Joelle Carter on Her Move From 'Justified' Outlaw to 'Chicago Justice' Crime-Solver

Chicago Justice Lily's Law Episodic - Publicity - H 2017
Parrish Lewis/NBC

When Joelle Carter was first contacted by Dick Wolf last year about joining his latest Chicago spinoff, she was a little hesitant about the gig.

"I was nervous they wanted me to be a lawyer," the actress tells The Hollywood Reporter with a laugh.

Thankfully, the prolific producer had other intentions. In the latest Windy City-set series, Carter stars as Laura Nagel, a tough investigator working for the State's Attorney's office.

The role is a full-circle moment for the actress, who 20 years earlier landed her first-ever acting gig on Wolf's long-running Law & Order. The 1996 episode saw Carter play Donna Richland, a coed involved in a prostitution ring. "We were all in this tiny little hotel room and they had to turn off the air conditioner," she recalls. "They all just sat there and sweated while I did my little mini-monologue."

However, it was a different role — that of bad girl Ava Crowder on FX's Justified — that won her notice and even earned her a Critics' Choice Television Award nomination for best supporting actress in 2015. That same year, Justified rode off into the sunset and Carter was faced with finding her next role — a more difficult task than expected. Her first pilot season after the series wrapped was a "grueling" one, says the actress.

Why? "The worst part of any actor's career is auditioning," she says. "There are some ways to do it that are humane, and then there's a lot that are inhumane."

Since gaining recognition on Justified, Carter had been able to skip that step and receive offers for the parts she took during the show's hiatuses. After five years, having to audition again was a tough adjustment. "There's a part of you that wants to think that you're never going to have to audition again, but that's not reality and I understand why. There was a lot of stuff I forced myself to go on that I didn’t really want to, just from wanting to be employed," she says. "I left pilot season actually grateful that I wasn’t employed."

Instead, Carter says her "appetite was fed" by a recurring role on Scandal's fifth season, where she played the new wife of Scott Foley's Jake and the daughter of a respected Kennedy-esque political dynasty. It was admittedly "a very different part" from her Justified character. "Interest-wise, and to keep me from getting bored, you look for that," she says.

It was for that very reason Carter was drawn to the role of Laura Nagel on Chicago Justice. "I liked the idea of playing a character that was on the other side of the law, since I've been an outlaw for so many years," she explains.

However, signing on for NBC's Chicago Justice meant giving up her recurring role on ABC's Scandal.  She was eventually replaced this season by Glee alum Jessalyn Gilsig. "They hadn’t really done a lot with my character yet on Scandal. I think that they were planning to, so I'm sorry that I missed out on that, but it was an easy decision," she says. "I honestly thought they were going to let me finish my character. They just wanted a bit more time than NBC wanted to give."

Another aspect of the character that appealed to Carter were the similarities she shared with Nagel, who was first introduced in a May episode of Chicago P.D. that served as a backdoor pilot for Justice. "Dick was so frank about who the character was and how she would grow and that it would be like Law and Order, but we would get to know the characters a little bit more," she says. "I liked the idea that she was a struggling mom, a single parent."

In reality, Carter was a newly single mother with a 6-year-old daughter — a fact that she was worried might prevent her from staying with Chicago Justice once it was picked up to series.

"I was in the middle of a divorce, so I was very straight with Dick that I just didn’t know if it was going to work. He said, 'Well, you come to me, you tell me and we'll deal with it.' I don't think they have a problem replacing people in these shows if you're really not happy," says the actress. "He was very open that that could be a possibility if I needed it."

Although Carter was able to move with her daughter to Chicago for the series, two of the other characters introduced in the backdoor pilot were eventually replaced. One was Nagle's original partner, Daren Okada, played by Ryan-James Hatanaka, and other was prosecutor Nazneen Contractor. "There was a tiny bit of mourning when I lost my old partner and our other lead actress, but I love who we got," says Carter.

Instead, she was paired with Chicago franchise veteran Jon Seda, who moved over to Chicago Justice as a full-time series regular after three and a half seasons on Chicago P.D. Onscreen, Carter says it made sense to bring in someone more "seasoned" as well as someone with ties to the other series. Offscreen, she says it was a fast friendship.

"I know his wife, his son, his daughter. We spend a lot of time there, and they've been embraced me and my daughter," says Carter. That sentiment extends to the entire extended Chicago cast. "One of the things I kept putting in the universe is, I really want to work with really nice people," she says. "If it's not the actors, it's their wives or their families that embrace you outside of the work, so it really is a group."

As shooting began in Chicago, Carter also kept busy by training for her onscreen role. She did several ride-alongs with a top female investigator in the city. "She knows how to connect with people and knows how to get people to just open up. A lot of cops come with a bravado and it's sometimes necessary, but people aren’t going to talk to you when you're being so forceful," says the actress. "That was one of the things that she shared with me."

The cast has also learned a lot during production, thanks to on-set police and legal advisers. "There was a confession on the stand and we were all kind of like, 'Eh, does this happen?' And there was a state investigator there that was telling us, 'I've maybe seen one in my whole history, but the way they've written it, I could see it happening," says Carter. "You learn a lot through the process of doing."

Viewers will also learn a lot more about Nagel's backstory in Sunday's episode when it comes to light that she's having custody issues regarding her daughter because of a past pill problem.

"She was shot in the line of duty and got addicted to painkillers," Carter explains. "So the very system that she's so dedicated to is the one in which she's now having to prove herself innocent. She's guilty before proven innocent. It ties into what you see in the court room and what Philip [Winchester] has to deal with everyday."

The revelation harkens back to Wolf's initial promise that more would be revealed about the characters over time. "You really get little bits of information that help mold the character," says Carter, who is already thinking ahead about what she'd like to see from Nagel in a potential second season. Although Chicago Justice has yet to be renewed, it's proven solid on Sundays, most recently drawing a 1.6 rating among adults 18-49 with seven days of delayed viewing factored in.

"I would like to see something happen with the existing relationship that she's in as far as her ex-husband and dive into that a little bit more since it affects her job," she says. "Not necessarily that they get back together, because there's so many complications in that."

Beyond that, Carter is hoping Chicago Justice's continued success will mean her auditioning days are behind her. "This particular role and TV show will give me the opportunity to maybe pick and choose more stuff that I want to do in my downtime," she says.

"Comedy next," Carter adds with a laugh. "We'll see."

Chicago Justice airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.