‘Chicago Med’s Nick Gehlfuss knows of personal struggle

Luaine Lee
Tribune News Service

Beverly Hills, California — Actor Nick Gehlfuss didn’t earn a master of fine arts degree for nothing. When he was a struggling actor in New York, he had it all figured out — at least when it came to his stomach.

“This Italian restaurant they had $1.75 spaghetti on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. I went there for dinner,” he says, over breakfast in a coffee bar here.

“Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday I played my guitar and sang for money at two Irish pubs and a couple restaurants. And they secured meals for me there. So I had all my dinners,” he says taking a quick bite of bacon and egg.

“The romance and struggle you find in all that,” he sighs. “And most people say that was the most exciting times in their lives. And how could it not be?”

Well, maybe. But this is a pretty exciting time for Gehlfuss, as well. He’s costarring in NBC’s new “Chicago Med,” the latest spin-off of “Chicago Fire” and “Chicago P.D.” series.

He’s already ministered to the wounded on the latter shows, as a way of introducing some of the characters on the new series. In fact, Ghelfuss — whose mother and sister are both nurses — has been shadowing doctors at a local hospital, memorizing their body language, bedside manner and gravitas.

Dr. Andrew Dennis, left, consults actors Colin Donnell and Nick Gehlfuss during an on-set demonstration of “Chicago Med.” Gehlfuss plays Dr. Will Halstead on the TV series.

“I’m literally able to walk around with these doctors, and I play a med student until I have to tell the patients I’m acting when they ask me to turn down the oxygen and check their pulse or apply the stethoscope.”

While things are blooming now, it wasn’t always so. When Gehlfuss left his home in Cleveland for New York, he didn’t know a soul and wasn’t sure he’d spent seven years in higher education for the right reason.

“I hit rock bottom and was broke. I didn’t have any money. I’d been there for year and half ... living by myself, and had no friends. In a city with 8 million people they say you can feel extremely lonely. No one’s going to make you work on yourself except you. So at one point I said, ‘Should I be doing this? Am I built for this?’ I was feeling pretty down,” he says.

“Now, in hindsight, I realize you have to get to that point. You should question everything you’re doing. What’s wrong with questioning it and really almost quitting?”

Two people sustained him. His manager, who stuck by him, and the new woman in his life, Lilian Matsuda. She worked in hotel marketing and not only helped him emotionally, she aided financially. When he made the drastic move to L.A., she came with him, and now they’re both in Chicago, says Gehlfuss, who’s spiffy in a navy blue suit, a blue shirt with French cuffs, maroon tie, and oxblood oxfords. He describes Lilian as an “angel” and they are engaged.

“If you don’t get to those (low) points. you don’t get a view from every angle you possibly can. So the darkness that we experience as an actor — hitting rock bottom and going all around and being thrown around like a rag doll — (it’s) the unpredictability that an actor I believe must embrace. Or it will force you to embrace.”

Gehlfuss, who’s costarred in “The Newsroom,” “Shameless” and “Longmire,” corrolates his work to his life. “My personality is I enjoy constant change and mixing it up. I get bored too easily. With acting, you don’t. The thing I love about it the most is that becoming a better actor really means I’m becoming a better person.”

The reason, he says, is because an actor must constantly study the world around him. “It broadens you as a human being, makes you more sympathetic and empathetic. You become really at one with your surroundings because this is my classroom,” he gestures around the room. “And so I can go to school every minute every day if I want to.”

But what about the rejection that actors experience? “If you want to look at it that way, rejection is a very negative word. If you put that in your mind, it doesn’t help you. It’s not helping. Because most of the time you have no idea why you couldn’t obtain a role,” he shrugs.

“It could be because I have red hair. It could be because I’m 6-2 and not 6 foot. I could’ve given the best audition of my life, it has nothing to do with talent, it has to do with something (ephemeral) ... Whatever I had to do — short of selling my soul or doing something immoral — I did. I didn’t analyze it or think about it too much. I just kept digging,” he says.

He comes by that honestly because when he was a kid he was very outgoing. “I think I always wanted to be everyone’s friend,” he nods.

“I didn’t have a core-group of friends. When I was in college I wasn’t in a fraternity or anything. I always wanted to jump around to all different types of cliques. I wanted to make people laugh, too. I’ve done mostly dramatic work, but I’d still love to do comedy at some point. I was not shy. As a child I would go up to anybody, which probably worried my parents to a certain degree. I guess I just wanted to connect. That’s another thing about being an actor — not guaranteed — but for me it forced me to connect. In a world with technology and a lot of stuff going on, it re-affirms the power of connecting with someone.”

‘Chicago Med’

Premiere 9 p.m. Tuesday

NBC (Channel 4)