'Chicago P.D.' Star Discusses Series Changes and Embracing the "Gray Area" in Season 5

LaRoyce Hawkins also talks to THR about the "consequences" ahead for Atwater and his family after Wednesday's "powerful" episode.
Courtesy of NBC

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Wednesday's episode of Chicago P.D., "Snitch."]

The case at the center of Wednesday's Chicago P.D. hit close to home — literally — for Det. Kevin Atwater (LaRoyce Hawkins).

Atwater's little brother Jordan (Kylen Davis) became directly involved with the Intelligence Unit's latest pursuit when he witnessed someone throw away a gun after a murder at the neighborhood convenience store. Atwater's brother came forward with his information and positively identified the suspect the unit had already been after, but it wasn't without a cost. In the final moments of the episode, a clearly paranoid Atwater was spooked when out to dinner with his siblings and ended up almost pulling out his gun on an innocent restaurant patron.

Suffice it to say, the panic splashed across Atwater's face in the final scene will still loom large in the next episode.

"We're used to seeing Atwater be the muscle, and I think that these next couple of episodes allow Atwater to be the heart of the show," Hawkins tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Atwater's really intimidating and is used to taking action, but now I get to play the emotion that I think is important for the audience to see because it dictates how he operates in his job moving forward."

Although Hawkins has been a series regular since season one, back when he was a beat cop alongside Marina Squerciati's Burgess, Wednesday's episode was a rare look into Atwater's personal life outside of the Intelligence Unit. However, to hear Hawkins tell it, viewers should expect Atwater to get the spotlight treatment more often moving forward.

"I was told before the season started that I should expect to get the ball a lot more," he says. "I didn't know exactly what to expect over what I was going to find but I'm very, very grateful so far for what I've seen. I think 504 is one of the best episodes we've ever done, and I'm honored to be at the helm of that."

That change is part of a larger shift at Chicago P.D. this season. Onscreen, there have been several cast changes with the departure of Sophia Bush, the return of Jon Seda and the full-time addition of Tracy Spiridakos. Behind the camera, there's a new guard in showrunner Rick Eid and executive producer and director Eriq La Salle, who take over from Matt Olmstead and Mark Tinker, respectively.

In light of those recent changes, Hawkins spoke with THR about the "consequences" ahead for Atwater and his family, tackling police brutality in season five and those series changes: "I feel like I'm on a whole new team a little bit."

Obviously this case and this episode hit close to home for Atwater, but what specifically makes this episode stand out for you as an actor?

I think what made me passionate about the story was that it was so well-balanced. We're at a place where we're telling so many different stories and so many different details from the way everyone's reacting, from the guest spots to the leads. It was a very honest process from the jump. I didn't really expect it to turn out as powerful as it did, but because we stayed true within the process of making it, we stayed true to that energy. It was definitely a growing process.

How does working on a case this close to home impact Atwater, particularly the fact that his brother becomes involved as well?

It's one of things where I think Atwater has the luxury of being able to find that balance, by the relationships that he has, by the understanding that he has for his community and the culture. So as far as LaRoyce Hawkins is concerned, being able to pull those references and experiences from my life and being able to know what Atwater's going through, I think that's why you feel that authentic energy between the worlds. Atwater has to use his relationships with his culture and with cops to bridge that gap and, for me, that's the lens Atwater wants to look through for the entire season: How can I help my culture see cops differently, and how can I help cops see my culture differently? The way I police, the way I deal with my family, it manifests itself in a bunch of different moments and I'm grateful for episode four for giving us a moment to see Atwater tackle those things.

His friend is murdered and his younger brother ends up being the main witness that sends the murderer behind bars. How does Atwater feel about his brother testifying? What's going through his mind when he brings his brother into the precinct?

It's a delicate dance. This is Atwater's aspiration to be a role model, to be a hero, to do the right thing even when it's tough. There's a scene where he's talking to his little brother about having to do that and part of me telling him that is convincing myself also: Do I want to sacrifice my family in a situation like this? Atwater became a cop to protect his family from things like this, and now he sees his job slowly but surely making it harder and harder to protect his family. That's the conundrum that Atwater is dealing with, so those are the types of emotions running through his head when Voight is talking to him. That's what is going through his mind when he sees his brother at the crime scene; he's dealing with all those different things. This episode is a great reflection of his motivations.

The episode did a great job of showing the different layers of all the different characters. Everybody kind of has more than one thing to do. You've got Voight and his trust issues, you've got Ruzek and the guilt he's going through, the storyline about police reform, Atwater and his family — it's a lot. It reminded me of the movie Crash the way everyone's in different situations but they meld together. I think this episode does a great job of telling all those stories.

The episode ends with Atwater pulling out his gun unnecessarily at the restaurant. He's clearly concerned and even a little paranoid about his family's safety, so how does that bleed into the next episode and impact him going forward?

You're going to see the consequences of the decision that Atwater makes with his family in a way I'm not sure we've done before with Atwater and his family. We've seen Antonio's son get kidnapped, we've seen Burgess' sister be assaulted, but we haven't really hit this close to Atwater and I think the way that the Atwater family deals with this situation is interesting. It's another way to tell these stories about how difficult it is to live both lives of a cop and as a brother or a father or whatever else you've got to do in your regular life.

Given everything that's been happening with policing in the past few years with Black Lives Matter and the larger discussion about police brutality, Atwater brings a unique perspective to Chicago P.D. He even addressed that in the premiere when he told Ruzek (Patrick John Flueger), "It's not easy for a black man to get on his knees for a white cop." Why do you think it's important to address that so directly on the show and to show those issues that are happening right now with the police?

First of all, I'm grateful for the opportunity to have that voice and represent Chicago specifically. Even it's just minimally on a network television show, it actually provides a platform. The point of the scene isn't for us to show confrontation between Ruzek and Atwater, but to display education between two cops that have valid points and teach each other and help each other grow as partners. That's the way Paddy and I approach those scenes when we get those opportunities because we know how the city of Chicago looks, how the world looks, we understand those different perspectives so we do our best to cultivate a well-balanced vibe in those scenes. I'm grateful that it's translating onscreen because I think everything did turn out the way it should have in the season premiere, and I think episode four did a great job at showing those things too. Even in this episode, you see that scene where Ruzek and I obviously disagree but we're making valid points and we still work as hard on the case for each other. Even though I know that Ruzek doesn't necessarily understand my part of the argument, that doesn't mean I'm not going to chase this guy down and catch this cat. It's one of those things where we're still working for each other and we're able to teach each other our perspectives.

Exploring these issues more has been a mission of the new showrunner Rick Eid, who replaced Matt Olmstead, who left along with Sophia Bush. Coming into season five, how concerned were you about these changes?

I think, naturally, when you hear about change at first, you're always scared of what you don't know. But it didn't take more than a couple of hugs and handshakes both from Rick Eid and Eriq La Salle for me to feel the vibe and understand where the culture of the show was going.

It's like a basketball team so when you have a new head coach and have a general manager like those guys who allow my role in the team to grow in a healthy, safe and transparent kind of environment, I feel like I'm on a whole new team a little bit. It's like we've been making the playoffs for four seasons and now we got a chance to make it to the semifinals and maybe win a championship.

Why do you think some of those changes that you just pointed out have helped the show this season?

I think people are a lot more dialed in and it takes a couple of changes sometimes, not to change a show but to better represent the culture of it. We're still very much the same show, we're still made up of the same vibe that I think everybody's used to, but we're motivated by different things now so we're telling different stories. This show is thanks to a lot of great friends, people who gave the show its legs, and gave the show the blood in its veins, but when you change that mindset, the body starts to operate a little bit differently. Love to Matt Olmstead and Mark Tinker and Sophia Bush and Brian Geraghty — we've lost a lot of good people. People come and go on our show, but I think right now we have the combination of the right players in place to really be able to make a powerful difference on the show.

What differences have you noticed so far specifically in the writing this season?

Yeah, the writing has definitely changed. We're dealing with dirtier situations, we're introducing characters that kind of throw us off and make us pay attention to reality. When you start adding a character like Ray Price, played by Wendell Pierce, or a Denny Woods, played by Mykelti Williamson, now the writing lends itself to get a little more murky. Things aren't as clear as the old style of show where it was clear who the heroes were and it was very clear who the bad guys were and it was a very black and white approach to solving a crime. Now, things are a little dirtier and we throw our characters off a little bit and we don't know what the right way is to solve a crime necessarily and we may end up making a decision that may be wrong and now we have to pay for it in the next episode. We're having a lot of fun in the gray area.

Chicago P.D. airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on NBC.