Jesse Lee Soffer Explains His ‘Chicago P.D.’ Exit and Whether He’ll Ever Return: ‘Halstead’s Always Going to Be in My Blood’
Jesse Lee Soffer has been unemployed for 12 hours.
Which is a big deal, considering he started acting when he was 6 and hasn’t stopped since. Before he turned 30, Soffer had more than 500 episodes of “As the World Turns” and three Emmy nominations under his belt — not to mention his memorable role as Bobby Brady in the “Brady Bunch” movies.
Then, in 2013, Soffer began his relationship with Dick Wolf. Soffer’s character, Jay Halstead, was introduced on Wolf’s “Chicago Fire” (the first “Law & Order: SVU” spinoff that would go on to launch the franchise) and then became one of the leads on “Chicago P.D.” when it debuted the following year. Soffer appeared on 189 episodes — every hour of Seasons 1 through 9 and the first three of 10. (The show’s 200th episode airs on Feb. 22.)
So to Soffer, 38, the cast and crew are as close to him as the nose on his face. Which is what made his talk with the producers at the end of Season 9 extra difficult: He felt it was time to leave the show.
Publicly, he didn’t share the reasons for his exit. “I’ve thought so hard about how to answer this question — and there’s no good answer,” he says. “Except I was ready for more.”
Maybe it had to do with the fact that filming a 22-episode procedural in Chicago made it hard to have time for anything else, including playing a new role. “Eventually, you know the character so well, there’s not much that can shift or transform,” says Soffer, adding that he was extremely grateful for the Season 9 storyline showrunner Gwen Sigan gave him — Jay stepping into the No. 2 role in the unit and getting married — which allowed him to take the character on a new adventure for the first time in years.
Still, he yearned for more freedom.
“I really wanted to grow and expand, and we’ve only got this one trip. If I signed up again, it would have been for another three years. I would have turned 40 on the show. I thought, ‘You know what? It’s time to take a risk,’” he says. “It was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make in my life. Let’s be honest: I love the fans of our show so much, and I love my fans. I know that they’re still grieving this, and to some degree, I am too.”
Soffer agreed, upon his departure, to return for the start of Season 10. He last appeared on the third episode of the season, which aired in October. To exit him from the NBC show, the writers sent Jay to Bolivia on a task with the Army to take down the cartel. In that process, he left his wife, Hailey Upton (Tracy Spiridakos), behind. Despite promising her that they would get through it, she’s since been informed — via a phone call from his boss — that he’s extended his trip.
“Chicago P.D.” viewers are very vocal on social media. And Soffer is well aware of that. In fact, he sees the tweets pop up on his feed every day. “I know the fans are upset because, like, ‘This isn’t the Jay that we know and love! Why isn’t he calling? Why is he doing this?!’ But, you know, the show must go on,” he explains. “I don’t think I really have the right to feel any way about that. The writers have to do what they have to do to service the story and the characters that are still there. Also, our show’s pretty dark, and they love diving into the ugliest, hardest version of life. So for Hailey to have to go through this, it probably just made sense.”
Still, Soffer feels protective about Jay: “He’s deeply flawed, because everybody on ‘Chicago P.D.’ is. But he’s definitely a good person, with really good motives.”
Circling back to that Season 9 discussion, the actor explains that when he agreed to return for the beginning of Season 10 in order to properly exit, he surprised the producers by also asking if he could direct.
He can’t recall when he got the itch to step behind the camera, but did realize about five years into “Chicago P.D.” that it could be something he’d excel at. While on the show, he was working every day with his fellow actors to perfect a scene, and noticed that, in a way, they’d been directing all along.
“I hadn’t really brought it up to anyone, but it was something I was willing to fight for,” he says. So less than two weeks after he wrapped his last episode, he came back to Chicago from Los Angeles — this time to shadow director Bethany Rooney, who has directed everything from “St. Elsewhere” and “The Wonder Years” to “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Arrow.”
At first, coming in “as an observer” felt very strange to Soffer. So he focused on Rooney, studying the ways in which she handled every situation. Then he jumped headfirst into his episode, set to air on March 22, and it felt like coming home: “It was like I never left.”
“Some of it was effortless. Some of it was frustrating. Some of it was super rewarding. Some of it was humbling,” he says. “It was easier than I thought it was gonna be, because we’re storytellers in this industry, and I love telling stories. When I’d get a script that was a Halstead-centric story, I’d break that sucker down so much, calling the producers with suggestions. I’ve been doing that all along, so it was an easy shift.
His episode, titled “Deadlocked,” goes “a little old school,” following the boss, played by Jason Beghe, going off the books (again). After the episode wrapped, Soffer got the ultimate compliment from Beghe. “In his raspy voice, he was like” — here Soffer does the voice — “‘Bro, as far as maiden voyages go, this is effing spectacular.’”
Beghe tells Variety that Soffer is “a wonderfully talented actor.”
“More importantly,” he adds, “he is a fantastic human being. And he has the potential, if he has the interest, to become a world-class director.”
Their partnership has only grown off screen. “Jason and I have become brothers. You’re in the trenches together, making this thing what it is and pouring your heart and soul into it — blood, sweat and tears for a decade,” Soffer says. “So there’s a lot of him in me probably, and a lot of me and him.”
Soffer wrapped up directing his episode just one day before our interview. Now, it’s hard to say what’s next — besides golf. But he knows what he’s hoping for professionally.
“’P.D.’ is an ensemble — Jason’s definitely the lead and the strong patriarch on that show. I definitely think I’m ready to be a lead on a show and to have my own show,” he says. “I’d put all of my heart and soul into it.”
Also on his wish list? Soffer would love to land a role on a Taylor Sheridan drama or a period piece, and hopefully he’ll continue to direct more television. And maybe live somewhere warmer than Chicago.
But he’s not a complainer. Soffer says the tough Chicago conditions only brought the cast and crew closer — and that’s what he misses most. “You have to be a family when it’s zero degrees in the middle of February and you’re working at 2 a.m.,” he says. “It’s such a family. Dysfunctional sometimes, as all families are.”
So is the door to visit “Chicago P.D.” completely closed? “Definitely not,” Soffer says. “Never say never. I feel so bad for the fans that are like, ‘Is he going to come back?’ ‘What’s he going to do?’ ‘What’s going on with him and Hailey?’
“I like to think — and I hope the fans think this too — that he’s just in another country right now, doing what he does best and making the world a safer place. In a family, sometimes somebody moves away or goes to college somewhere else. I still love it. I still love the fans. And I still love Halstead. Halstead’s always going to be in my blood. That’s never going to change.”
Grooming: Helen Robertson/Exclusive Artists/Boy de CHANEL and Rene Furterer