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'Chicago Fire's' Miranda Rae Mayo on Taylor Kinney's 'slow burn,' body acceptance and her love for the city

On a cold and rainy Saturday afternoon in Wicker Park, I sat down with “Chicago Fire” star Miranda Rae Mayo at one of her favorite neighborhood spots, Cafe Robey.

Her arrival prompted delighted hellos from the staff, not because there was a celebrity in their midst, but because she was one of their regulars. That seems of a piece with Mayo, who doesn’t come across as particularly impressed by (or feel the need to announce) her own celebrity. She’d rather look you in the eye, share a laugh and connect, person to person, regardless of whether you know who she is.

The addition of Stella Kidd — who can fight fires with the best of them, and wisecrack with the best of them too — brought a huge infusion of charisma to the NBC show, now in its seventh season. It should surprise no one that Mayo shares many of the traits that make Stella such a fun, intelligently self-aware and openhearted character.

The following is an edited transcript.

Q: I love your purse. Is that an actual Michelle Obama Time magazine cover that’s been made into a clutch?

A: Yes, thank you!

David Eigenberg — who plays (Christopher) Herrmann on the show — his wife (Chrysti) bought it for me.

I got us all tickets to see Michelle Obama at the United Center (in conversation with Oprah Winfrey as part of Obama’s book tour) — Eamonn (Walker, who plays Chief Boden), David and Chrysti — they all went, but I felt like I was getting sick and I had a 5:30 a.m. call time the next morning, so I chose to sleep. I wanted to go but I’m very happy about that decision because the next day at work was wonderful!

Q: When you first joined the cast, I remember seeing on Twitter that you were spending a lot of time at the Eigenbergs’ house. Did that become a home base for you initially?

A: For sure. I mean, I picked the place that I live because it’s a 10-minute walk from David! And also it’s a great area. I don’t have a car, so I love Wicker Park/Bucktown, just walking around the neighborhood. Everything is right down the street. But yeah, being close to the Eigenbergs was a really big deal for me! That’s my family.

I don’t know what it’s like on most shows, but on the “Chicago Fire” set, it was like walking into a ginormous bear hug when I started.

Q: Did you do any special training ahead of time in order to play a firefighter on the show?

A: Back in the day when I first joined, Steve Chikerotis — who is essentially our head supervisor in all things that are firefighting and just the CFD — he had a meeting with me. Eamonn and Jesse (Spencer, who plays Matt Casey) came and sat in the meeting and it was like, they’re so their characters!

I put all my bunker gear on and Steve took me through some drills. I dragged Jesse across the floor, just to know what it feels like to pull the full weight of a body. And I could do it, which was a big deal. They wanted someone who could keep up with these guys, you know?

I was just so grateful. Because in LA, my experience has been that the thinner and more sinewy I was, the more work I would book. So to book a role where they really are appreciative of my strength and being able to showcase my athleticism, that was a dream come true.

I think it just goes to show that for me, I did a lot of inner work around believing that it was possible for me to get work for who I am. And then, how miraculous, to have landed this role where it really is OK and great and that I’m not as thin as a supermodel.

Q: You’re long and lean as it is, so it’s pretty off-the-wall that producers or directors wanted you to be even thinner.

A: You know, now that I’m saying it out loud, I think there are a lot of regurgitated ideas that people will feed you. And if you’re not conscious and aware and ask the question, “Eh, does that really work for me?” then it just kind of gets integrated into your life without any filtration — (to herself) Filtration? Filtration, I like it.

So what happens in LA is that if you talk to managers, if you talk to agents, that’s their experience (advising actresses to be thinner) so that was what they told their clients. And that’s what they told me and I believed it — until I didn’t.

Q: You mentioned something perceptive in a past interview about Chicago being such a segregated city.

A: Yes! I’m reading this book called “The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation” (by Natalie Moore) and it’s about the history of the developmental plan that was behind keeping this particular group of people over there and away from these other people. It’s absolutely insanity. It’s not based in anything that’s logical or reasonable. But it is this way of thinking that has consumed the minds of generations of people. It’s fascinating.

So one thing that really motivates and inspires me is to learn more about how this all came to be, so that we can move forward in a new direction.

DuShon Monique Brown, rest in peace, one of the most beautiful souls that I’ve ever known (Brown, who played Chief Boden’s assistant Connie, died last spring) — that broke our cast, by the way. We stopped filming that day. We were a mess. She never had any idea how much we loved her and what an integral part Connie was to “Chicago Fire” — and how integral Dushon was to that cast.

But she told me one day when we were in hair and makeup: “Anybody that doesn’t believe that Chicago is segregated, just tell them to ride the Red Line. It runs from north to south, and if you start at the top, you’ll see white people, white people, white people. And then slowly it starts to mix up, and then somewhere around” — I forget which stop she said — “it starts to get darker and darker and darker until the majority of the people on the train are black American.”

Q: You film all over the city, right?

A: Yeah. Chicago is absolutely a character in the show. And I’ve learned to love her so much, working with her and being with her, you know? She’s a tough (cookie). She’s a tough, colorful, strong artistic mama. But also, full disclosure, when we’re working on set, it’s not really immersing ourselves into the neighborhood and what it feels like. We take over. There are trailers, everything. We move our world all over the city. But that doesn’t mean we understand what that world is without us in it.

I did go to a jazz festival in Jackson Park this summer that was just wonderful. And for me it felt like home. My dad’s side of the family in Fresno, they all live on the South and West Side (of Fresno) and it’s a similar situation to Chicago. My grandparents couldn’t buy a house on the North Side. And my grandpa was the sheriff and my grandma was a teacher. So they were well-known in the black community in Fresno, but didn’t matter.

So, going to the West and South sides in Chicago, it feels like home and familiar.

I really want to go steppin’! I’ve been saying this for years! I tried to ask LaRoyce (Hawkins), who’s on “Chicago P.D.,” because he can move, but he didn’t want to go.

Listen, I have been campaigning for a Kidd-Atwater romantic-ship for what feels like forever.

Q: That would require you and Kelly Severide (played by Taylor Kinney) to break up.

A: I know, that’s the only thing! And that’s what the writers say: “Stellaride is it.”

Q: You and Taylor Kinney have legitimate chemistry.

A: Yesssss! I love that man! (laughs) He’s a sweetheart. He’s such a mama’s boy, he’s very cuddly, he loves women, always very chivalrous. He’s a really beautiful human and I’ve loved working with him. He’s very intuitive in the way that he works. Only very recently have we started talking about scenes before we do them — and we’ve been doing scenes together for almost three years. So he’s a slow burn. He’s like a cat. It takes him a while to warm up.

But he’s one of the most compassionate and talented men I’ve ever worked with. I learn so much from him all the time, even just in how to not be so cerebral. Just feel. That’s been a really valuable experience for me.

Q: When I spoke with showrunner Derek Haas last year, he realized he and the other writers have made Stella a little braggy. She likes to toot her own horn. Is that part of your own personality?

A: It’s the blind optimism: “Do you want to come try this?” “Yeah, I’ll try it and I’ll be great at it!”

But every now and then I have to check my ego! Sit down, it’s not about you — it’s not about you getting it all, OK? Be humble.

Q: It’s not about you driving the truck. (An earlier storyline had Stella competing with Otis over who would be the regular driver on calls.)

A: Oh, Stella loves driving the truck — I do not. I was really driving it. And I love driving. And you would think I’d love driving the truck.

But for the pull-ups (into the garage) there are people on top of the truck getting the shot. Camera people. And I remember on one of the days when we were doing the pull-up, I still wasn’t used to it and the camera people were razzing me! “Hey, I have three daughters, OK?”

The thing is, coming in, you want to come in hot. That’s why Yuri Sardarov (who plays Otis) is so good at driving the truck. He knows how to whip that thing back and forth and he’s not scared of it and he does a great job. For me, all I could think of was, if I don’t brake at the right moment, video village (where all the monitors and many of the crew congregate) was like right in front of us! So if anything happens, I’m going to kill 30 people that I love!

I just didn’t want to be responsible. (Laughs) Yeah. So hopefully no more driving for Stella.

Twitter @Nina_Metz

MORE COVERAGE: 'Chicago Fire' star Monica Raymund reveals why she left the NBC series »

'Chicago Fire' showrunner Derek Haas on Season 6 cliffhangers »

'Chicago Fire' actress DuShon Monique Brown dies at 49 »

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