"Chicago Fire" actor Charlie Barnett at Hugo's Frog Bar (©Leigh Loftus, www.thinkleigh.com)
He has nearly 77,000 likes on FB and an even fiercer fan following as Peter Mills on NBC’s hit show “Chicago Fire.” On TV, he’s the gentle one. The firehouse cook. The one you’d take home to Mom. In real life, he’s practically the same. So is his passion for Chicago, his adopted home since taking on this hot role in 2012. Even the cold temps don’t get this Sarasota, Fla., boy down: “I like the change of seasons and I know it gets pretty bitter, but…it’s a little shock value, kind of changes up your attitude.” From a corner table at Hugo’s Frog Bar, we chatted more about Charlie’s take on Chicago.
You had friends in Chicago before you moved here.
Yeah, I had a lot of friends from Florida actually.
They came here for acting as well?
Some of them did, some of them didn’t. A lot of them are comedians, so they came for the improv and standup groups. I have another friend who came for music, another who came for drama and switched and went into writing. I have a couple in the show in background stuff.
Did they show you around?
They did. I connected with them early on. When we first came for the pilot, they put us all up in the Sofitel, which was great. Then that month, we left, went back to LA, came back and had five days to find an apartment, and I had no money. I came from college. I had no money to buy anything and I already had a place in New York I was trying to sell. So I went to stay at their houses; I just switched back and forth. I got to experience the real Chicago.
And where did you end up?
Joe (Minoso, aka Joe Cruz) and Yuri (Sardarov, aka Otis) and I lived together on Wabash and Madison for the first year, which was a great place, but you know, a high rise. I wanted a house and a yard. I think that’s the beauty of living in this city specifically as opposed to New York or even LA. You get the city feel, it’s urbanized, but it’s still homey and comfortable. I really want that. So Joe and I moved together to [Logan Square].
So, right near Margie’s Candies?
Yeah, I still haven’t gone there. I like the little streets and there are so many great Mexican places. Have you been to 90 Miles? It’s awesome.
What is your background?
I was raised by a former Mormon Swedish woman and my dad is from Minnesota, so they’re both Midwesterners too. I’ve gone back and forth [to Minnesota] since I lived in Florida. Because my dad was a boat builder and a really big one at the time we were growing up, we lived on a boat in Florida until I was about 7. My sister was an incredible sailor and beat me every time. We were a year apart and the same height. So I just started getting so fed up with her beating me all the time that one day I got caught on a buoy out in the water, hopped out of my boat, swam to shore and I decided I was never doing it again. And I started acting, doing drama. My mom is just big on ‘you have to have something to do.’ She was in school and my dad was working all the time—and she said you need an activity after school and something where you can explore other people. And theater is huge in my hometown.
Now with the “Chicago PD” people, you’re the pro showing them around.
They work more than we do in the first season, so they’re always working and they drink hard—they are partiers—I guess we kind of burned out. They’re always raring to go. They’re great, though. So much fun.
Where do you like to take visitors?
Navy Pier is always fun [for my parents]. For my friends, it’s bars, restaurants, um, what’s that reggae place? I really love it—Kingston Mines. ... I’ve taken the architectural boat tour like five times now; I really like it because it always changes.
Any interests you’re trying to indulge here?
A lot of theater. I still haven’t gone to Steppenwolf, though. I’ve seen a lot of independent stuff like at Studio 773. And the one right next to it [Theater Wit], and all my standup friends do a lot of stuff at StudioBe.
Are there places you’re hoping to explore more?
I really love Andersonville. I have a lot of friends up there. I was thinking of moving to that area, but it’s so far away [from the set]. I still like Wicker Park; it has this whole frat boy side, but this beautiful artistic side that I’m just starting to hear about, so I want to explore that. … I just started driving here, which is a huge bonus, because now I’m learning where to go and what the streets are. There are so many little side streets that are so cool.
Have you discovered any go-to restaurants?
My dad loves the Publican. My mom loves Girl and the Goat, I love Girl and the Goat. Purple Pig is one of my favorites; it’s always a little loud, but that place is like a two-hour wait and crowded. Café Ba-Ba-Reeba. Bongo Room—I went with Monica [Raymund; a.k.a. Gabriela Dawson] a couple of times. And Fat Rice [where] the line is like two hours long by 6 or 7 o’clock.
Are you following any Chicago sports?
I was a [White] Sox fan prior to this because they used to train in my hometown, so those were the first games I got to go to, off-season. And I’m a Bears fan. The Blackhawks—just starting to get into. Still not into the Cubs—it’s hard to do both. I still haven’t been to Sox stadium, although I’ve been to a Cubs game. … We went as a group and popped into the firehouse across the street.
Do you have any “this is my home, this is my routine” stuff?
I feel like it’s so boring. We work almost every other day. I work out. I’ve started turning to inside activities... I like the change of seasons and I know it gets pretty bitter, but I’m ready for it. It’s a little shock value, kind of changes up your attitude. We got here last time a little before it was going to get cold. We lived through the heat, though, before it got really cold. If anyone’s going to move to Chicago, move here in the summer, because you know why people are here. I’ve had friends come in the winter and wonder, ‘Why are you doing this?’ You gotta enjoy it. …It’s so funny, we’re starting to get noticed in places, so I’ve been jumping around to different grocery stores and different Walgreens. It’s fun. I get to explore more. I don’t have a routine. I’m still kind of putting my claws in.
Do you remember your first night here?
It was at the Sofitel. It was the first day I checked in and really nervous. I was at this really fancy hotel and I ordered room service and found out I had to pay so I freaked out. No, it was really nice because I got to walk around the Gold Coast alone and it’s really quiet at night, the interesting stuff—more real. I walked around for a long time and called my mom and dad. We hadn’t met anyone yet at that time, because I was here two days before anyone was even cast. We started training that week—we had different people cast in different roles, so we were just trying everything out. [The producers] were smart about it; they brought us here and were sort of like, this is your family, this is your group, go about it—we had only each other to connect to. We’re all from out of town except Yuri who was from Northbrook and Joe had been here, but lived in LA now, and David hadn’t been here for 20 years. So it was cool. We all hooked on.
Was there a moment that really made you feel at home in Chicago?
I don’t know when the specific moment was, but, yeah, there was. … We have a huge benefit of being on the show and being a paid actor now. It’s hard to judge New York against what I have here because the experiences are so different. If I had this [job] while I was in New York, then that would have been awesome—a little crazier, though. I love Chicago because it has that balance. It has security and comfort and hominess and this fun, exciting city life. You can kind of branch between the two of them. In New York, or any other city, it’s kind of hard. Chicago has this beautiful blend of kind of accepting each of its individual people and letting them be individuals and not morphing it all into one. I really appreciate it.
You want to keep some anonymity too.
Chicago is great for that. It’s not over-consumed by the business. I hope it doesn’t head in that direction because there are a lot of productions coming here, but it seems that Chicago has a lot of roots in its own individual achievements and I always find it so cool—they built this city and kind of had the opportunity to rebuild it, and I feel like that it almost still maintains itself today. Chicago [messes] up a lot and it’s always kind of like, there’s something redeeming about it—moving, changing, affecting and a community involvement that’s not necessarily more or less, but a commitment to community involvement here that in New York I didn’t really have, in LA I definitely didn’t have in Florida.
My Perfect Day
If it’s a “Fire” day, 5 am
Drive to Cinespace (the studio) or straight to location on the streets of Chicago for some exciting, new mission. Hopefully we don't upset the neighbors!
But in a perfect day....
Grab an iced chi at The Coffee Studio, best in the city, and go on a run through historic Andersonville.
On the run back, get lost at Architectural Artifacts searching for something crazy or amazing, but always surprising.
Grab an incredible Panini and some authentic Italian groceries at Piatto Pronto on Olive Avenue and Clark Street. Then head to the lake with some friends for a picnic (maybe not in February, but we’re talking ideal!)
Head over to the Museum of Science and Industry to check out the newest exhibits.
Get dinner at the Monkey’s Paw with the family and friends of “Chicago Fire.” Great Whiskey and Scotch collection, amazing food and family-run. Feels like home!
To end the night with a Chicago staple... A good laugh. Over to Studio B, iO Chicago’s Cabaret Theater, Stage 773, or any of the city's many incredible theater venues for some standup, a show, improv or gorilla-style open mic! TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi at the Cabaret Theater on Wednesday nights are incredible!!!! Steven Colbert even says so! Soooo...