The star of “Chicago Justice,” the fourth TV series set in Our Town and developed by television mogul Dick Wolf, is convinced its ultimate success will hinge on “touching on hot-button issues — something we’re doing right out of the gate.”
Philip Winchester stars as top Cook County State’s Attorney prosecutor Peter Stone on “Chicago Justice,” which will premiere at 9 p.m. Wednesday in a special crossover with “Chicago Fire” and “Chicago P.D.” The character is the son of Manhattan District Attorney Ben Stone, played by Michael Moriarty on Wolf’s original “Law & Order.”
As for those hot-button issues, Winchester gives the credit to longtime “Law & Order” executive producer Michael Chernuchin, brought in by Wolf to lead the “Chicago Justice” team of writers. Chernuchin “writes about things like he did on ‘Law & Order.’ He writes about things that piss him off,” said the actor with a laugh. “It’s always straight out of the headlines. People will see things on our show just weeks after an event happens in real life. It’s all very culturally relevant. … At our very first meeting, Michael told me he wants half the people in the audience to throw their shoes at the TV, and half the people to celebrate what they’re watching.
“He told me, ‘If half the people are happy and half the people are angry — because they think the wrong thing happened in court, or the guy gets away with a crime — then that means we’re doing good TV.'”
The actor ticked off a number of topics audiences will see in this first season of “Chicago Justice.”
“The first episode deals with a case of arson involving a sort of entitled millennial who gets lost inside a fake reality on the internet. We then jump into police brutality in episode two. In the third episode we’re all about Muslim extremism and a self-radicalized student who is killed by his roommate, who sees it as an act of valor.”
Other episodes will deal with gang-related homicide and innocent people being killed in drive-by shootings.
“We will keep our finger on the pulse of the city,” added Winchester. “It’s amazing. All the episodes we’ve filmed so far deal with things I’ve heard about in the news within the past six months.”
Playing a character like Stone is somewhat new for the former “Strike Back” star, who considers himself “more of a guy with an action-based acting background. … Initially, I had a meeting with Dick Wolf. He said, ‘I don’t know if you’re my guy [for the role of Peter Stone in ‘Chicago Justice’].’ And I told him, ‘I don’t know if I’m your guy either!’ ”
But something in Winchester’s persona clearly struck Wolf as right, and after being introduced as Stone on “Chicago P.D.,” the actor was able to prove himself for the role for the spinoff series.
In order to help Winchester capture the flavor of being a prosecutor in the Cook County State’s Attorney office, the producers introduced the actor to a couple of people with a strong understanding of that world. “First of all, I got to spend some time with [retired Illinois Appellate Court] Justice Jack O’Malley [the former state’s attorney] and he introduced us to a number of lawyers who were extremely helpful.”
In particular, Winchester singled out Eric Leafblad. “He helped me understand the mindset of someone like my character, Peter Stone. He’s a lifer in that prosecutor’s office. He doesn’t want to be mayor. He simply wants to put bad guys away. He love the challenge of that process. He sees things quite often in black and white terms — right vs. wrong. He loves finding ways within the law to set things right — from his point of view.”
As for the time he’s spending in Chicago, Winchester pointed to a couple of major cultural institutions as being important to him and his wife, Megan Marie.
“We have a 2-year-old girl. She’s mad about dinosaurs, so I spend a lot of time over at the Field Museum. It’s our new favorite place, hanging out with ‘Sue,’ the Lions of Tsavo and the elephants in there. We also spend a lot of time at the [Shedd] Aquarium too.
“In fact, I think my favorite view of Chicago is looking back north from the Planetarium. That’s an amazing sight!”