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Charlie Barnett discusses Chicago Fire in this Exclusive Interview ahead of the Home Entertainment release

The Fan Carpet Chats To...
09 October 2013

No job is more stressful, dangerous or exhilarating than those of the firefighters, rescue squad and paramedics of Chicago Firehouse 51. These are the courageous men and women who forge headfirst into danger when everyone else is running the other way. But the enormous responsibilities of the job also take a personal toll.

Already renewed for a second season on Sky Living, the compelling hit series gives an up-close and personal view into the lives of everyday heroes, following the adventures of the men and women of Chicago Firehouse 51. In their hands lies the power to make a difference between life and death!

Charlie Barnett talks about his role in the hit series, the importance of shooting in Chicago and what drew him to the role…



What do you think makes Chicago Fire unique?

I want to say, and I hope the audience agrees with me, that it’s the cast. It’s the cast and the crew – everything involved behind the scenes and in front of the camera. The connection we all have as a group is, I think, what’s working because you can have the explosions, the excitement and all of that stuff but you really need more than that – a strong character base that people can connect to is really important. It’s a world that draws people in and that makes it more interesting.


In a way the show is about a surrogate family, isn’t it?

Yes it is and I can relate to that because of how we as a cast came from all these different places and were put in Chicago together as a unit. Chicago does, of course, have connections to the entertainment industry but it’s all on its own so we had to kind of figure it out for ourselves. We were surrounded by all these firefighters and put into that family. Cops, firefighters and most government officials in service at least have to find that balance between their brothers and work, just finding that connection, trust and respect. It’s what we are defined by ultimately having to live that life on screen.


Did the fact Chicago Fire is so character-based appeal to you?

[Laughs] When I was coming in to audition it appealed to me simply because it was a job – a huge job! But Peter Mills, the character I play, fits me very well. We’re very similar and in any kind of TV show the further you go on the more parts of yourself begin to bleed into the character; the two fuse together which is really interesting. What drew me in was the blend of excitement, family and intimacy as well as the fact that anything could happen at any point- it’s risky.


Peter’s a rookie firefighter and this is your first big role. Can you relate to him in that way?

Absolutely, there have been many times I’ve realised I’m sitting off-camera and talking to one of the cast mates or crew members and feeling it mirrors what Peter is going through – having to figure out how he fits into the group and having to figure out how I, Charlie Barnett fit within this group of actors, crew and producers. It’s scary sometimes.


How is it working for Dick Wolf?

Dick cast me in my first job, just a couple of months after I left school, on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (1999- 2013) and then after that I did a Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2001- 2011). I hadn’t met him but I felt very attuned to him. I had a great deal of respect for the man, so when I did get to meet him there was a lot of excitement; he’s a powerful man when you meet him.


From what you’ve learned about firefighting, how realistic a portrayal of that world is Chicago Fire?

For each firehouse, in each state, in each city it’s a different story. Each company does it their own way so we’re always getting ‘That’s not how we do it’ – but then everybody does it differently. As for realism, I know when I’m running into most of those buildings it’s hot and there’s a real fire in front of me- it’s not CGI. All the tools are real and that’s largely down to Dick Wolf; he made sure we had everything possible to make it real – the tools, the trucks, the gear, all of the people in the background are real firefighters. If I have to use a Halligan (Firefighting instrument) in a weird way or it’s written strangely and I haven’t spoken to the writers then I’ve got a firefighter there to explain it and talk about the experiences he lived through. It makes it so, so real for me, especially being from theatre.


How important do you think it is that the show is done on real Chicago locations?

Chicago really is another character. It has a lot of life that adds to the show – the people driving by, the traffic we create by filming, people lined up… I really love that and I’ve fallen in love with the city itself. It’s a beautiful blend of New York, Toronto and Los Angeles- you can escape it but there’s also a hub, and there’s so much culture. It’s set in the Midwest, a little gem that nobody really knows about.



Have you weathered a famous Chicago winter yet?

Yeah and actually it wasn’t that bad! It’s worth it if you go through the summer. Experience the summer first, then go through the winter and you’ll be fine.


Does the success of the show mean you’re getting recognised more now?

I’ve just started to notice that. I was recognised the other day in Paris, by a volunteer firefighter actually. It’s very strange, but I enjoy it and I’d never run away from it or push it away because the fans are keeping my job alive.


Where else have you been spotted?

I got recognised in Amsterdam, which was really fun but I’m not sure if the guy knew who I was or where I was from- he just recognised the face!


Is it true you grew up on a boat?

Yes, that’s true- my Dad is a boat-builder! He and my mum met in Minnesota, he built a boat and they sailed down the Mississippi and they landed in Sarasota, Florida and ran out of money. They had, like, eight dollars left for beer and dog food. Anyway, they adopted me and my sister, about a year apart, and we lived in a house for a little bit, then ended up on a boat. It’s not strange in Florida actually – a lot of people live on boats. It was a 37ft sailboat and it was awesome. When I later went to college I was trying my hardest to find a cheap boat I could live on because it’s so awesome; you get really cold at night sometimes but it’s an experience. I love living like that. Anyway, we lived on the boat until I was seven or eight, then we moved into a house. 


You did musical theatre as a youngster. Is that something you’d like to do as an actor?

Absolutely, I’d never close that door. There are a lot of classic musicals that I’m drawn to. I know they’re doing Into The Woods (2014) as a movie and that’s a show I’d love to be involved in at some point.


Were there other careers you tried or considered before the acting took off?

I’ve wanted to be an actor since I was young, but I’ve always toyed with other ideas. I wanted to be a country music singer for a long time but that world seems so difficult. It’s so much more reliant on you so it’s less about escaping into other characters. You’re the character, you’re the image.


How does doing a TV series like Chicago Fire compare to being in a big movie like Men In Black 3 (2012)?

On a TV show you make a community. We spend a year together on Chicago Fire whereas on Men In Black 3 it was just four weeks. On a TV show you’re able to find security within your friends and colleagues; you can relax into relationships. When I filed Men In Black 3 I was only meant to be there for a week and it turned into four weeks because of weather so I got to hang out with the guys, but it will never compare to this kind of world, where you walk in every day and you’re there for 16 or 17 hours.


The show is about a faux family. Is that mirrored in your relationships with cast members?

I feel like that happens a lot in this world. When I was in school and working on plays our worlds would start to meld together. You’d find similarities in things you’d never looked at which is something I love about this career. You open new doors and you figure out more about yourself, about the people around you, it’s awesome.