The Visceral Casting of ‘Chicago Fire’

Showrunner Matt Olmstead says casting one of his dramas, “Chicago P.D.,” felt a bit like “harvesting organs.” While Olmstead already had several of his cast members platformed from his other project, firefighter show “Chicago Fire,” there were still characters to fill when NBC took the cop drama pilot to series.

“It was funny because my wife had produced a pilot for NBC the same year, and we were waiting to hear about ‘P.D.’ to be a potential series,” he explains. When the network eventually picked up the ensemble series, “We picked three actors off my wife’s pilot!” he says with a laugh. “Jesse Soffer, Sophia Bush, and [Patrick John] Flueger all came from ‘Hatfields & McCoys.’ So we kept it in the family.”

Family’s a running theme for the shows Olmstead runs. Those ties on- and offscreen were always the connective tissues in “Chicago Fire,” which premieres its fourth season Oct. 13. Set in the Windy City’s Firehouse 51, the show follows firefighters and medics and the complicated relationships that develop in a work environment with life-and-death stakes. Factor in their 24-hour shifts, and a specific brand of intimacy is innate to the material.

“You’re eating, watching TV, sleeping in the same bunk room, and you’re forced to hash stuff out,” Olmstead says of the character dynamic. “So it was always about this family that has to deal with each other and rally around each other even when they don’t want to; that’s the theme and lifeblood of ‘Fire.’ ”

Coming off the drama about U.S. marshals “Breakout Kings” and looking for another project to spearhead, Olmstead recalls reading the “Chicago Fire” pilot after sifting through a stack of others in search of a series he felt would be “sustainable” rather than high-concept TV—whether serial or anthological—with complex themes that burn fast and bright before petering out.

But the relationship-rooted focus of “Fire” left room for development. In addition to proving capable of carrying multiple seasons, the show’s universe expanded to include character crossovers with “Chicago P.D.” and inspired spinoff “Chicago Med,” premiering in November with Olmstead and Dick Wolf (“Law & Order: SVU”) at the helm.

“[The creators and producers] had a meeting trying to pull off the jigsaw puzzle of [crossing over] characters on all three shows,” says Olmstead. “It’s a scheduling…I don’t want to say nightmare, but it’s like Jenga, and people far smarter than I am are working it out.”

Season 3 introduced a romance between “Chicago Fire” medic Sylvie Brett (Kara Killmer) and “Chicago P.D.” cop Sean Roman (Brian Geraghty). “In terms of romances, some spark more than others but the defining factor is reliability [when it comes to scheduling],” says Olmstead. This is the third crossover relationship on the series.

To bring complex interactions to the small screen, romantic and platonic alike, the TV vet—who says he’s always kept regular hours to allow time to recharge and foster fresh looks at material—encourages creators to go big before they come back home.

“You’ve got to cast your line out as far as you can because it’s easier to reel in than to reel out on a story,” he advises. “Everyone has to come in with big swings. The more outrageous the better, and then you can dial back and put that into what’s believable as opposed to approaching it with timidity or being too careful.”

In addition to adding more romances, resolving old ones, and hashing out the complexities of working within dangerous circumstances constantly, Season 4 of “Chicago Fire” will see some new faces, according to the showrunner. Coming into the “family” are Steven R. McQueen (“The Vampire Diaries”) as new candidate Jimmy Borelli, and Brian White (“Scandal”) as Capt. Dallas Patterson. “This is essentially a relationship ensemble,” says Olmstead, “so it’s always about digging deeper.”

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