Chicago PD’s Christine Swanson on directing Atwater’s big episode

CHICAGO P.D. -- "Black & Blue" Episode 608 -- Pictured: LaRoyce Hawkins as Officer Kevin Atwater -- (Photo by: Matt Dinerstein/NBC)
CHICAGO P.D. -- "Black & Blue" Episode 608 -- Pictured: LaRoyce Hawkins as Officer Kevin Atwater -- (Photo by: Matt Dinerstein/NBC) /

Chicago PD director Christine Swanson helmed this season’s Kevin Atwater episode and spoke about working behind the camera on Chicago PD season 6.

Fans of Chicago PD were thrilled when Kevin Atwater was featured in the episode “Black and Blue” but there’s an equally interesting story about how the episode was made.

Christine Swanson was the director for that Chicago PD episode, and she made her TV directorial debut on the show. So what was it like for her to direct LaRoyce Hawkins? How did she help get a key guest star cast?

Meet Christine Swanson and learn more from behind the scenes of her Chicago PD episode in our special interview.

One Chicago Center: You didn’t originally intend on being a director. What made you decide to begin directing?

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Christine Swanson: At the University of Notre Dame I was a finance and Japanese major. When I was a freshman, Spike Lee came to my campus to talk about Do the Right Thing. And in the moment he was talking, I had an epiphany, because I did not know that people made movies for a living and got paid for it.

I decided because of Spike Lee, I want to do what he’s doing. I changed my major that weekend and I became a film major. [Then] I decided to go to New York University film school, and I did for graduate film work, and Spike Lee ended up being my directing teacher.

OCC: What was your reaction when the NBC Female Forward program led you to directing Chicago PD?

Christine Swanson: I was like this is the show I’d least likely be directing on. (laughs) I thought I should be on more of a dramatically driven show like Chicago Med, because that was my wheelhouse—drama with tension regarding love and work. [Chicago PD was] going to be different for me because there’s a lot of stunts and gunfire and things I’d never really worked with.

But now that I’m on the other side of it, I know it was the best show for me, because I kind of stretched and grew in areas that I needed to grow in. I got to be mentored by the great Eriq La Salle, who’s the producer-director of that show; he took me under his wing and showed me the ropes in a very specific way.

He understood where I came from as a filmmaker, and he was like I’m going to teach you what you need to know to be a successful episodic director. To [learn] under him and be on Chicago PD was a very opportunistic situation for me.

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OCC: “Black and Blue” is a notable Chicago PD episode because it centers on Atwater. What was it like to focus on a character who hasn’t gotten as much attention?

Christine Swanson: I was giddy. I could not believe that I got the script that I got, because it ended up being a love story about two black people. My whole experience [as a film director] is I do rom-coms. I do dramas about black people. I thought all the stars were aligned for me when I got that episode, because I can knock this out of the park potentially because this is what I already know.

But the cool thing is I got to work with LaRoyce, who really was just ready. He was ready to shine. He’s been on this show for six seasons and I don’t think there was any storyline that specifically focused on him in this way. He was so excited about it [and] it’s a director’s dream to have an actor who’s as excited about the material as you are.

That’s what LaRoyce brought to the table. The work that he put in probably went above and beyond that he would have normally done for any other episode, so I think we kind of met each other [when] we were both ready to do something extraordinary and what you see in his work is extraordinary. I got the greatest compliment [from] Jason Beghe, who congratulated for me for getting the best out of LaRoyce that he’s ever seen.

OCC: Let’s talk about Milauna Jemai Jackson. She was outstanding as Laila, and you were the one who came up with the idea to cast her on Chicago PD.

Christine Swanson: Milauna did season 3 of How to Get Away with Murder and she went toe to toe with Viola Davis. I pitched her to Eriq La Salle; I was like I think she’s the one. She’s originally from Chicago, so she has that natural Chicago flair and background, and she’s a beautiful girl. And Eriq being the awesome producer-director he is, he’s like if that’s your choice I’m going to support it.

When we brought her on set and LaRoyce met her for the first time, I kid you not, it was like Billy Dee Williams and Diana Ross. It was like Lorenz Tate and Nia Long. It was like Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. It’s the director’s dream to have that level of fireworks and chemistry naturally between two actors who’ve just met. When you see that you have to bank it and make sure it shows up on screen, and it showed up big time on screen, which made the episode unlike anything you’ve ever seen on Chicago PD.

OCC: Let’s talk about the ending of the episode, because it’s so difficult. What stands out about the way Atwater and Laila’s story ends to you?

Christine Swanson: The episode plays out pretty tragically on some levels, and the emotions that are shared between them are just unspoken. This look between them is heart wrenching. This is where I just congratulate LaRoyce and Milauna for always being present and always connecting and being unafraid of showing high levels of emotion every time I needed it and doing it over and over again. I think you feel that in that scene particularly. This is the kind of emotion when you have very present actors who are unafraid. They gave me everything and I think it shows up.

One of the directors from the Dick Wolf [company] told me this was one of the best episodes of the series. I don’t take that lightly and I don’t take all the credit for it because if those guys hadn’t shown up in a way that they did, my job is limited.

OCC: Would you like to do another Chicago PD episode? What did you walk away from this experience with?

Christine Swanson: I walked away from my experience totally smitten by the Dick Wolf camp. I could not ask for a better crew. I kept looking at them and saying if I took you guys with me on every project I have, I would be a rock star. That’s how awesome they are. From other women I spoke with, every Dick Wolf show is like that.

So my pitch is, I’m available for the whole Dick Wolf camp wherever they see fit. I would love to come back to PD because I feel like they’re family now, so that’s a given. But I also understand that that love is everywhere else, [so] just put me wherever you want me and let me do what I do and let me continue to be part of this family.

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