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‘Chicago Fire’: How Life Imitates Art for David Eigenberg in Season 12

[This story contains some spoilers from the first three episodes of Chicago Fire season 12.]

With his 40-year career on stage and screen, actor David Eigenberg looks at his chosen profession as a roller-coaster ride of good fortune with some down times.

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Upon trying his hand at acting after an honorable discharge from the United States Marine Corps Reserve in 1986, the early years of Eigenberg’s career seemed to meet with more roadblocks than successes. At one point, he contemplated going into the profession of construction. But soon after came breakthroughs and successful auditions for the then-hopeful young actor.

In 1999, Eigenberg became known by millions as the on-again, off-again boyfriend (and eventual husband — and then ex-husband) of Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon) on HBO classic Sex and the City and its follow-ups. But some might argue that his star shined brighter when he joined the ensemble cast of Firehouse 51 in 2012 on NBC’s Chicago Fire.

As first responder Christopher Herrmann, Eigenberg plays a gruff, no-nonsense firefighter with a heart of gold for his wife, five children and firehouse family. Herrmann is one of the old guards of Firehouse 51, but as seen in the first three episodes of season 12, he is now facing life challenges that may make it difficult for him to continue on as a firefighter. In the premiere, Herrmann saves the firehouse from a package bomb, but he’s knocked out by the blast, which ultimately causes severe hearing loss.

The veteran firefighter is now wearing hearing aids in order to keep his job as a first responder, and that storyline is rooted in some reality for Eigenberg, who also wears hearing aids. The Hollywood Reporter recently caught up with the Chicago resident over Zoom to talk about his career — including reactions to his And Just Like That storyline — his love for the city, why he reached out to the writers to spark Herrmann’s season 12 arc, and why he accepts a “changing of the guard” so many seasons into a drama: “There’ll be a point where it’s like: I guess I gotta pass the torch.”

First, you did your own stunt with the package bomb in episode one, right?

For this one, yes. It was cool! We shot this scene across the street and they wanted to see my face, and we were doing a different stunt than we usually do, because we usually work with mortars. They’re usually a self-contained, giant steel canister that could be 3 to 4 feet high and like 24 to 30 inches across, and they’re loaded up with propane, soot and dirt. And then they pop! They’re pressurized, popping and then they ignite.

But this one was a controlled explosion, which is different than what we’ve done. It was a bigger fireball and there was an ignition to it, as opposed to a timed pressure release. They said, “We’d love to see your face,” and it was really cool because we have the best people doing our effects with the amazing people who do our stunts. I don’t have a moment’s pause that they have our life and our health in their hearts to take care of us. And then they got really serious and were like, “Are you 100 percent OK with this?” And I was like, “Yeah.” And I don’t like talking about this without making mention of our guys. Brian Peters has been doing stunts with me forever and he’s great.

The fallout is that Herrmann is in panic mode. We saw in episode two last week that he suffered severe hearing loss while saving his comrades from the package bomb. Why didn’t he want to seek out help immediately once another firefighter detected the issue?

You know, everybody takes their licks on the show and on the stories, in a good way. Maybe there’s a sacrifice that happens and we got a little kick in the pants.

It’s a vulnerability because you never know when your hearing starts to deteriorate, what the arc of that will be. Although they have one-eyed firefighters in Chicago, and they have firefighters with hearing loss and hearing aids, at a certain point, if you can’t keep yourself safe and other people safe, you can’t do the job. And with Herrmann, I think it’s pretty apparent he really loves the job. He loves the people he works with and there’s just a vulnerability. And it’s also contending with your age out in the real CFD. At a certain point, you’ve got to retire.

And that’s real and in almost every element. And it’s real for me in this show, because it’s so physically demanding that there will be a time where — I hope the show goes on for a long, long time — and there’ll be a point where it’s like, “Yeah, I guess I gotta pass the torch.”

I have a feeling Herrmann is going to be OK. So, we will see.

I read that you wear hearing aids. If so, was this written into the show for you?

I need them in real life, so it was written in the show because I’ve gotten to the point where I need them. I’ve been needing them for years. I’ve been wearing them, but then this year, I sent an email to the writers and I was like, “You know, I’m kind of at a point where really, I just can’t hear very well. I’ve abused my body and I’ve had enough concussions and done enough things in my life where my hearing is shot.”

And they were kind enough to incorporate it, and I think it’s a wonderful thing in a lot of ways. Because a lot of people are using them now. It’s a very normal thing. You know, it has gotten me down sometimes, I don’t love it. But they’re a great instrument to help in life, because what happens is that if you don’t have them and you can’t hear, you kind of disengage. It takes you out of the loop. And wearing them brings you back into participation. So, I’m really glad that we’re using it.

Is it sad for you or the other castmembers when you see regulars die on the show or get written off in some way?

It’s definitely multilayered when different characters die. There are different levels, I mean there’s been a lot of sadness of departure. We all know the business. Sometimes the younger ones don’t know it all the way, and things change. You have to be built for change as an actor, but that doesn’t mean that the sorrow of the changing of the guard isn’t there.

I always have a saying. In a 40-year career, there have been a lot of ups and downs with my life and things change. The bottom falls out for a bunch of years and it took me forever to get started, and jobs come or they don’t come. You hope. But, there’s no crying in show business! I know I’m paraphrasing-slash-ripping off A League of Their Own, but there are tears for the love we have for each other, but just not tears for, “I didn’t get the job.”

Speaking of change, where you surprised about the reaction to the storyline of Steve and Miranda [breaking up] in And Just Like That?

It was a really interesting choice to make. I was cool with it. I think that people do change. I’m 1,000 percent really cool with the LGBTQ community and I love that they brought that story forward and bring some light to it, some love to that. So I was good, and when I think about the heart of that character, that certainly Steve was good with it. Heartbreak comes and bites, and sometimes you catch it in the teeth.

Tell me about some of your experiences working in the city of Chicago. What have you found out about your biggest co-star in Chicago Fire, the city itself?

We have really wonderful firefighters who work with us and have stayed with us, and they love the show. They love how we represent them. They love the people who come to Chicago. I was just down at the real Firehouse 18 on South Blue Island, and some days it’s people from Iowa, Chicago, England, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, Israel, Brazil — it’s like the beautiful UN some days. You go across the street and I always ask, “Where are you from?” Because you never know who you’re going to meet.

I couldn’t ask for a better city to shoot in. Chicago is real. It has its beautiful parts, it has its rich parts, it has its rough parts. We shoot on the West Side, South Side, North Side, Skokie, Berwyn and Blue Island. And we’ve been able to get down into all the neighborhoods and spend time with people there. I’ve had the opportunity to run the city with the real fire department on real calls, and stand back in uniform so I blend in. I’ve loved to see the first responders engage the people of need in this city and in all the neighborhoods. It can be hard, it can be beautiful and it can be sympathetic. And it’s what I hope our show incorporates and encapsulates, and it’s why I love working on it. I could not ask for a better show. We get together with our crew and, I swear, almost every other day an actor will go, “I could not ask for a better job.”

I know that you grew up in New York, but you spent a little bit of time in Chicago originally, right?

I moved to Illinois when I was 5. I was born in Long Island, my father was from the Bronx, my mom was from upstate. And then we moved all around the suburbs here in Chicago. I never lived in the city. I started my career here in the city. I had a checkered past when I was 18 and then I didn’t fit into college. I went into the Marine Corps, and then when I got done with reserve active duty, I was on reserves and I went to Washburne Trade School on the South Side of Chicago. And then I got into a play here in Chicago in 1983, or maybe earlier. It was about 40 years ago. So, I kicked around and started my career here, and then I came back and I am here. I may slide into my retirement here in Chicago, too. (Laughs.)

So, when you’re not working, you are still hanging around in Chicago? You don’t go back to New York or to Hollywood?

No, I’m here! I got my wife, my two kids here. Everybody I know on all the One Chicago shows essentially lives here. I love the city. We kick it around in the streets of Chicago, you know, with shooting and living here, people are always surprised! I was over at Mariano’s [a local grocery store chain] today and a couple of people were like: “What!” They were asking, “What are you doing here?” And I was like, “I’ve lived five blocks from here for like 12 years.”

Generally speaking, the people here, when they do say hi, are so nice 99 percent of the time. And are so appropriately brief, just calling out to say, “I love the show,” and wanting a quick picture. It’s like 30 seconds of my time and it’s not overwhelming, that’s for sure. People are very respectful, but I love the people that we make happy.

You’ve been on this ride from the beginning. How do you view your legacy with Chicago Fire?

I have a nice rapport with everybody. I want to be around but, you know, it’s Chicago Fire. We’ve had a festivity of fantastic actors and wonderful people come through the show and they have brought amazing gifts. We’ve got some stuff going on right now, and we have some people coming back and poking their nose back into the show and it’s great to see them. And we think about our past colleagues, artists who have been with us. We talk about people all the time, and we miss them we keep in touch with them. So, it’s been a great show. But it’s a show that changes and it morphs, and it has to morph. I’m incredibly grateful for every day I’m there and I will be grateful up until whenever my last day is. And I will say a kind goodbye whenever that end comes. I will be beautifully grateful on the day.

New episodes of Chicago Fire air Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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