A former Marine and a family man with a 4-year-old son and a devoted wife, David Eigenberg closely resembles Steve Brady, the beloved, amiable bartender he played for 12 years on HBO’s “Sex and the City” and in the franchise’s subsequent films. In fact, the producers took such a liking to Eigenberg that they wrote the character of Steve with him in mind.
But even with that series’ success and the celebrity it imparted on him, Eigenberg has held on to the humility he acquired growing up outside Chicago. “I just lucked out and landed in the right place at the right time,” he says of his star turn on the show.
That down-to-earth sensibility is part of what makes Eigenberg, 48, so compelling as a character actor. It’s certainly apparent in his latest role on “Chicago Fire,” the NBC drama that premiered in the fall and follows a squad of local firefighters and paramedics. Eigenberg plays Christopher Herrmann, a veteran firefighter and self-effacing father and husband who’s evicted from his home in the very first episode. “When I first read the script, I was like, ‘Wow. This guy is right up my alley,’ ” he says.
Like Herrmann, Eigenberg has had his share of character-building experiences. Though he was born in Long Island, Eigenberg spent his youth bouncing around a series of Chicago suburbs, finally landing in Naperville, where he was, as he puts it, a “juvenile delinquent.” “I got mixed up in teenage drinking, getting into trouble, carousing,” he admits. “I ripped out my parents’ hearts a few times.”
He spent his late teens on a Marine base, where he says he finally learned to be selfless. “It’s not about you. It’s about the unit, the mission, and you stick to it no matter what,” he explains. After being honorably discharged, Eigenberg returned to Naperville to become a carpenter, attending the now-defunct Washburne Trade School. A teacher’s strike in ’83 led him to audition for a local musical called “One Shining Moment” — when he landed a role in the chorus, alongside stars Megan Mullally and Alan Ruck, “I felt like I was really part of something,” he says. Bit by the acting bug, he picked up and moved to New York to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
After graduating, Eigenberg took roles off-Broadway and guest-starred on shows like “The Practice” and “The King of Queens.” He auditioned for “Sex and the City” during the show’s first season, coming back nearly nine times before the producers finally saw something in him. “I never lost heart, and because of that, they got to know me,” he says. “But I didn’t know if I’d be in one episode or what.”
You probably know the rest — Eigenberg spent the next 12 years playing partner to Cynthia Nixon’s Miranda Hobbes and watching his “talented, classy cast step into the zeitgeist.” The series hit a serious nerve, winning seven Emmys and eight Golden Globes, landing on Time’s Best TV Shows of All Time and spawning two feature films that grossed nearly $300 million each worldwide. “That show really grabbed onto something,” he says. “It made people happy, made people think about love and life.” But for the group, fame didn’t come without its challenges. “It was a real lesson in watching people navigate success. It was not easy.”
Nearly three years after “Sex and the City 2,” Eigenberg says he still keeps in touch with Mario Cantone (who played Anthony Marantino), Willie Garson (Stanford Blatch) and, of course, Nixon. “We send each other Christmas cards,” he says, smiling.
As for “Sex and the City 3?” “People assume actors are in the loop — I heard about the first movie through the Internet,” laughs Eigenberg. “I don’t think there’s anything in the works, but I’ve been wrong before.” He says he’d jump at the chance to work with the cast again and would have little trouble getting back into character. “[Steve] really revolved off of Cynthia’s Miranda. You put her face in front of me, and I know where I am. I love those girls and I loved that show.”
Eigenberg’s equally as excited about his current role. “It’s been a dream,” he says of working with “Law and Order” producer Dick Wolf and fellow actors like Taylor Kinney, Jesse Spencer and Monica Raymund. What he admires most about “Chicago Fire” is its commitment to accuracy — Chicago firefighters are on-set daily, supervising filming, advising the producers and actors on the believability of each scene and often acting as extras. “It keeps us true to the hearts of these men and women,” Eigenberg says.
The CFD has even gone so far as to take the actors on ride-alongs throughout Chicago. “I’ve seen all kinds of stuff — guys in extreme conflict,” says Eigenberg. “And you don’t always know what your role is. I’ve been standing there, and had a firefighter yell at me, ‘Grab the door!’ ”
When he’s called on to help out, Eigenberg’s background as a Marine comes in handy. It’s also helped him get into character — and in with the firefighters. “I’ve gotten a little street cred with them out of that history,” he says. “Being in the armed services and in the fire department, you’re willing to make a sacrifice for your fellow human beings. So the firefighters say to me, ‘You know this stuff.’ And they do too. They know it deep.”
Ask Eigenberg what else he knows, and he immediately brings up his family. “I’m lucky. I got a good wife, a good kid,” he says. Eigenberg met his wife, Chrysti, 11 years ago while he was doing a meet-and-greet at the Army base where she served at the time. “I saw this woman with her little black beret, and she was just amazing,” he says.
“Sex and the City” was at the height of its popularity, but ironically, stardom didn’t help Eigenberg when he finally met the right girl. Chrysti, who’d never seen the show, was unimpressed by Eigenberg’s celebrity and refused to speak to him for weeks. But once he enlisted the help of a mutual friend to convince her to spend a day with him in New York, “we clicked,” he says. Three whirlwind months later, Eigenberg proposed. “There was just something about her,” he says. “Something you can’t even really articulate. She’s a good person and has got such a great heart.”
Eigenberg, Chrysti and their son Louie have spent the past year holed up in a condo in Bucktown, ordering take-out and maximizing family time. “I turn off my phone on the weekends,” says Eigenberg. “When you’re in the entertainment industry, people are always asking you, ‘Do you wanna go hang out, play golf?’ ” he says. “I’m like, ‘No. I wanna be with my family.’ To me, that’s the best part of living.”
It’s clear that despite his success, Eigenberg hasn’t lost his sense of perspective. “Fame is so fickle. You get it, and you worry about losing it,” he says. “If you become fear-based, you turn into this ugly beast. And you don’t wanna do that. You wanna stay stitched into who you really are.”
David and the City
Eigenberg says he’s grateful to be back on TV, working with a cast that “doesn’t have any jerks.” “We’re really caught up on each other,” he says. “We goof around a lot.” And despite what he refers to as “brutal” weather, he’s also thrilled to be back in Chicago, close to the city he grew up in and where his mother still resides. “Chicago is an incredibly deep and rich city,” he says. “You can see it on people. They’re really striving. There’s a spark in their soul.”
When they’re not working 12-hour days, riding along with Chicago’s firefighters and shooting in ankle-deep snow, the tight-knit cast of “Chicago Fire” can be found:
At suburban dive bars: “We went up to Evanston to see this really cool jazz band. We got tickets late and didn’t have any seats, and I apologized, but everyone was really cool about it. We don’t have anybody pullin’ anything on our show.”
Digging into Thai food: “I love Silom 12 (1846 N. Milwaukee). I order this curry dish and I savor it for two days. It’s one of my favorite meals I’ve had in a long time.”
In each other’s homes: “We get together once in a while for dinner. Sometimes my wife and I will make food and have the cast over on a Sunday night.”
Story by Rachel Handler | Photos by Maria Ponce
Venue: Bub City (435 N. Clark) Hair: Juan Jose Herrera for Mario Tricoci Stylist: Eric Himel Shoot Coordinator: Katerina Bizios