The Harvey native and Thornton High School grad figured he'd eventually leave home for work after graduating from Illinois State University in 2012. Thanks to "P.D.," he didn’t have to travel far.
"It was an unexpected dream come true," Hawkins said. "I think when you get into this industry and you think about getting your big break, automatically you think that you got to move from home if you don't already live in an L.A. or New York and you just think about remounting yourself into a different location where you have a new life and new friends and all kinds of stuff like that."
Hawkins, who plays Officer Kevin Atwater in producer Dick Wolf's "Chicago Fire" spinoff airing at 9 p.m. Wednesdays on NBC, is just one of several cast members with a special connection to the city.
The drama focuses on members of the newly created intelligence unit within the Chicago Police Department's District 21 run by Sgt. Hank Voight, a tough detective played by Jason Beghe with whom "Chicago Fire" fans already are familiar. The possibly dirty Voight did jail time for harassing firefighter Matthew Casey (Jesse Spencer) last season.
Before filming "Fire" last season, Beghe hadn't worked in Chicago in 20 years. Saying he has "deep, deep, deep roots" in Chicago, Beghe ticked off a list that included a great-grandfather who was the first two-term governor of Illinois and a district attorney in Chicago, a grandfather who was a violinist for the Chicago Symphony, his parents, who both attended the University of Chicago, and his brother, a Rogers Park resident who went to Northwestern University.
His first day filming on "Fire," Beghe flew to Chicago from Washington, D.C., after attending his father’s funeral.
"So it's kind of a full circle," he said. "It seemed something almost destined in a way. I don't put a lot of significance on symbolism or anything like that, but it seems pretty damn coincidental. And I know my parents would be very pleased and proud."
Like Beghe and Jon Seda, who plays Det. Antonio Dawson, Jesse Lee Soffer has appeared in several "Fire" episodes leading up to the "Chicago PD" premiere. Before "Fire," Soffer spent six months in Chicago in 2012 filming the now canceled Fox series "Mob Doctor."
"I love Chicago. It's amazing that I got to come back," Soffer said. "I loved it. It was really sad to leave. ... Now I'm back and it's unbelievable."
Soffer is back living in his former River North neighborhood and has introduced his new castmates to some of his favorite spots in the city such as Girl & the Goat, Graham Elliot Bistro, Maude's and Au Cheval for the burgers.
"It's the best cheeseburger I've ever had in my life. No exaggeration; bar none," said Soffer, who plays Det. Jay Halstead. "When people try it they're like, 'Oh my God you're right.' There's the best burger I've ever had and then there’s this burger."
Hawkins isn't playing tour guide for his castmates despite growing up in Harvey. "I can play host in the hood. If we want to go to Harvey I can play host there," he said, laughing. "But my experience in Chicago is pretty much just go audition, go work and come back home, not necessarily kick it as much. So I've been exploring and discovering things about Chicago just like they have."
Like his cast mates, Hawkins is working in areas he's never seen before. "Chicago P.D." calls Cinespace Studios on the Southwest Side its home base, but films at the old Maxwell Street Police Station and in many locations all over the city and suburbs.
The show also has given the young actor a chance to work and learn from veteran Chicago theater actress Amy Morton, who plays District 21's sarcastic desk sergeant Platt. Voight often drafts Atwater and his partner, Officer Kim Burgess, to help the intelligence unit—if Platt OKs it. Hawkins and Northwestern grad Marina Squerciati, who plays Burgess, agree that working with Morton has been a great part of the job.
"She makes every scene easy," Hawkins said. "She's one of those actresses that, similar to how Michael Jordan can elevate everybody’s game on court, can kind of do that on set."
Hawkins feels working on "Chicago P.D." is giving him a completely new Chicago experience.
"I have great new friends and family here in the cast that are amazing," he said. "So they're making home something like a new home for me. I've always been here, but it feels different and it feels fresh."
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