It might surprise you to know that Annie Ilonzeh, the newest star addition to NBC’s “Chicago Fire,” will always think of herself as a jock first. Years after following her dreams to play college basketball at the University of Texas, the Dallas native is now living her other dream in Chicago working for producer Dick Wolf and filming Season 7 of “Fire.”
Playing the role of paramedic Emily Foster in the addictive drama, Ilonzeh is quick to identify her own virtues in the character she’s portraying: fiercely protective with the ride-or-die mentality that exists only among family, or at the local firehouse.
In our chat with Ilonzeh, she considers the perseverance that carried her to stardom while looking ahead to her future on the series.
What about the role of Emily made you want to move to Chicago? Dick Wolf is a legend in my mind [whom] I’ve always wanted to work with. He’s figured out television and he’s figured out procedural dramas and how to bring characters to life and bring women [to] the forefront of those shows. It was a no-brainer. If you can actually live out your truth, one through a character, but just also in life, then you’re winning. It was the perfect part for me.
Fans of “Chicago Fire” have proven to be resilient to heartbreak, especially when it comes to Kelly Severide, played by Taylor Kinney. What can they expect to experience with Emily Foster? Although she’s new to the family and the firehouse, what’s interesting is the fact that she’s also experienced a lot of the trials, tribulations and heartbreak they have. You’ll start to see that unfold because of the death of Severide’s father. That sparks her unraveling and reveals her personal journey.
How do you prepare to portray a vulnerable character, especially coming into a cast that is tight knit? I come from a family of five girls, and I’m the oldest. My dad instilled this in me: You protect your sisters, you protect your family, you are the oldest, so you have a future responsibility and a duty no matter what. It doesn’t matter what you’re going through, it doesn’t matter how you feel. That never changes and that never stops. That’s a constant in your life. I’ve taken that and I’ve applied it to the characters that I play … that we’re saving lives [and] I’m saving them. I’ve talked to paramedics and their stories, and their experiences are incredible. I’ve done training with the show, too, but it’s about relationships first.
After receiving a full scholarship for basketball, you decided to pursue acting. Was it hard to make that leap? I went from being a jock and athlete, [where] you see the world as a win or loss. Or you gotta go to practice in order to play properly, otherwise if you don’t practice, you’re not playing well. My mindset is grounded [in] that school of thought. Then to come to this creative world … it’s not always so tangible. It’s so hard for me in a way to grasp that creative side. I look at it like, “OK, we’re dribbling and I’m going to practice and I’m just trying to learn a new form.” Once I started using that theory, it really helped. I’m going to stay in the gym and be the last person standing, like you continue to keep creating this character until you literally can’t anymore. Then you go back to the gym and do it all over again.
Are people surprised to hear you’re not just an athlete, but a really good athlete? Yeah, they are — which is weird to me because in my mind, I would think that they would be surprised to hear that I’m an actor. That’s more what I feel like defines me than this, but I guess I’m pulling it off.
“Chicago Fire” airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on NBC.
Photo by Chris Blackwell