When Chicago Fire premiered in 2012 no one could have guessed that it would spawn two more shows down the line – Chicago PD (2014) and Chicago Med (2015).
Fast forward to 2016 and the three shows in the Chicago franchise have produced over 150 episodes and employed 5,000 actors thus far.
What’s more, the universe is set to expand even further with talk of one more drama joining the ranks.
It all started with the men and women – firefighters, Rescue Squad and paramedics – of Chicago Firehouse 51.
“We didn’t want to do a fire or case of the week procedural show,” says executive producer Derek Haas.
“We wanted to do an ensemble show with 10 characters and you get in their lives. It came out of the fact that when the fire department goes on a call, they don’t know what they are rolling up to. You get there and you have to react.”
By S4, the number of cast members grew to 11. Joining the show this season is Steven R. McQueen.
The former Vampire Diaries star plays Jimmy Borelli, the new candidate at the firehouse.
“In the Vampire Diaries supernatural world, you have to imagine seeing stuff, whereas on Chicago Fire, you walk in on a stunt day and there’s actually a car on fire. You have to use an axe to get through a door. It’s been nice living in a world of reality,” reveals the 25-year-old actor about working on such different shows.
McQueen says everyone on Chicago Fire has been so welcoming and he has been working hard to find where he fits in.
“When I first started, I went to a couple of firehouses and I asked them what their experience is like going into a fire and they all gave an answer that was surprisingly similar,” he explains.
“They all said they saw this group of people working together to accomplish this goal, almost like a clock. A bunch of gears moving towards one goal.
“As a candidate, you have to find your place. You have to become a gear and you have to help to accomplish this goal otherwise you are not part of the team. So that’s kind of been my journey as a candidate.”
As much as the actors immerse themselves in the world of first responders, they are under no illusions that it is something they could do in real life.
“You can wear the equipment and you can go through the steps but at the end of the day, there is a certain thing that you have in your backbone to run into a burning building,” explains Joe Minoso, who plays firefighter Joe Cruz.
“These men and women do it selflessly and solely with the intention of saving another life. Kelly Severide (played by Taylor Kinney) may look better in a fire suit but the guys who are actually doing it are the ones you want.”
That said, the cast does a good job of keeping to their fitness regimes and taking on the stunts. The fires on the show are real, not CGI, but the scenes are done in a controlled environment.
“There’s an intrinsic element of genuine concern that our crew has so we feel very safe,” says David Eigenberg, who plays seasoned firefighter and family man Christopher Hermann.
“We have had no major incidences but that does not mean it can’t go wrong. Things blow up and we do it every week.”
Christian Stolte, who plays Randy “Mouch” McHolland, appreciates getting to act with a real fire as it makes the scene more believable.
“Though you are aware that you’re relatively safe, when you are literally surrounded by fire, not green screen, I think it helps the performance,” says Stolte.
In any case, fans of the show look forward to more than just the action sequences, they are intrigued by the relationships and the palpable chemistry between certain characters.
“People like the rescues but they really get into the show because of the characters,” reveals executive producer Michael Brandt. “On Twitter, fans are always asking us who is going to sleep with whom.”
Fortunately for the fans, the actors are game for more relationship drama too.
“At the start, I was really looking forward to the action stuff but it quickly wears off,” discloses Jesse Spencer, who plays Lieutenant Matthew Casey, the firefighter dipping his toe in the political world by running for alderman (an elected member of a municipal council) in recent episodes.
“They are difficult days and they are very physical, hard to shoot and technical. The first time you hang off a ladder or do an explosion, it’s really exciting but it’s not really why you become an actor.”
He says he became an actor to connect with somebody and explore different levels of humanity.
“At the end of the day, I really like doing a scene with Monica (Raymund, who plays his girlfriend, paramedic-turned-firefighter Gabriela Dawson), going through something, exploring each other in a situation,” Spencer adds.
Whether it is the characters generating heat on screen or the blazing fire the squad has to deal with on any given day, audiences are tuning in to watch the drama.
Even the real firefighters have warmed up to the show. “They have grown more supportive over the seasons,” Stolte says.
Over the years, Chicago Fire has proven to be a bona fide hit, pulling in up to 13 million viewers in the United States on its best days.
The promising numbers gave rise to spin-offs Chicago PD and Chicago Med and now a fourth series, Chicago Law, is in development.
Chicago Fire S4 airs every Thursday at 9pm on Universal Channel (HyppTV Ch 612).