'Chicago P.D.': LaRoyce Hawkins on Jesse Lee Soffer's Absence and Atwater's Dangerous New Case (Exclusive)

Chicago P.D.
Lori Allen/NBC

The actor talks about Soffer's season 10 exit and previews Wednesday's Atwater-centric hour.

Chicago P.D. has evolved dramatically over the course of its decade-long (and counting) run on NBC, but the police procedural has experienced quite a bit of change in its current 10th season with the departure of series star Jesse Lee Soffer in the Oct. 5 episode.

"This is quite the season already and people haven't even seen half of what we got to offer. Obviously we were a little nervous because Jesse is a leader on and off set and when you lose leadership in a certain capacity, it's hard to know where things might go," P.D. star LaRoyce Hawkins, who plays Officer Atwater, told ET over a recent Zoom interview. "But I think the way everybody's responded and stepped up to the plate and the way that it looks like Jesse's gone, but he's still there, in more ways than one."

"Over time, we'll see exactly why," he continued. "But we've been having a great time and this is my first time being 10 seasons deep. Shows that have lasted this long, they don't hold on to the thrill and the energy the way that we still hold on. We have a good pack."

Soffer does return to direct an upcoming episode of P.D. and Hawkins, whose storyline is at the center of Wednesday's intense hour, titled "Sympathetic Reflex," shared that the former series regular shadowed episode director Bethany Rooney and others in preparation for his turn behind the camera.

"I'm very excited for that. Because Jesse, he's been doing this since he was six years old. Over 30 years of experience in the business and he's learned so much and he has so much to offer. He's one of my favorite storytellers that I've been able to work with over the years because of his approach," Hawkins said, praising Soffer's intelligence. "So the directing pivot for me, it feels appropriate. And he's been great."

"To have him on the sidelines coaching me up, that's a dynamic we've always had. He gave me something in this episode that I think I'm going to keep with me for the rest of my career and that's how you know you're a good director," he noted. "There was a moment in the episode where it almost seems like, yeah, we're about to do this scene, but to be honest this may be a scene that might be cut. Then he told me something interesting. He was like, 'It might get cut, but make them need it.' And that was the challenge. Maybe we don't need the scene. No problem. I know exactly what to do. So now that's my approach for scenes that seem frivolous. It's like, I'm going to make them need this scene. Whether they could or not, I want them to have a hard time getting rid of this moment."

Lori Allen/NBC

In the episode, Hawkins' Atwater finds himself facing possible termination after a tense arrest and confrontation leads to a young white male getting shot and killed. As the circumstances by which the fatal shot was made are called into question, his reputation and career are put on the line. With time against them, the Intelligence Unit starts digging to uncover key evidence that could help in the ongoing investigation and clear Atwater's name once and for all.

"I had a hard time not calling [episode writer] Ike Smith and being like, 'Bro, what are you doing? What is this?' Because it starts off so great even though you know where it's going. Like that first scene, that whole monologue about empathy, what you take with you on the streets and what you don't," he said. "I was like, 'Wow, this is different and this is good. I think this is important for us to hear.' And then as the episode grows, you realize exactly why. I was like, 'Oh, that whole speech was a setup.' Because every ounce of empathy I got on him, I'm going to need."

"It escalated so organically from one beat to the next and the rare circumstance that a white kid is killed, allegedly, by a Black cop raises questions. And I was like, 'Wow. How is he going to find himself out of this one?' But I think it was written beautifully. I think it was captured in a great way," Hawkins previewed. "I appreciated the challenge because the episode, if you're not careful, it can put you in a trap."

The actor detailed the biggest point of emphasis for him as he navigated Atwater's roller-coaster of emotions throughout the ordeal, which he said will shape how his character goes about dangerous situations moving forward.

"One of the things that I didn't want Atwater to look like was that he knew exactly what to do every time he was supposed to do it. Because we can sometimes get a little self-righteous as artists with our characters -- every no is an absolute no and every yes is an absolute yes. As we know, that's not really how life is," Hawkins said. "We struggle with our yeses and our noes. I might be wrong, but I got to stand on what I know. And Atwater's journey in 'Sympathetic Reflex' is his struggle between his yeses and his noes, not knowing exactly what to do, but landing on the most effective answer."

Chicago P.D. airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.