After establishing himself on the Chicago theater scene in local productions of “Hamlet,” “Macbeth” and “Objects in the Mirror,” Daniel Kyri has made a successful transition to episodic television, starring as Darren Ritter, an openly gay Black firefighter, on the hit NBC procedural drama “Chicago Fire.”
It’s an experience that Kyri, who identifies as queer and grew up on the South Side of Chicago, described as “a little piece of magic” in a recent interview.
“In a lot of ways, it really does feel that way, because how often, over the course of history, do people like us get to tell our stories?” he said. “Of course, my story isn’t exactly like Ritter’s, but ... it just feels so special to me. It holds a place of honor in my life, and I don’t think that that will ever end for as long as I am blessed and able to breathe into this role.”
In the summer of 2018, Kyri was playing the titular character in a production of “Hamlet” — which was being reimagined by a team of Black artists — when he received an audition for a possible recurring role in the seventh season of “Chicago Fire.” With his strenuous performance schedule weighing heavily on him, he was planning to take a break from acting in order to focus on writing, as he and writing partner Bea Cordelia had just launched a web series (“The T”) about the relationship between a white trans woman and a Black queer man in Chicago. But he still felt inclined to audition for his first TV role, even if he soon discovered that he was the only Black man in the waiting room.
“To be candid, one of the things I remember most was walking into a room and seeing a type so unlike mine amongst fellow actors and thinking to myself, ‘Oh, there’s no way I’m going to get this,’” Kyri said with a smile. “And interestingly enough, that opened me up to just play a little bit more and leave all the work that I had done on the side. I made some adjustments per the director’s instruction and found something even deeper. It was, no pun intended, straight into the fire after that.”
While his arc was only supposed to last two to three episodes, Kyri began reappearing heavily on the firefighting drama for two seasons, appearing in a total of 36 episodes before being promoted to a series regular last August. During that time, he has been able to work “organically and collaboratively” with the writers — who, he said, “are so good at striking such a lovely, well-balanced tone between comedy and drama, between the everyday and the adrenaline-inducing” — to incorporate parts of his own identity and lived experience into his breakout role.
As the writers continued to write him into major plotlines, Kyri discovered that his character was going to come out as gay at the start of the eighth season. Having used his web series to explore the intersectionality of various identities, including his own as a queer Black man, the actor immediately understood the gravity of the storyline and felt a certain level of responsibility to get it right.
“Because my web series felt like a kind of coming out, and then [with] this historic moment in the context of the ‘One Chicago’ world, for this Black, male character to come out as gay in this blue-collar, first-responder world, I wanted to do it justice, more importantly,” he said.
"One Chicago" refers to NBC's trio of procedural dramas set in the Windy City: "Chicago Fire," "Chicago Med" and "Chicago P.D." NBC News and the NBC broadcast network share a parent company, Comcast NBCUniversal.
“Moving those narratives — of the queer person, the Black person, the Asian person, the femme character — from the margins, from the sidelines, and making them the center of the narrative is so very important,” Kyri added. “It gives anyone watching — no matter what age, no matter what background — an opportunity to see a possibility for themselves, a possibility for how they might move through the world, and I think that can inspire and empower a lot of people and encourage them.”
The fact that Ritter’s coming-out scene — in which the rookie firefighter told Lieutenant Christopher Herrmann (played by David Eigenberg) that he has a boyfriend, not a girlfriend — was a “non-event,” Kyri said, was the perfect cherry on top.
“And by a non-event, I meant it didn’t have to be this whole dramatized thing about this character coming out with backlash,” he explained. “All of that extra stuff wasn’t there, and it ended up being a very simple and lovely moment. I look back on it, and I’m really, really proud of it, because I think that that scene is so refreshing. It’s like a cool drink of water on a hot summer day.”
Since then, Kyri has received many “encouraging, supportive and emotional” messages from “people who were touched by the moment and the people who feel seen by it.” But while the actor tries to not let any of the feedback influence his portrayal of Ritter, he said he would be remiss if he didn’t mention the backlash that he has received from certain online users who “don’t want to see two men kissing and all of that.”
“If I didn’t talk about it, it would do a disservice to why it’s so important, because that kind of negative feedback that comes from a place of ignorance and fear, I think, needs to be addressed at every turn,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for expansion for those folks, which is why I’m very proud to represent that and to inhabit that story and that kind of representation, because I think it does some work to move the needle towards progress and away from a more toxic, traditionalist worldview.”
Since joining the show more than three years ago, Kyri said he has gained an ever deeper appreciation for firefighters, who “exist, for me, in a very special, nonpolitical sphere of my life," he said.
“If there’s a fire, they run in, they save people, they put the fire out, they do what they can, and then they go home. There’s nothing that can be more selfless than that," he said. "The amount of preparation, the amount of attention to detail, the amount of awareness, that presence of mind that needs to happen in the human brain in order to rewire it so that you can go into the flames — that thing is endlessly fascinating to me, and it’s just cool and heroic.”
For Kyri, who admitted that the process of figuring out “physically, mentally, emotionally how to do the job never stagnates,” the perpetual opportunity to learn something new from real-life firefighters — including Anthony Ferraris, who plays himself on the show — has been both “challenging” and “humbling in the best way.”
“These are human beings that also have to leave things that are happening in their lives at the firehouse and spring into action, and even that sometimes is a Herculean effort, depending on what’s going on in their lives,” Kyri said. “That’s also why I love our show, because we get to explore what’s happening in these firefighters’ lives. It’s not just fires; it’s not just incidents. It’s the heroic and the human, which I think is so so important, because it makes our characters three-dimensional and full.”
As the show heads into its landmark 10th season, Kyri teased that fans will “see a little bit more on the Ritter romance front” after his character rekindled a romance with a travel agent named Eric Woodruff (Curtis Edward Jackson) toward the tail end of last season. But he is also looking forward to the development of the tight-knit friendships inside Firehouse 51, including Ritter’s beloved bromance with Blake Gallo (Alberto Rosende), as those strong relationships have become a cornerstone of successful procedural dramas in the 21st century.
“Ritter has a couple of badass moments that I’m so excited for people to see. We had that train sequence and a couple other things last season, and I just think that things are going to be bigger and so exciting,” Kyri said. “It’s been a joy to work on and puzzle out, and I’m very excited for people to get to know more sides and facets of the diamond that is Ritter.”
“Chicago Fire” airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.