Taking the stage: Former Chippewa guard makes TV debut on 'Chicago PD'
Shawn Roundtree Jr. hung up his cell phone and had tears in his eyes.
He had just learned he earned a role on NBC's "Chicago PD," a television drama depicting the Chicago Police Department.
Roundtree had a role on a major TV show. He finally had his moment.
"I began to cry," Roundtree said. "I was just so happy. On Feb. 23, 2020, I got back in the States and put out a post saying that I was locked in from here on out — I wanted to pursue acting. When it came full circle nearly a year later where I have this opportunity to be on TV, which has been a dream of mine since I was five years old."
While the excitement of landing a spot on network TV was through the roof, Roundtree said his mind was elsewhere.
He was thinking of his aunt.
Lorie Roundtree was a creative arts fanatic. Whether it was poetry, rapping at showcases at Illinois State or performing on the stage, she was driven by creativity.
"She was always that outlet outside of basketball I could call and speak to outside of basketball like acting, like being creative," Roundtree said.
Lorie died in November 2019. Lorie always encouraged Shawn in anything he did — basketball, acting, school — anything.
"She would watch every game at CMU and send me a video message saying, 'I saw you, you did great, you did this," Roundtree said. "Or she would let me know that, 'Hey, I can't watch the game tonight, but I know you're gonna do great.'"
Finding his true passion
Roundtree was always drawn to the stage be it singing or acting from when he was younger. He was the one to entertain the family during gatherings by performing a skit or singing a song, and he was all about it.
"I was doing plays, I was doing musicals, I was doing theatre and I loved it," Roundtree said. "When I got to high school, I had to slow down because basketball got more serious and there wasn't time for theatre arts."
Roundtree said he felt the itch to return to the stage during his senior year at CMU. He was part of productions with the theatre program -- and his acting career skyrocketed from there.
After graduating in 2019, Roundtree went to play professional basketball in the Republic of Georgia for Kutaisi in the Georgia Superleague. While in Europe, Roundtree still had the itch to perform.
So, he took to social media.
He began producing skits on his personal Twitter and Instagram pages and had fun with his passion.
"When I got overseas, I felt basketball wasn't doing it for me, it wasn't fueling my passion," Roundtree said. "(Acting) was on my brain 24/7."
When Roundtree learned of his aunt's death, he knew his path was going to change from basketball back to acting.
"I have to go into something that's going to make me happy," Roundtree said. "(I have to) pursue something wholeheartedly.
"When I got home in February of 2020, I made my decision and that's what I was going to do."
After the COVID-19 pandemic put the entertainment industry on hold, Roundtree said he took acting classes to help him build up material that could catch the eye of people in the industry.
He caught the eye — and signed with — the Rock Talent Agency, based in Chicago, Illinois. Just a few weeks after signing with the agency, Roundtree received a an audition tape request from "Chicago PD."
A week-and-a-half later, he received the call to be on the show and play the role of Jeff Duncan. As soon as Roundtree got off the phone with his agent, he thought of his Aunt Lorie.
"I thought, 'She would be so proud in this moment,'" Roundtree said. " ... That was the type of person she was. She brought light to so many people. I was just overjoyed thinking about her, because I knew she would be ecstatic — through the roof — at this opportunity."
Lights, camera, action!
Arriving on set for "Chicago PD" was an overwhelming, yet exciting, experience, Roundtree said.
Despite the overwhelming feeling and the nervousness that being on TV for the first time brought, Roundtree said he treated it similarly to preparing for a game.
"The day of filming, I was so nervous," Roundtree said. "It was like game day."
On the set — a street blocked off in Chicago — getting ready to film, Roundtree noticed one of his favorite actors, Michael Rispoli, playing the role of Officer Dan Wheelan. Roundtree said he remembered watching Rispoli play Rudy Pipilo in "The Deuce" on HBO while in Georgia.
"When I see his face — internally I'm losing it," Roundtree said.
Roundtree and Rispoli began running their lines — almost like a pregame shootaround — and the nerves were still with Roundtree.
"I had to tell myself, 'Hey, you belong here,'" Roundtree said. "You were picked to do this role for a reason. This is what you want to do, so let's do it."
Telling an important story
Once lines were read and filming was ready to roll, Roundtree knew he was about to tell an important story and bring it to network TV.
His character — Jeff Duncan — was a Black college student. In the episode, Duncan is pulled over for traveling seven miles-per-hour over the speed limit. He also has a legal gun in his waistband. Duncan is asked to exit the vehicle and after a heated verbal exchange with Wheelan, Duncan is fatally shot.
"Police brutality, racism, is a story we see on TV but has become a reality," Roundtree said. "This episode was very powerful, explosive and relevant to today's times."
Roundtree said it was important for him — as a young Black man — to bring to light the reality the police shootings have happened and continue to happen across the country.
"It's about bringing attention to where it is needed," Roundtree said. "That is the issue we have had, police brutality against Black people and people of color.
Filming the scene itself was difficult for Roundtree, emotionally. He said he had to put himself into the shoes of Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin — who were both fatally shot by law enforcement officials.
When the scene was over, Roundtree said there was a feeling of intensity among the cast and crew, knowing they had just shot one of the more powerful scenes and it was done well.
"You could feel the intensity," Roundtree said. "I felt proud that I could bring light to this type of story. Fast forward and I'm still happy, I am going to be on TV, that's my dream. I've always wanted to be on TV and tell stories, there's magic in the stories that are being told.
"Not only do I have the chance to be on TV as an actor, but I get to tell an explosive story, what more could you ask for from a TV debut?"
As an actor, Roundtree said that "Chicago PD" was the bar. He said he knows he has to bring the same energy to each production he does from here on out.
He related his thought process to playing Buffalo — usually a hard-fought Mid-American Conference matchup — and having the same intensity when he plays a nonconference game.
"I can't allow myself to drop that level of intensity," Roundtree said. "I have to keep that bar and I have to stay there."
According to Roundtree's IMDb page, he is slated to play the role of Jimmy Mitchell in show titled "Pleasant High."
Roundtree said that he values the hard work he has put in and the sacrifices he has made to get where he is. The experience not only help him grow as an actor, but as a man, too.
"I learned that if I want something, I can go accomplish it, with the help of God," Roundtree said. "My spirit has to be in the right place, I have to continue to put out positive energy and great things are going to happen in due time."