Theater veteran Daniel Kyri steps into the national spotlight with a groundbreaking role on Chicago Fire.
With memorable turns in shows like Steppenwolf’s Ms. Blakk for President (a world premiere from star playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney) and the Goodman Theatre’s Objects in the Mirror, Daniel Kyri (@danielkyri) made an immediate impact when he first set foot on the Chicago stage. Now he’s drawing attention on NBC hit series Chicago Fire as openly gay firefighter Darren Ritter—one of the few Black queer characters on TV. As the 28-year-old Jackson Park Highlands native transitions to a series regular in the ratings smash’s ninth season, we caught up with the rising star to talk inspiration, making it in Chicago and the importance of representation.
What inspired you to be an actor? Books, probably, were the first step. And poetry. Langston Hughes, Dr. Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks… I was an avid reader and at some point, almost without being aware, I began to understand words as a kind of bridge on which I could travel... They sparked my imagination and became a way for me to understand everything around me. Poetry was the first tool I remember using to describe myself. Once I was able to do that, I was able to tell my story. I started writing. From there I started supplementing my imagination with film and TV and what struck me the most in all those worlds and places I visited were the people: Denzel, Will, Wesley, Martin, Blair, Alonzo Tate, my uncle Reuben Echoles. He is a theater mastermind, and he cast me in my first show when I was a kid. I remember the first time I saw an actor joking around backstage one minute and then step out onto the stage—and into a whole new person—the next. From that moment, I knew. I was enamored by that transformation and I wanted it for myself. All my reading, writing and novice world-making led me straight to it. I haven’t looked back since.
As a native Chicagoan, how does it feel to be back home acting on one of the hottest shows on TV? It’s so dope. I never would have imagined this would be my trajectory, but I’m happy it’s a part of my story now. It’s difficult as a Chicago-based actor in this Midwest market. Although there are plenty of projects filming here, the opportunities for its actors can be slim and, unless you have East or West Coast representation, it can be very hard to get seen in auditions for meatier roles. But my being elevated to series regular on a popular television show proves that the talent and work ethic are here in Chicago. I’m so proud of my city and family and my artist homies—they taught me how to hustle. It’s a dream to be able to share with them the fruits of our combined labor.
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There are few representations of Black queerness in mainstream media, let alone network television. What does it mean to you to represent that community? I'm honored. I believe in my core that adequate representation can be lifesaving. When we allow our stories to be dominated by one culture or one experience or POV, we do immeasurable harm and shove everyone who does not exist within those decided parameters to the margins. For instance, when I grew up, most of the imagery I saw in the media (on television, in movies, on the news) painted Black skin in a negative and criminal light. I had to seek out any portrayal of a Black man that was contrary to that cliche—and even then I rarely came across a queer Black man who wasn’t the butt of a joke or a prop for the main (usually white) character. But when I found those few positive (if incomplete) representations—Blade, the first Black blockbuster superhero; or Malcom X, a historic freedom fighter; or even the comedy Dr. Dolittle, a doctor and surgeon—my world opened up. As kids, if we don’t see ourselves represented in the stories we consume, it can feel as though we do not or should not exist. Shifting that paradigm is a process I’m happy to be a part of. My character Darren Ritter is an openly gay Black first responder who kicks ass and saves lives. Hopefully some little queer child or Black child or queer Black child will see me and know that we are everywhere, can be anywhere and that we belong.
You're a veteran stage actor and are slated to appear in Choir Boy at Steppenwolf in 2021. What do you enjoy most about the stage? I enjoy the immediacy of live performance. And I miss rehearsing! The rehearsal process in theater gives an actor the opportunity to live for longer in one story, one character, one world—then you build from there, adding whatever you pick up in performance along the way. There is such liberty in theater, such freedom to explore and fail and try all over again. I can’t wait to get back onstage and to learn whatever it is this new process will have to show me.
What actor or director in the industry has inspired you most? Will Smith as an actor has been one of my favorites for as long as I’ve been watching TV/film. A rapper who seized his opportunity and used it to elevate his craft. His career has left the door wide open for so many like me following in his footsteps. I think he’s inspirational; I think the man has incredible range; I think he has even greater vision. Also Donald Glover, Issa Rae (I admire multihyphenates), Ava Duvernay… Ari Aster (I’m a not-so-secret admirer of horror). I have a wide variety of tastes. I draw inspiration from pretty much everywhere tbh.
What is your dream role? I am obsessed with James Baldwin—just finished a re-read of The Fire Next Time and moving on to a couple texts about his life. I am so inspired by his poise, his spirit, his intellect and how he marshaled each for the liberation and advancement of our people. He’s one of those rare voices that transcend time and space… the echo and the impact of his words are still shaping the trajectory of this country. So anything Uncle Jimmy—I’d be all over it.
Photography by: Photo by Alexus McLane; styling by Sal Yvat; grooming by Krystyn Johnson