From UCSD to Chicago Fire

By Anders Wright

Getting up for work is never easy, but some have it harder than others. Recently, UC San Diego alumna Teri Reeves had to set her alarm for 4:15 a.m. She arrived at her workplace 45 minutes later, and had to sit and wait for at least another 90 minutes before she could get started. Then, over the course of her day, she had huge emotional highs and lows—from almost breaking up with her boyfriend, to actually having her life threatened at the Chicago hospital where she treats patients in the E.R.

  Sure, that sounds tough. The good news, though, is that Reeves isn’t actually a doctor, and none of what happened that day is actually real. Reeves received her M.F.A. in acting from UCSD in 2006, and is currently in the Windy City shooting Chicago Fire, the new show from Dick Wolf, the man behind the Law & Order franchise. The show centers around a group of firefighters, paramedics and rescue-squad members, and Reeves says her character, Doctor Hallie Thomas, fits right in. “Hallie is a doctor, a resident in the E.R.,” says Reeves. “More importantly, she’s the romantic interest for Lieutenant Matthew Casey. We have a tumultuous relationship. We’re together, we’re not together.”
Casey is played by series star Jesse Spencer, the Australian actor best known for his long-standing role on the show House.

How does one get from La Jolla to Chicago Fire? According to Reeves, who has been living and working in Los Angeles since receiving her M.F.A., the process was pretty unusual. “They sent me the script, and I read it at 10 p.m. I had the audition the next morning at 10 a.m.,” she says “So, I thought, ‘I’m never going to get this, but I’m just going to have fun.’ I went into the room and they put me on tape.” Normally, the producers of a show with a budget of this size do lengthy callback sessions, whittling down the number of actors until they find the one they think is perfect. But in this case, Reeves got a call a week later offering her the role. “They just said I had the part,” she says. “In my experience, that’s unheard of.”

Perhaps it is, but spend some time talking to Reeves’ classmates and prof essors at UCSD, and you’ll discover that even if she’s surprised, most of them are not. “I remember Teri’s audition for UCSD,” says Professor Kyle Donnelly, who heads the acting area in UCSD’s Department of Theatre and Dance. “Considering we see 400 people a year and I’ve been doing this for almost 10 years, that’s something.” Donnelly remembers Reeves keeping a low profile during her time at UCSD, but there were two performances that convinced her Reeves had range. “She was the bride in Blood Wedding, a young tortured ingénue, and then she played the King in Bulgakov’s The Cabal of Hypocrites, a cross-dressing role, and she was very convincing.”

Reeves says that her time studying at the University had a huge impact on her as both an actor and as a person. “When I got there, I was very technical,” she says. “I was a very good faker. When I left, I had been stripped of all my tricks and was more grounded in truth-telling. They have this magical combination of people from different worlds who come after you from all angles. You just shatter all the junk and the tricks and the fakery.”

Professor Jim Winker, who taught acting and Shakespeare at UCSD before retiring last year, says that she had a knack for the classics. “She always had a gift for it,” he says. “A lot of them don’t come in with the gift. A lot of them don’t come in with a sense for text, and she just knew what that was about. She was never difficult or flashy or edgy or any of that stuff. She was always there, did her work and was damn good.”

After graduation, Reeves moved to Los Angeles with her husband, Jon, where they acquired a dog named Willow (currently in Chicago with her). Soon after her move, she began booking guest spots on TV shows like Medium, Three Rivers, and, yes, Days of Our Lives. She continued working on stage, as well, becoming an integral part of Chalk Repertory Theatre, which was founded by several UCSD alumnae, including Jennifer Chang, M.F.A. ’06, Ruth McKee, M.F.A. ’06, Amy Ellenberger, M.F.A. ’07, Larissa Kokernot, M.F.A. ’05, and Hilary Ward, M.F.A. ’07. Reeves played Natasha in the theatre’s inaugural production of Chekov’s Three Sisters, a character usually written off as the play’s antagonist. But by all accounts, Reeves brought something very different to the role. Kokernot, who directed the show, says that her approach was unique. “Our goal was to not have the audience write her off so easily,” she says. “It was about really rounding out Natasha as a character. Teri had a very mature approach to the work, and the choices she made and the way she constructed it felt like a maturation as an actor.”

Reeves was having some success in L.A. when she booked Battleground, a new series that was shot exclusively for Hulu, the on-demand streaming service for TV shows and movies. A dramedy centered around staffers trying to elect a Senate candidate in Wisconsin, Battleground was a high-profile endeavor and the first of its kind for Hulu.

On the set of Chicago Fire, Reeves has her own trailer, but she says she rarely spends time there, because the cast gets along so well that she’d rather just be around the action. “There’s a camaraderie in the show’s story that was actually there from day one,” she says. “They’re all just awesome people. I go to set on my days off. We even hang out together on the weekends. It’s like being away at camp together.”

Reeves brings that sense of commitment and joy to the role of E.R. doc Hallie Thomas. Michael Brandt, one of the series’ co-creators, says it was an easy choice to cast her. “Teri Reeves won us over the minute she came into the room and read for Hallie,” he says. “She’s worked very hard at her craft, because what she does starts on the inside. She doesn’t rely on her looks or her physicality, but finds the heart of a character and the situation and lives it.”

Chicago Fire was recently picked up by NBC for the full 2012-13 season. Time will tell whether the series has the longevity of Dick Wolf’s other shows but either way, Reeves says she’s thrilled to be playing this character. “She’s a strong, smart woman,” she says. “On paper, you aren’t supposed to like her. She was well taken care of and comes from money. But you meet her and she’s down to earth and open and will stick up for you and fight for you. You know, the kind of woman I want to be.”

Anders Wright is a frequent contributor to Triton Magazine.