My worst moment: 'Chicago P.D.'s' LaRoyce Hawkins on falling asleep at the worst time

On NBC’s “Chicago P.D.,” cops often lose their cool and rough up a suspect or two. But Officer Kevin Atwater, played by LaRoyce Hawkins, is something of an outlier. Unlike his co-workers, Atwater lives in a predominantly African-American neighborhood where gun violence is a reality. And perhaps this is what has made him a little more thoughtful about his approach to the job.

“I’m grateful to be that voice to speak for both cultures,” Hawkins said, “the black culture and the cop culture.”

As for Atwater: “When they told me the character could be from Harvey? That was the most valuable gift they could give me as an actor because then I knew exactly who he was. I’m from Harvey myself. I grew up with guys like him. I pull references for this character from Harvey, Illinois — which in my humble opinion is one of the greatest microcosms of Chicago. There’s good, there’s bad, there’s ugly. But it’s where I’m from. Harvey raised me. And it’s what breathes life into this character.”

As a theater major at Illinois State University, he realized something else about himself: “I discovered that I was a soft narcoleptic. If you leave me alone long enough with my eyes closed in a dark space, it just kind of happens, whether I’m supposed to be asleep or not. I just kind of knock out. My colleagues now at ‘Chicago P.D.,’ we’ll go to the movies and they’ll just know for a fact that I’m going to be asleep by the the middle of it.”

One time, it happened on stage.

My worst moment …

“I’m in college and I’m in this anti-war play called ‘Bury the Dead’ by Irwin Shaw that features dead soldiers who sort of come back to life at the beginning of the play. I was the lead soldier — Soldier No. 1 — and when I rise from the dead, I inspire the other soldiers to rise from the dead. So chronologically, nobody else can rise until I do.

“It was the night before opening night and we were doing a dress rehearsal in front of faculty and staff and a few special students. And the way the director set it up was, he wanted us to be on stage already when the audience walked into the theater; you’d see these dead soldiers slumped over and it sets the tone of what you’re about to see. So we basically have to play dead for 15 or 20 minutes before the actual show starts.

“And what do I do, at the most important show before we open? I fall asleep. Like, a deep sleep. Like a meditative state. Mind you, the play has started and I’m supposed to be waiting on my cue to rise — and no other dead soldiers can rise until I do.

“So I started getting nudged by the other guys. We were all kind of laying on top of each other, like we were about to be buried in a ditch. There’s a priest saying a prayer over us and in the middle of the prayer, I’m supposed to get up. And I’m taking a nap.

“I guess the dramatic tension came and went and it was like, ‘Oh, there’s a mistake happening right now.’ The director had to yell ‘cut’ because they couldn’t wake me up! I’m a very hard sleeper. They had to turn the lights on and I think for a minute people were worried. They were like, ‘Wait, is he really dead?’ So we had to start the play over.”

What was going through his mind ...

“I was mortified! And that’s kind of haunted me ever since. Even now on set I’m known for falling asleep in between takes. If you look at our Instagram for the show, it’s a running joke: There’s pictures of me falling asleep all over the set. But the thing is, I don’t feel tired before it happens. I just fall asleep.

“What people don’t know about actors is that our nightmares consist of us doing stuff like that — missing cues or showing up late for work. Those are the days that I dread. If I was to ever wake up two hours after my call time on ‘Chicago P.D.’ — you might lose the only black actor on the show, because you just can’t be that late on a job.”

The takeaway …

“Naturally it made me more aware. Nobody let me fall asleep after that dress rehearsal. While we were lying there, I was always getting pinched. And since I was so worried about it, I kind of scared myself out of falling asleep.

“That play was the first time anything like that had happened and I didn’t know I had a problem until then. If I’m conscious about it, I can try to stay awake, but not always. I just fell asleep on somebody the other day who was trying to drop something off. Before I knew it, it was 2 in the morning, I woke up, I had missed all these texts.

“Later on in my college career, I was in a musical called ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ and I played the comfort counselor (who hands out juice boxes and consolation to students who have been eliminated) and for maybe 65 percent of the play I had to just sit there and watch these kids, and it would be very easy for me to fall asleep. So I decided my character was going to knit. I learned how to knit and I knitted for most of the play, just to keep me from falling asleep.

“What was interesting was that my character was on probation from jail, so to see this tough guy knitting, I was like, ‘This is going to be dope!’ And it kept my brain occupied.”

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Twitter @Nina_Metz

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