Spotlight: Jason Beghe
On Chicago P.D., Sgt. Hank Voight leads Chicago’s police department with his notoriously tough methods to bring justice to his city. Actor Jason Beghe, who has brought Voight to life since the tough-guy character originated on Chicago Fire, has dedicated himself to bring about justice in real life as well. Inspired by his experience playing a cop and interacting with real members of law enforcement in the wake of George Floyd’s death, Beghe has become a dedicated advocate for exonerees. We recently caught up with Beghe to discuss his work with the nonprofit Exonerated Nation, his history with Wolf, and what fans can expect to see from Voight in this next season of Chicago P.D.
Q: You have had a very successful acting career with many guest starring appearances on a multitude of television series. What is your approach when taking on a new role?
A: When I first started out as an actor back in the early talkies, I was just trying to get a job, put food on the table, and take care of myself. But as I moved forward in my career, if I was going to do a guest star, I had criteria. I would ask myself, ‘Is this a show that I can get something out of the role for myself? Is there something that I can learn from hanging out or assuming the viewpoint of this guy? And, can I do something in the role to help the show?’ I think that the star of the show is always the show itself. And so I’d ask myself, ‘Do you want to flow power there and can you effectively flow power there?’
Q: You have been acting in Wolf Entertainment shows for many years. How did your relationship with Wolf begin?
A: When I decided I was ready to do a series about 10 years ago, I called my agent and said, ‘Why the hell have I never worked with Dick Wolf? I’d like to work with this guy.’ They made some calls and sure enough, I went to a reading the next morning for a very meaty role on Law & Order: LA. It was a fantastic role based on this secret service Canadian guy who obsessively stole women’s underwear. It was very well-written, and ironically, it was written by a guy who I went to school with from first through 12th grade named Peter Blauner. I think that might’ve been the last audition I’ve ever had. Based on Law & Order I got Chicago Fire. Then one day the phone rang and it was Dick. He said, ‘I want to make a spin-off show called Chicago P.D. and even if it isn’t a hit or it doesn’t get picked up to series I’ll make you a regular on Chicago Fire.’ And then we shot the pilot. Dick has been a kind of angel for me in my life and in my career. He really believed in me.
Q: Your character Hank Voight originated in Chicago Fire. How did you develop his character from a guest starring role to a lead on a spinoff series?
A: As I read a script, I develop the character consciously or unconsciously. We all have character, and hopefully it’s developing, and sometimes it’s eroding. It’s like a friendship. This is a very intimate relationship that Hank and I have and every season I think, ‘Do I put a little more Hank into Jason or do I put a little more Jason into Hank?’ That’s what’s cool about acting. You get to choose a specific relationship that you create yourself, from your alter-ego or unconscious. If Hank isn’t changing and evolving, he’s going to be boring, just like anybody else. He has to be growing, evolving, and changing in order to keep the interest of the people.
Q: There has been a lot of talk of police reform in recent months. How have you been researching the subject and preparing to tackle it this season?
A: I try to fold in whatever is happening into my work. For instance, when COVID hit, I was right in the middle of shooting. It was like running a marathon, being in the final stretch, and then all of a sudden the race was canceled. I kept feeling these weird feelings, and I always try to feel my feelings. I have a motto that there are no bad feelings. Some are very uncomfortable, but they are there to educate. And so there I was feeling this thing and I was like, ‘What is it?’ It was something akin to anxiety, and I’m not a guy who normally gets anxious. I asked myself, ‘What am I afraid of might happen?’ I tried to dig into it. I felt like there was something that needed to change, but I didn’t quite know what it was. And then the George Floyd thing hit and the whole world changed.
The funny thing is, Voight’s most ardent fans are Chicago police officers and people from the hood. And I thought, these two factions of people in the zeitgeist of the country right now are at war with each other, but one thing that they definitely agree on, respect, and enjoy, from my experience, is my character. I felt uniquely teed up to perhaps bring about some kind of understanding between the two.I didn’t know what to do, but I was talking to Dick, Peter [Jankowski], and consultants we work with on the show. They put me in touch with a lot of cops who have given me insight and help. We’ve talked a lot. I’ve been talking with my castmates about our characters’ relationships, and I think the certainties are going to be cracked. We’re going to change each other, and I think Hank’s knees are going to hit the ground at some point. I imagine he’s going to look in the mirror and feel like he should change. I’m on the hunt to find that experience; it’s a difficult and worthwhile thing to do.
Q: You have become very involved with Exonerated Nation, whose mission is to help exonerees who have been wrongfully incarcerated. How did this relationship begin? What drew you to this organization?
A: I met Obie Anthony (the nonprofit’s founder) on For Farmers Only, it’s a dating app. Just kidding! I have a friend, Brandt Andersen, who I live near in Malibu, and I was telling him that I wanted to get a deeper understanding of the black experience and the injustices, as well as the cop experience. Through Brandt, I eventually met Obie, who at 19 years old was sentenced for life without parole for a murder he did not commit. He was incarcerated for 17 years before he was exonerated. When he left prison, he had no social security card, no birth certificate, no reading or writing skills. He had nothing to move his life forward. Now Obie dedicates his life to helping other exonerees. He’s taught me so much. For example, about 2% of the prison population is not guilty. That is hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Americans. And even when some get exonerated, something like one in 30 gets compensation, but they are still stuck with this stigma of an ex-felon, even though they were exonerated, they can’t get jobs.
Q: You mentioned that some of your biggest fans are real-life Chicago police officers. What are you hoping they take away from your work both on Chicago P.D. and your work with Exonerated Nation?
A: I hope that there can be some kind of a trigger for a police officer to take a look at himself, for white Americans to take a look at the racism in this country, and then the next step is for them to look in the mirror and ask themselves, ‘To what degree am I guilty of or part of this?’
This is a unique moment where it’s in the forefront of our minds and there is an opportunity for change. And you gotta take a look in the mirror in order to do that.
I’m hopeful that our show allows people to experience other people; certainly that’s what you do as an actor. I’m just determined to bring about greater understanding between these two groups.
Q: If you had a final word to tell people about Exonerated Nation what would you want people to know?
A: It’s unfathomable what happens to these people, but I want to grow the awareness. And if you got a couple of bucks, this is a clean nonprofit. These people need and deserve help, because society has wronged them terribly. And that’s our responsibility.
Exonerated Nation was founded by an exoneree, Obie Anthony, on a mission to establish and provide the resources that he never had access to when he was released after spending 17 years in prison. The organization serves to meet the immediate needs of exonerees by helping to heal the debilitating spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical effects of being wrongfully incarcerated and to affect policy change for restoration and the righting of wrongs. To learn more, visit ExoneratedNation.org