There’s been a lot of debate around whether this summer’s hit FX show The Bear depicts the city accurately. Set in a Chicago Italian beef joint, the show is peppered with jump cuts of iconic city landmarks like Marina Towers and local references like the “773” tattoo on main character Carmy Berzatto’s arm.
Chicagoans fiercely guard the way their city is depicted on the screen — as a cursory Twitter search for the phrase “Chicago over everything” will demonstrate — and for showrunners, there’s pressure to get it right. The Bear creator Christopher Storer has said location was crucial for the show — after all, he grew up in Park Ridge and is childhood friends with Mr. Beef owner Christopher Zucchero, on whose restaurant the series draws inspiration.
One way that Storer and fellow showrunner Joanna Calo ensured that authentic Chicago feel was through the casting. The supporting cast is largely made up of working Chicago actors who represent the diversity of the city’s restaurant industry — some of the actors have even done stints in the restaurant business.
Others are closely linked to local theater companies and welcomed the work during the pandemic when live performance was mostly grounded. The health inspector in episode 2 is Amy Morton, familiar to Chicagoans as both a longtime ensemble member at Steppenwolf Theatre Company and as Trudy Platt on Chicago P.D.
Acting veteran Morton said she was encouraged to improvise. “They just turned to me and said, ‘You can say whatever you want, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is awesome,’ ” she said. “You can’t really do any sort of improv on Chicago P.D. or any of those shows. They’re pretty tightly scripted. So to be able to just goof around like that was really great. It was very freeing.”
Viewers might also recognize Second City alum and creator of Chicago Party Aunt Chris Witaske, who plays Berzatto’s suburban brother-in-law; The Chi actor Corey Hendrix, who plays kitchen staffer Gary; or Jose Cervantes, an ensemble member at Rogers Park theater company The Factory, who plays dishwasher Angel.
“It was really important to Chris Storer who grew up around a restaurant like Mr. Beef that it be shot in Chicago,” said casting director AJ Links. Links works at the Chicago-based Paskal Rudnicke Casting, which handled local casting for the speaking roles on the show. “All those local faces were important to fill in.”
Casting happened at the height of the pandemic, so it took place over Zoom. For actors like Cervantes, whose theater jobs had dried up, the job was a welcome shift.
“The pandemic, it definitely put an immediate stop to all the theater stuff that had been going on,” Cervantes said. “It’s cool to have another TV show being filmed here in Chicago and just bringing more work and more opportunities here.”
Cervantes was drawn to the show in part because he’s worked in several Chicago restaurants while in college at the University of Illinois-Chicago and in between acting jobs. He says The Bear gets right both the work aspect of kitchens, as well as the relationships. “The pressure of working in a fast-paced kitchen sometimes can push people to a breaking point,” he said, a frequent occurrence on The Bear.
Vasily Deris, who plays Crooked John in the episode Ceres, also comes from a restaurant background; his family owns four restaurants in Northwest Indiana, and he recognized the frenetic nature of the kitchen the show tries to capture. “I totally think it’s spot on,” he said. “When you’re in that kitchen, everything is higher, emotion-wise. Then after you sit at the bar and you know, you have a drink or just act like it never happened. You don’t really apologize. ‘Cause you are a different person in that kitchen.”
Links said it was important to the showrunners to accurately represent the diversity of people who work in a restaurant kitchen — not just in terms of ethnicity, but also in age. “There is an intentional part of yes, accurately representing who works in a kitchen but also who works in a kitchen specifically like this,” Links said. “Where some of these people may not have come to cooking as an actual passion, may have come to the restaurant with something else in mind and have ended up there.”
Accurately representing Chicago was perhaps a harder task than accurately representing restaurant work. The Chicago actors certainly help with that; it would be a different show if all the actors came from L.A. “There’s a real grit to us in Chicago,” Links said. “And there’s a real shine to the actors in LA.”
“You can’t replicate Chicago,” said Edwin Lee Gibson, who plays chef Ebraheim. “If you haven’t been there, if you haven’t spent time there, you just can’t replicate it.”
Though Gibson isn’t technically a Chicago actor — he’s based in L.A. — he’s in the city often, noting he’s worked 12 jobs here over the past 12 years. (Lead actor Jeremy Allen White, who plays Carmy Berzatto, originally hails from Brooklyn, though he starred in Chicago-set show Shameless for 10 years.)
“Chicago actors, we will definitely give you a sense of place, that’s for sure,” added Morton. “Particularly someone like me who can’t shake the accent no matter how hard I try. You’re going to definitely know where you are once I open my mouth.”
Gibson pointed out that The Bear, which has already been renewed for a second season, wouldn’t have been a success if it didn’t pass muster with locals. “Had it not resonated with Chicagoans, I don’t think it would have done so well, because you guys have a way of shutting things down,” he said, laughing. “Chicago would have called it out.”
As Cervantes put it, “Chicago is a city that is really in love with itself, you know, Chicago loves anything Chicago.” It’s hard for any Chicagoan to hate on that.
Kerry Cardoza is a freelance writer based in Chicago.