Eriq La Salle bids farewell to Chicago P.D.: 'I'm proud of the stories we got to tell'
Warning: This article contains spoilers for Wednesday's episode of Chicago P.D., "Protect and Serve."
"This is, unfortunately, my last episode, which has been bittersweet, but I won't be too far away. I'll continue to work with the Wolf camp and Universal to direct on Dick's new show," La Salle tells EW of his upcoming collaboration with the prolific producer Dick Wolf. "I think we're in good shape, and the show will continue just fine. The person I trained to replace me understands the importance of having balance for good objective storytelling. I'm proud of the stories we got to tell together."
Series lead LaRoyce Hawkins says he already feels La Salle's departure, as the two forged a special bond while working on the NBC series.
"I would jokingly call Eriq La Salle my real father," Hawkins says. "I always wanted to make him proud. He's taught me so much. From day one he told me he expected more from me than anyone else, and that's why when you see an Atwater episode directed by Eriq La Salle, it has a little extra bit of pepper on it, so to speak. I miss him already."
Their final collaboration was Wednesday's episode, "Protect and Serve," which sees Wheelan (Michael Rispoli), a white cop, unfairly shoot and kill Jeff Duncan (Shawn Tyrone Roundtree Jr.), a Black man. For La Salle, it was the perfect story to tell as his farewell.
"[Executive producer] Rick Eid and I have this philosophy about what works in our storytelling, which is that everybody is right," La Salle says. "That's how we tell our stories, from that point of view."
He continues: "So we're looking at this cop who's been doing that job for 30 years, the question is: Has he only done good or only done bad? Is he defined by 30 years, or are you defined by one second of an action? Was he suffering from PTSD? I'm not overly simplifying or romanticizing Wheelan. I'm simply saying these are the types of questions a good storyteller asks. I have my opinion on things as an African American man in this country, but when it's time for storytelling, I try to be as objective as possible."
In leaning into stories like this while the country is undergoing a reckoning over the treatment of people from underserved communities, specifically the Black community, by law enforcement, Hawkins feels the pressure to do so accurately.
"It was naturally a big responsibility for me considering where we are right now," the actor says. "When you give me an opportunity to tell a story like this that reflects humanity in such a visceral way, you have to take that seriously and you have to do it by committing to the truth. I don't think there's much room for error there as far as the level of authenticity because you really want to put respect on that situation."
Hawkins recognizes these moments can be stressful to shoot, because this isn't just another acting job for him. He's attuned to Atwater's feelings as both men carry the weight of their community on their shoulders.
"I do feel that, but I transfer it to Atwater," he says. "Both LaRoyce and Atwater have developed this really cool rhythm with each other. He's a Black man first, before he's an officer. Just like LaRoyce is a Black man before he's an artist. Whatever pressure Atwater feels as an officer is the same pressure I feel as a performer. I definitely relate to Atwater in a lot of ways, being the only brother in his unit and I'm the only brother in the cast. That comes with a unique set of pressures in this industry similar to Atwater's pressures being a Black cop."
With La Salle's departure, he leaves behind a legacy of timely and often controversial stories that push the importance of representation both in front of and behind the camera.
"The most important thing to me was starting these difficult conversations," says the former ER star, who is also in the midst of finishing the final novel in a trilogy. "Not everyone has to agree with the subjects we cover or how we do them — our goal is to spark discussion. When you have so much disparity in communities, like how the African American community is so underrepresented, it's important to tell stories that really matter to us. I'm proud to have been able to facilitate that with a level of authenticity and realness."
As representation in media has become the most important thing to La Salle, he's careful when picking which projects he'll take on. The veteran actor declined to revive his character Darryl Jenks in Coming 2 America, and he doesn't foresee having time to partake in a third installment should Eddie Murphy decide to expand the franchise further.
"I was so busy on the show, which was my priority," he says when asked why he turned down the Coming to America sequel. "I'm currently averaging four hours of sleep. After I would get home from shooting, I get into my writing, then wake up and write again even on weekends. There just wasn't enough hours in the day to make it happen, so I gratefully declined."
He adds of a possible third film, "I have a lot of great opportunities right now that I'm working on. I still consider myself an actor, but my passion is writing novels and directing and executive-producing. By being in a position to create and having a voice in the room helps to better shape the perception of those in underserved communities. It's important that we're in those rooms having those important discussions. It's been a pleasure being a voice in the room on Chicago P.D. All of that is more important to me than being in a movie right now as an actor."
Chicago P.D. airs Wednesdays on NBC.
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