Q&A with David Eigenberg

Though he plays one on TV, David Eigenberg is nOt a firefighter . . . but he might have been. The Chicago Fire star, who spent his youth in Naperville, planned to take the New York City firefighter exam, missing it when he got a part in an HBO movie. Eigenberg got his start in acting in 1982 thanks to another case of fortuitous timing. While training to be a carpenter in Chicago, a teacher’s strike left him time to audition at a Water Tower Place theater, where he was surprised to get the job. While he never expected his career to lead back to Chicago, he is grateful. "I like the rawness — there’s a brutality to Chicago that I think is really beautiful."   

The father of two has a soft spot for Naperville, where his mom, known as "Miss Bev," owned a preschool for years. But he is quick to point out that the Naperville of today is quite different than the smaller, more working class town he remembers growing up in. Among his fond memories are riding  his bike everywhere with his friends and — when he was a little older — pool hopping after hours. The latter earned him an arrest or two by the Naperville police, much to the chagrin of his parents.

When you left the Chicago area way back when to pursue acting, did you ever think you’d be back here working?

 

David Eigenberg: (Laughs.) Actually no, I never did, although I did a pilot here 15 to 18 years ago with Patrick Dempsey. It was about assistant district attorneys in Chicago with director Chris Columbus. It never went obviously.     

I brought my wife back with me because my folks were here. She got one taste of the winter here and said, "I’ll move anywhere with you for your job but don’t make me move back to Chicago." And that’s the only thing I’ve ever promised my wife in the 13 years we’ve been married.

So what happened when you said, "Hey honey, there’s this new series shooting in Chicago and . . ."?

DE: We were kind of low on funds because, believe it or not, actors, whether character actors or not, successful or not, aren’t all millionaires. So I said here’s the deal: either we sell the house in Burbank or we go to Chicago. So she’s like, let’s go to Chicago. Such are the trials and travails of being a character actor in Hollywood.

How has being in Chicago turned out?

DE: I love it here. I love the people of Chicago. Last year winter was tough, though, because my wife was pregnant and at the time, we lived in a second-floor walk-up with two dogs. She wasn’t really happy with me. But no, really it’s been great. I love the show, it’s my favorite. I’ve had some wonderful jobs in my lucky career, but this is at the top. It’s about working class people — which is pretty much what I come from — and the love of being smart alecks, and hardworking, and taking care of people the best you can.

Plus you get to be home, or do you even consider Chicago home any more?

DE: I left when I was 18-19 years old because I had, a calling is too strong a word, but I had this feeling I had to go.  We actors, entertainers and musicians, we’re really just a bunch of gypsies, so my life is on the road. I don’t call any place home. The Chicago area is by and large where I spent most of my youth. I was born on Long Island, but we lived in Evanston, Northbrook, Aurora and then eight years in Naperville. It was a great little community to grow up in. I still stay in touch with a bunch of my friends from there.

Anything in particular you remember about being a kid in Naperville?

DE: I grew up in West Highlands behind Edward Hospital. It’s weird for me to say I’m from Naperville because when I left in 1982-83 downtown was dead, there were very few shops, and I grew up in a very middle class neighborhood full of working class people — teachers and auto mechanics — and I loved that. Now Naperville is more affluent and that’s great,  but that’s not really the Naperville

I grew up in. My old neighborhood was mostly 1500-sq-ft, split-level houses.   

As a kid, we used to ride our bikes, crash our bikes, everything was about bicycles. You hardly see kids riding bikes anymore. But when we got to Lincoln (junior high), you were lucky if you could find a spot there to lock your bike.

What was the transition like from when you were a Marine. Any similarities with being an actor?

DE: Yeah, I mean believe it or not, when you’re an actor, you work under a lot of pressure to deliver. There’s a saying, "Actors get paid to wait and we do the acting for free." When the cameras finally get up and we’ve got to go, you’ve got to really deliver, sometimes it can be tremendous pressure. In our business, there is no room for any kind of behavior that’s not professional. There are images in the media of actors being catered to and some do behave poorly. But by and large 97 percent of this industry doesn’t do that. We have to be on time, you have to know your work and be ready to go

at a moment’s notice.

How is working on Chicago Fire different from when you worked on Sex and the City?

DE: We have a lot more guys! Obviously, it’s a male-centric show. It was refreshing to work on a female-centric show like Sex and the City, but makeup and hair and wardrobe don’t require anywhere near the same amount of time on Chicago Fire. Most of the time they hit us with a dirty rag and send us on our way. It’s also definitely a much more earthy show — there’s more latitude, more freedom, the writing setups are easier, less complicated. For Sex and the City, we shot in New York. Here, we shoot in an old steel factory. One nice thing about my New York experience is that we worked side by side most of the year with the cast of the Sopranos, so we all got to know each other. That was fun.

The cast of Chicago Fire comes across like a family. Is that true — in the live tweets during the show, you seem like you enjoy hanging out together.

DE: It’s slightly incestuous and hopefully not to the point of being annoying to everybody else around us, but there really is a lot of love and respect. We bust chops all day long. We laugh pretty much all day. It’s a really enjoyable work atmosphere. I tell the younger guys and gals on the show to really enjoy it because it doesn’t happen that often. Once or twice in your career do you get to work in an ensemble where everybody gets along. It’s just like any job, if there’s one sour apple, it can bring down a lot of people. But we don’t have it, we really don’t.

It must have been hard to lose castmate Lauren German ("Leslie Shay," who "died" and left the show.)

DE: Yes, very difficult. We had to really regroup. It’s not a strange occurrence in the television business, things happen, things change. We are expected to adjust and we definitely rose to the occasion. She’s a great girl and fortunately she’s been back a few times to do some flash backs. So we get to see her from time to time and we still have a deep love and admiration for her.

Rumor has it that you did Chicago’s Polar Plunge in Lake Michigan this past winter along with castmate Taylor Kinney and his famous fiancé, Lady Gaga. What was that like?

DE: Taylor told us the night before that she might come, but she didn’t let anyone know. She’s a trooper. She didn’t just jump in and jump out. We were all jumping on each other and she was into it. She did it because she wanted to be with Taylor. They have a really beautiful loving relationship, you can see it. It’s strange to be around a mega star, a super star. But she’s a beautiful, wonderful girl. I really have a lot of respect and admiration for her. She’s as hardworking as anyone you’ll ever find and they really love each other. People go like, "Oh, Hollywood, they’re like Madonna and Sean Penn." But this has legs, it’s not arbitrary. They spend time together. They work on it. They work hard on it because of both their schedules.

How are Chicagoans with the cast? This city isn’t as used to having stars around as some other places.

DE: They’re really sweet, by and large. When you play a nice character, people are really nice to you. Definitely we stand out a little bit more here because having a TV show being filmed is not a common occurrence. Even shows like ER that were supposedly set in Chicago, they only shot here once every three to four weeks. We’re here all the time. People are surprised that we live here. But it’s like, yes, we’re paying the same dues that everybody pays who lives here, weather!  

Growing up, did you ever consider becoming a fireman?

DE:  When I went back to school in New York City, I was in the Marine Corps reserves in Glenview. When I got to New York, coincidentally my best friend and roommate for three years there, had been a Chicago firefighter. They were offering the test in New York City and I was doing construction work a lot because my acting career wasn’t flying. So I signed up for the class. But then I missed the test because I got a couple of acting gigs. So I actually seriously considered becoming a fireman. And my best buddy, Al, actually got a job in the New York City department and lived through 9/11. And another buddy I grew up with in Naperville, he did 15-18 years on the job in Chicago. I just saw his dad a few months ago and he was like, "Hey, let me introduce you to a real Chicago firefighter!" He was just busting my chops. It cracks him up that I’m a firefighter on TV. But I’ve been strangely connected to the fire department for most of my adult life.

You guys interact with real firefighters on the set, right? What’s that like?

DE: Every day. They give us a lot of insight. They’re some of the greatest, funniest, real-life people you ever want to meet. They have huge hearts, and they’re in the soup every day. They go through a lot. There’s a lot of heartbreak. They interact all the time with people who have no money or are sick, or there’s a fire where people have lost everything. I’ve experienced what they go through a little bit doing ride-alongs with them. And when you see it firsthand, you see how they process it. They might not be able to get involved the way other people would because they do it every day. But they really do care. They’re probably my favorite people in the world — firefighters, paramedics, cops. We have cops helping us with the show, too. They tell us how things would really happen, but more than anything, they inform us with their lives. They give us a sensibility that we can refer back to. Today in a hospital situation, I was doing some ad libs that you’re probably never going to hear on the actual show. We were at a hospital processing a few injured people, so I asked the advising firefighters how they would ask for the head nurse. They told me to say, "Who’s the charge nurse today?" They give you tips, which is really important to the show. Even though you’re not going to see me actually say that, you might hear it in the background. It’s going to be low on the audio track as it should be, but it’s still nice to know that we have it right.

Do you think your character, Christopher Hermann, will ever get to become a lieutenant? How could that happen, he’d have to leave Firehouse 51!

DE: It’s always a standby possibility, but that’s exactly the problem. We actually have some firefighters who work with us here who are in somewhat similar situations. They have to really consider whether to take a promotion or not because it changes things for them. If they take their promotion, the way it works here — and the way it would be on the show — you move out. There’s three shifts in Chicago. They take you out of your shift because they don’t want favoritism to occur. 

RAPID FIRE

1. Your favorite hangout in Naperville?

Cock Robin

2. Favorite current restaurant in Naperville?

Heaven on Seven

3. What actor do you admire most that you are not currently working with?

Spencer Tracy

4. Favorite TV show?

Welcome Back Kotter

5. If you hadn’t become an actor, what career would you have likely pursued?

I’d have likely been a carpenter. That’s what I did when I wasn’t working in New York City.

6. Would Christopher Hermann, your character on the show, and his family like living in the western suburbs?

I don’t think so. Only because there’s a rawness to the city he’s keyed into. Who knows, as he got older, his family would probably be good out there.

7. Three words that describe you.

Wispy. Forlorn. Handicapped.

8. What was the craziest thing you did as a kid?

I got arrested a bunch of times, some for not-so-good stuff, some for innocuous, silly stuff like pool hopping after hours. You put your clothes on one side of the fence, hop the fence, then you had to run, grab your stuff and make a run. My parents weren’t too happy about that.  

 

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