Monica Barbaro is used to having eyes on her. Growing up just outside San Francisco, she performed onstage in productions of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Nutcracker”; she’s classically trained in ballet and has a dance degree from NYU. But when she made the transition to TV after college, she realized she didn’t like those eyes to be her own.
“I’m really bad at watching myself [on TV],” says the actress, 26, who stars as Assistant State’s Attorney Anna Valdez opposite Philip Winchester in the fourth series in the Dick Wolf franchise, “Chicago Justice,” which premiered March 1 to nearly 9 million viewers. “I get sweaty; I cringe at every expression I make.”
When she landed her first big on-screen role — as season 2 regular Yael on Lifetime’s dark comedy “UnREAL” last year — she couldn’t even watch. “I know it’s best to look at it as a learning experience,” she says. “I’m gonna try to do that with ‘Chicago Justice.’ ”
Luckily, her new TV family is teaching her a thing or two. “Philip Winchester and I actually just had a conversation about [watching ourselves on TV],” Barbaro says. “He said, ‘Eh, you’ll get over it.’ ” The rock-solid “Chicago” franchise casts — stars like Taylor Kinney, David Eigenberg and Sophia Bush — have welcomed the newcomers of “Justice” with open arms. In fact, the casts intermingle in real life as much as they do on the show (see below), as many of them are transplants from New York or LA, living a temporary life in Chicago six months out of the year. “Our first weekend here, [co-star] Jon Seda invited us all over, along with all the actors from the other [shows],” Barbaro says. “And the women have a book club, so the actresses and some of the wives and girlfriends of the actors discuss books and, inevitably, politics and personal stories.”
At the end of last month, after filming the inaugural season’s 13 episodes — each with a plot ripped straight from the headlines, such as a case dealing with police brutality — Barbaro decamped for LA once again. There she’ll wait to hear if the show gets picked up for a second season (and we’d say it has a higher chance than most, with the juggernaut Wolf behind it) and, in the meantime, pick up guest roles and work toward her ultimate goals: learning to direct and, yes, returning to the — relatively low-key — stage.
Watch “Chicago Justice” Sundays at 8 p.m. on NBC, and check out our viewer’s guide below.
THE SETTING: “Chicago Justice,” like its trio of sister shows, is a true Chicago experience. Not only does it film entirely in the city — whereas many shows that take place here film partially in LA — but the locations characters visit and refer to are real as well. In the dual premiere episodes (which aired March 1 and March 5), scenes take place at the Harold Washington Library Brown Line station and Harry’s Sandwich Shop (336 S. Dearborn), plus at fictional bar Molly’s, which is a set replicated after Lottie’s Pub (1925 W. Cortland), where “Chicago Fire” scenes were originally fimed. There are mentions of the Bulls and the United Center, and we learn that Peter Stone was drafted by the Cubs.
BE AN EXTRA! Chicagoans fill out every scene, too. The shows have Facebook casting pages, where producers put out alerts for the type of people they’re looking for to be extras in a scene. Though “Justice” just wrapped filming, look for updates at Facebook.com/chicagofireextras and Facebook.com/chicagomedextras. Plus, check out the ultimate fan site at Nbc.com/onechicago
< ON THE COVER (and above)
Photographer: Martina Tolot
Stylist: Monty Jackson
Makeup: Carola Gonzalez
Hair: Derek Yuen