BWW Interview: Actor Jeff Lima Talks CHICAGO FIRE and Preparing for Roles
Jeff Lima, who plays Leon Cruz on CHICAGO FIRE, discusses how he got into acting, his process for preparing for roles, and diversity in the industry.
I know you began seriously acting at a young age, how did you know that this is what you wanted to do?
My mom has always told me that I had ambitions of being on screen since I was old enough to speak. In elementary school, I always enjoyed role-playing! However, it wasn't until the beginning of junior high school that I had a thorough understanding of both the education and training that goes into being a serious actor. Where one would've been deterred after learning that acting was more work than play, I was ready to meet the endeavor with tenacity. Outside of the classroom, I had my first on-set experience in the Oscar nominated film HALF NELSON. I was sold!
How do you prepare for a role? Do you have one general process or does it change based on the project?
Most actors subscribe to a school of thought or theory. I was fortunate to have been exposed to the teachings of Stanislavski very early on. While the process of preparing for one character differs significantly from the next, the process itself is uniform across all roles because it is rooted in 'method'.
For instance, in creating the character John Santos of HBO's SHOW ME A HERO, I was tasked with identifying what Santos' inner life was based on a novel- I had parameters in creating and a big part of preparing the role was justifying my choices for Santos based on a document so that the physical manifestation, collectively the character, was true to the book.
On the other hand, preparing Leon Cruz of NBC's CHICAGO FIRE required using the script to create the inner life in order to project the character truthfully.
I guess it's similar to investigatory work- some cases are almost spelled out for you and merely require identifying motive. Others require creative inquiry and research.
How did you get involved with NBC's CHICAGO FIRE?
Like any New York actor, I bartended at nights. I had an audition for a new series and I remember the audition being miserably early. I devoted my entire shift to memorizing very lengthy sides. As a bartender, your nightshift sometimes ends at 6:00am. You can imagine I looked like the walking dead at this audition. I immediately fell in love with the energy of this particular audition because it paid very close attention to raw genuineness. I booked the audition and production flew me out to Chicago to shoot! The rest is history.
As a recurring character on CHICAGO FIRE, who's not in every episode, is it hard to jump back in? What's your process like to get back into your character?
Recurring on CHICAGO FIRE puts me in a position that requires that I reexamine my past work on the series, to ensure that the characterization extends passed my appearance on, say, episodes 7, 9, and 10. It becomes an issue of ensuring the through line is still evident to viewers. My responsibility becomes creating Leon's life in episode 8, which I didn't appear on, so that when Leon appears again in episode 9, it isn't an arbitrary appearance.
This becomes more challenging when something eventful has happened to Leon, like it has most recently. After Leon goes away, he returns as a college student, which is the complete opposite of the Leon that we're used to seeing. For instances such as these, I'm reexamining my past work on the show in addition to creating new memories, fresh ideologies and the like, so that Leon is believable.
Is there a certain project you've worked on that stands out to you or that is your favorite?
If I lose a job on the count of this bit of information being misconstrued as ungrateful, I'll be very salty-
I'm so lucky to have a body of work from indies to high-budget projects. Thus far, nothing parallels the junior high school productions that I was cast in.
I may never be cast as Lysander in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM as an adult, but by god I was cast as Lysander as an eighth grader and I remember every gel used to flood the stage for every scene, I remember everyone's lines, and I remember the sweaty palms I held for our curtain calls.
Maybe it's the magic of the stage or freshly embarking on something that would be so rewarding for me later in life. My performances on stage as a child and teenager really stand out for me.
I know that you're also focused on producing short films, what got you interested in that and do you have any desire to work in other ways behind the camera-maybe writing or directing?
It seems actors nowadays have just as many original screenplays as they do headshots. It's very commendable for an actor to be so well-versed in all things cinema. At the moment, I'm not flexing a writer/director muscle. I have great respect for both of those crafts. I'm always meeting very innovative writers and directors who have everything except backers to make their films-that's where I come in.
Do you have a dream director or actor you'd love to collaborate with that you haven't yet?
If God allowed me to pick the years during which I'd live, these would definitely be it. There is so much talent now- it's a great time to be alive. I'd love to collaborate with actors whose careers have been established by their ability to play different characters. The challenge for me would be working alongside these folks and not be star struck.
I really admire Eddie Redmayne's body of work and that of Joseph Gordon Levitt. They not only deliver, they deliver consistently.
Can you tell me about the Achievement Lab After School and Summer Camp that you helped found?
Being able to perform in junior high school meant the world to me. I now understand that opportunity may not be afforded to everyone. Achievement Lab offers out-of-school time to school-aged children where they have a chance to be part of theatrical productions and such.
Furthermore, Achievement Lab is proactive about its dealings with bullying. It gives me great pleasure to be part of what I feel will continue to grow to be a very impacting outlet for children in the Bronx.
I'm a recent film graduate and one of the topics we frequently discussed in film school is the need for more diversity in the industry and accurate representation behind and in front of the camera. I think the conversation is finally being addressed and people are speaking up more, which is leading to more positive change. As an actor, have you noticed a change over the years/things becoming more diverse since you started your career?
I can agree that we have seen more diversity in the industry over the past years. Even casting has opened up more for folks who look like me-look, there's a tax credit for everything. If we're lending attention to decision-makers and the face of that, within our industry, we can also see that there has been some change but there is room for more change. Again, this is a great time to be alive because of change and more fascinating is the pace of that change.
Do you have any advice for people pursuing a career in acting?
Actors-it happens over night and take everything personally.
Do you have any future projects coming up that you could tell us about?
I'm really excited to be executive producing, almost immediately, under my production company's banner, Innovative Pictures. The endeavor will be very efficient in benefiting all those involved, equitably. I hate to be cryptic but it's all I'm allowed to share.
Keep up with Jeff on his Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/thejefflima/