin’ Wolf, I didn’t know that was you until the credits were rolling at the end.
Funny enough, I met with the daughter and the granddaughter of Howlin’ Wolf the other day and they gave me a nice little plaque and a harmonica. They were saying, “Thank you for your job on the film and helping to keep our father’s memory alive.” And I was so honored, I didn’t know what to do. They were lovely.
When I did the research on that guy, what I got from everything that I read about him is that he loved women in every way that you could possibly imagine. He loved them. He probably went to jail because of how much he loved women. If there was a guy involved who was hurting a woman, he would say don’t do that. That’s how much he loved and respected them. He didn’t mistreat them. And for back then, that’s huge. He stepped up for women and I connected to that. That was one of my favorite characters that I ever played.
What about portraying Howlin’ Wolf makes him your favorite?
He’s a man who knows who he is, what he wants, how to get it and he ain’t scared about what he looks like. He just is who he is. Normally most of the characters that I get are tormented in one thing or another. Howlin’ Wolf didn’t have anything like that. He’s like, “Look, I will tell you upfront, I don’t like you. I don’t have to like you.” [He says imitating Howlin’ Wolf] It was a joy to play him. Can you imagine the freedom? I looked at him on YouTube, 6’6”, 300 pounds, I thought how in the hell and I’m going to play you? That kind of freedom is what I really, really enjoy and I try to add that to all of my characters, including Boden.
Please explain how you do that.
Boden cares about himself but in “Chicago Fire’s” instance, he will care about the people working for him and underneath him much more than he will care about himself. So the firehouse and the people who work for him are way more important. They’re his kids, his children. Boden is a watcher; he picks up things quickly because he’s been around a long time. He knows when to go in, when not to go in, when to put his life on the line. And he knows what he has in Firehouse 51: A bunch of mavericks. And he encourages that. Every single one of them—the men, the women— they all know who they are and they will fight you for their opinions. He says, “Work within the framework, as in there are rules, and I take the heat from the top brass, but I need you to keep that special piece of fire you have when you’re in there and you’re fighting to save somebody’s life—your own or one of us— you need to be able to think quick and on your feet and use that opinion.” Because to turn around and say I’m going to do it by the book isn’t going to help you when your life is in danger. I will say, one my favorite things about playing him is the cast and crew. I like that job, it’s a ensemble.
You’ve worked on “Oz” and now you’re on “Chicago Fire.” Which do you like better: working on a network or cable series?
I will be honest and say sometimes there are frustrations in dealing with a network versus a cable show. As I’ve done an HBO show, I know the freedoms I am allowed and where I don’t have to hold back in any shape or form like on a network show. But what it does do, in its favor, is that it forces you to be more creative to get that point that you want to make across. It’s a subtler version or an implied version. You have to start to do that because you can’t do the thing that you naturally think would come because the network has its rules. I don’t always like them—I will tell you that upfront—but what it’s forced us to do is have to find another way to get that feeling across. It forces you to be inventive.
You work long hours but when you get some free time, what TV shows do you like to watch?
I like to watch “Game of Thrones.” I recently binged on “Breaking Bad.” I recently binged on “House of Cards.” I really watch football—English football. I used to say the s-word [soccer] but I refuse now. That’s me being stubborn. I recognize who I am. [Laughs]
What about movies?
Ah, that’s my passion right there. I love movies especially the old ones. The movie that made me want to be an actor was “In the Heat of the Night.” But one of my other favorite movies that get me every single time without fail is “On the Waterfront.” It just covers all of the aspects of humanity and what it is to be a working-class man who’s trying his best when the system is against him. It’s a great film. Marlon Brando is fantastic and it’s him as a young man at his best. It’s one of the best films ever. Paul Newman I love. He’s got millions of films but the one for me that comes to mind is “The Verdict.” It’s later on in his career but he was brilliant. “Malcolm X”—Denzel [Washington]in that film is phenomenal. “The Godfather” and all of those films, “All About Eve,” and “Arsenic and Old Lace” with Cary Grant. So I’ve got some classic movies that I like to watch and do. The movies now don’t really touch me in the same way but I was a young man and I wasn’t an actor so to suspend my feeling of disbelief was easier then. I know too much now.
You’re not the first person that “In the Heat of the Night” inspired to pursue a film career. Can you share how it influenced your decision to become an actor?
“In the Heat of the Night” let me know that I wasn’t alone in my thinking and opened the door for me. At 9 years old, it let me know that I could choose to be the man that I wanted to be instead of the man I was told that I had to be. Life as young boy at that period of time for me and my mother was challenging. So we were surviving. It wasn’t an easy childhood. And I was being told one thing and that film enlightened my mind and went he [Sidney Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs] is having the same things put on him [as I am]… It opened the door in mind: People are going to tell you what they’re going to tell you. But you still have to know who you are and who you want to be. It’s up to you to make it happen and most people won’t believe you until it happens. That’s a great lesson to learn. And so, [Sidney Poitier] was a role model for me. And I realized if that there were 9-year-old little black boys, little black girls, little white boys, little white girls, who can turn around and see the essence of who I am when I play any role, if I inspire them to be something more than they were told that they could be, I’ve done my job.