The ten-person main cast of NBC’s most addictive drama Chicago Fire is, pound for pound, the most consistently likeable ensemble on network TV. Their stories may be melodramatic but their characters ring true, grounded in strong relationships and distinct voices. The best among them is Monica Raymund’s intense and aspirational Gabriela Dawson, a paramedic-turned-firefighter who remains the straight-backed core of the firehouse even as her life falls to absolute shambles.
Nominated not only for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama but also for Best Ensemble and Best TV Couple (with Jesse Spencer’s Matt Casey), Monica took some time out from filming on location in Chicago to answer our questions about the show, the fate of Matt & Gabby (aka Casey & Dawson) and what it’s like working somewhere where Lady Gaga could show up at any moment.
When did you know you wanted to be an actress?
I had always done theater and music throughout my whole childhood. I guess I didn’t realize I wanted to be a professional actress until I got into The Juilliard School. That was when I made the decision to pursue my dream.
Who are some of the performers who have always inspired you?
The obvious modern day performers are Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Daniel Day Lewis, Jeff Bridges, the list goes on. But I have always passionately admired physical theater actors like Bill Irwin, Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Lucille Ball. Their physical comedy and ability awes me.
You trained at Juilliard. Tell us about your experiences at that legendary school.
I won’t lie, it kicked my ass. That school is incredibly intense and well worth the cost of growth and self evaluation. It’s riddled with some of the best teachers in the world in every area of the performing arts, so the access to knowledge and resources is very much “legendary” as you so rightfully said. I grew up in that institution. I came in thinking I knew all the answers and I left realizing I know NOTHING. I was insanely humbled and still in the process of practicing my craft and self evaluation every day.
How did you make the transition into the industry?
To be honest, I was basically thrown into it. It had a lot to do with luck: I was at the right place at the right time. Right after I graduated, I was doing Jose Rivera’s play, Boleros for the Disenchanted, at The Huntington Theatre when I found out I had booked a series regular role on the FOX TV show, Lie to Me. I had to pack a couple suitcases, find a sublet, and move to LA pretty much right away. That was the beginning of this weird journey in Hollywood. I didn’t really have a choice of how to transition. I had never really been on camera, let alone a TV set so basically I stayed very quiet when not spoken to and on my down time, I asked a lot of questions. I ended up hanging with the camera crew, learned about lenses, shadowed directors and producers, and listened carefully to the conversations around me. Actually, I still do that. It’s so funny how curiosity breeds intention. Through the process of acting in hollywood, I’ve found a passion to produce and direct. We’ll see.
Most of your TV work has taken place outside of LA. Do you feel like that gives you a different perspective on the industry?
I lived in NYC for 4 years at Juilliard, LA for 3 years, and now I’ve been in Chicago for 3 years. I’m a gypsy and I love every minute of it. I think the industry itself is as bizarre on every set no matter the location, but the location certainly influences one’s experience. For example, filming in Chicago is one the greatest professional experience of my life because here in the Midwest, people are kind and hospitable and are incredibly supportive of the show. Unlike LA, Chicago isn’t teeming with producers, directors, writers, actors, and models. There’s an incredibly diverse beat on the street and I appreciate living in a town where the entertainment industry isn’t so ubiquitous.
One of the first roles you got was a small part on Law & Order: SVU. 7 years down the line, you’re the star of a show that shares a universe with SVU with the potential for more crossovers. If you tried, could you come up with a backstory to explain why Trini and Gabby look so alike?
Haha! I like this! Ok, what if Gabby was Trini’s older half sister who didn’t know Trini existed? Maybe Gabby’s father had an affair with Trini’s mother but decided to pay off her mom to keep Trini’s existence quiet and secretly sends child support to her. Gabby lives in Chicago, Trini in NYC. Until Trini decides to become a first responder based on her experience as a rape victim. She tries out for the NYPD, fails, and decides to join the Fire Department… little does she know her older half sister is paving the way in Chicago for women in the Fire Department everywhere.
Your big break came with a role on Lie to Me. How did your first major experience in network TV compare to the expectations you had from the outside looking in?
Well for starters, I had absolutely no intention of doing Film/TV. I thought I was going to play at all the major theaters in the world and become a Broadway baby! Shows how much I know, huh?
Lie To Me was really difficult because I was learning on the fly and was still finding my footing. I had no idea how to act in front of a camera so I was constantly adjusting to each note and trying to retain all the improvements and failures. When you’re on the outside looking in, you think it’s glamorous and high profile and luxurious. Newsflash: It’s not. Hollywood is HARD WORK. And anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. Sure there are a lot of perks, but you work up to 80 hours a week, struggle to hold on to your personal relationships, lose yourself in the machine and try to regain your place as an artist, all the while focusing on maintaining your integrity in the face of adversity while you do your laundry at 2 am on a Saturday and try to remember to call your Mom. I have a lot of respect for this business.
Then you took on a recurring arc as an ASA on The Good Wife. ASAs are often the good guys but Dana played the antagonist over and over again. Did you enjoy playing the bad guy for once or firmly believe in her side of the story?
I LOVE playing the bad guy – it’s juicy. I mostly enjoyed it because I got to work with Matt [Czuchry] and Archie [Panjabi] (who I still call sometimes when I visit NYC). What a wonderful group of writers and actors. One of the best sets in Hollywood.
On The Good Wife you began what would become a series of onscreen trysts with well-groomed blond men. How was your experience working with Matt Czuchry?
He’s a true gentleman and kind soul. Not only is he gracious and classy, he’s probably one of the best actors on the show to boot. I found him inspiring and we really got along well. We both work in a similar way in which we loved to rehearse and talk about the scenes and run lines over and over. He’s actually the perfect guy.
In 2012 you landed your current role as Gabby Dawson on Chicago Fire (which scored you your Best Supporting Actress MyTV Award Nomination). Tell us about the audition process and your experiences as the show was just beginning.
The audition process was pretty standard – I tested and then got the role. I was so excited to be on an action show and one where I knew I could stretch my drama chops.
As the show was just beginning, something miraculous happened: I met my other family. My fellow brothers and sisters on this show became my blood and we fell in love. We fell in love HARD and the chemistry permeated the screen I believe. I met some of the most wonderful humans in the world who I will stay friends with until I die.
Tell us about Gabby. How much do you have in common with the character?
Oh, Gabby and I have a lot in common. We’re both bull headed and stubborn, ambitious and strong willed. She goes for her dream and does what’s right, even at the risk of breaking the rules and I’m kind of the same way thanks to my strong and independent Mama.
You film in Chicago. How does filming on location affect the experience of making the show?
Have you watched those Nature shows about Alaska and seen the blizzards? The tundras glazed with ice and frosted with snow? It’s like that. Now, try adding a 50ft. techno crane, 100 people, an explosion effect and wearing nothing but running pants and a light jacket.
Sometimes, I have very bad days.
The worlds of Chicago Fire and Chicago PD are very closely entwined, with Gabby and her brother Antonio providing the key link. Does the community of Dick Wolf shows feel as connected as it seems or do you mostly spend time with the actors on your own show?
There is most definitely a cross-connection between the actors. Marina [Squerciati who plays Kim Burgess] and Sophia [Bush who plays Erin Lindsay] are my home girls which all three of us crave because we are surrounded by so much testosterone so we make an effort to grab dinner or see some theater a few times a month.
How much have you gotten to work with Jon Seda who plays your brother over on PD? Do you try and keep track of what’s happening story-wise with the other show so you know what would be on Gabby’s mind even if it’s not address in Fire? (I’m just saying, Antonio gets shot a lot).
Jon and I have worked a number of times together. He is such a wonderful actor and a gentleman to boot. I try to keep my finger on the pulse of major events over in ChicagoPD Land, but it’s impossible to keep up with all the shows given how much we work.
Tell us about working with Jesse Spencer as Casey. In the first season you had the hard task of establishing strong chemistry without playing characters actually in a relationship.
He’s my best friend on set and I love him dearly. He and I make each other laugh, we play music together, we go to each other on a bad day, we ask each other business advice. He really is my other half on this show. It’s pretty cool to have developed such a rich and deep friendship with the guy who plays the love of my life.
You two are nominated for Best TV Couple of 2014 though in the last couple weeks we’ve seen that unfortunately fall apart. Are you rooting for them to get back together or do you think Gabby should move on (to, say, Peter Mills)?
I’m rooting for Casey and Dawson…. I mean, come one. They’re meant to be!
Gabby started the series as a paramedic before deciding to follow her dream of being a firefighter, encountering a ton of sexism along the way. How aware are you when working on those scenes of the social impact the storyline could have, especially on young girls? Do you feel a sense of responsibility playing a strong female character on a mostly male-driven show?
I love this question. For the record, I am the one who pitched the story line to the producers of Gabby becoming a firefighter. In my real life, supporting women and encouraging young girls to speak up and find their voice is a very personal and important part of my mission on earth. I came up with the idea of making Gabby a firefighter because I wanted the responsibility and opportunity to represent women in the first responder’s community. These women get overlooked all the time and it’s such a life-threatening job that requires selflessness and empathy. They are such heroes that I undeniably felt the need to honor them in the only way I know how – to tell their story. This is how we see change and I’m extremely aware of the social impact the storyline could have on young girls. I want nothing more than young girls to follow their dreams and see that they can do anything.
Gabby’s friendship with her partner Leslie Shay was a centerpiece to the character throughout the first two seasons. *spoiler alert* With her death at the beginning of season three, how is Gabby coping?
Gabby is moving on, holding Shay in her heart. Obviously she misses her to no end, but she honors Shay by moving forward and trying to live a full life.
Now that Gabby’s living with new paramedic Sylvie Brett, will we see Brett starting to take Shay’s place? Do you think that female connection is important to Gabby with so much male energy around all the time?
No one will ever take Shay’s place. Brett and Gabby’s relationship is its own, unique friendship that will develop organically in due time. I do think that female connection is important to Gabby – sometimes, a gal just has to put on some make up and do girls night!
Her best friend died, she broke up with the love of her life (who is now moving on), she’s now having to work with the man who tortured her for wanting to be a firefighter, and a few weeks ago she was almost murdered by an arsonist, but Gabby never seems to lose her cool. Where do you think her breaking point is?
This is what is so amazing about the real firefighters: they have to deal with death, loss, adversity every day. So I imagine the breaking point as an unseen villain that can pop up at any time, during the best or worst of times. I don’t know where her breaking point is, but after all that loss and heart ache, she’s still standing.
The cast of Chicago Fire is nominated for Best Ensemble. What can you tell us about working with those actors? You’ve mentioned a few of them but who else have you grown particularly close to?
They’re my family. They are literally, my family and I’m so blessed to have met them.
I’m very close with Jesse, Taylor [Kinney who plays Kelly Severide] and Eamonn [Walker who plays Chief Boden], but to be honest, we’re ALL very close. They make me a better person, truly. I think it is so rare for a cast to love each other so fiercely, respectfully, and fully. I work on the best set in Hollywood.
How much do you get to hang out with [Taylor Kinney’s fiancé] Lady Gaga? Is she super normal? I have a suspicion she’s secretly really really normal.
She’s really a loyal and wonderful friend. I consider her a friend now and my friends are the people who inspire me most. I think it’s awesome to see such a strong woman taking the world by the horns and being unapologetic about her art and specific in her mission. I like surrounding myself with strong women who inspire me. Remember, she and I grew up in the theater, we were the weird kids. So we speak the same language. Normal? HA. We are freaks of the heart and swords of the word. So I guess my answer is: define “normal?”
How has being on a really popular show affected your life? Are you recognized regularly now? Has it opened many doors?
I get recognized pretty regularly which is humbling and kind of strange because I don’t like attention. The only doors it has opened is a lesser wait time for a table at a good restaurant. I still have to work my ass off for all my jobs. Those don’t come free.
What’s the schedule like?
80 hours a week.
Do you have a favourite moment or episode?
When Shay and I make up on the bridge.
What’s your dream project you’d love to work on or someone you’d love to work with someday?
I would love to work with Pedro Almodovar. I would give my right arm to play Katherine in Taming of the Shrew at The Public.
Can you tease what’s coming up for Gabby this season?
Actually, I can’t because you’re all caught up and I’m only like an episode ahead!!
Right now we are filming an episode where there will be a terrorist attempt and we’re left not knowing if the house is going to make it out alive.