Turn on NBC’s hit drama Chicago Fire (Tuesdays at 10/9c), and you’ll see a host of dudes fill your screen. But among all that testosterone, there’s one female firefighter in action, Gabriela Dawson, played by our new favorite actress, Monica Raymund.

On-screen, Dawson transitioned from paramedic to tough-as-nails firefighter working to hold her own in a man’s industry. Off-screen, Raymund seems no less tough, and certainly no less cool.

We caught up with the 29-year-old, who’s a huge part of Dick Wolf’s booming Chicago franchise (including Chicago P.D. and Chicago Med,) to ask about the show’s success, firefighter training and being a champion for LGBTQ rights. Her insightful responses did not disappoint.

“Equality is still very much a battle, even in what’s considered supposedly the greatest country in the world. And seeing it happen to first responders, where these are really the people who save… lives, is absolutely heartbreaking. Clearly we just have more work to do.”

How intense is the physical training for your role?
It’s a very physically demanding show. I had to go through not just the physical training but also, for the paramedic role, I did ride-alongs and I did simulations with dummies, practicing with IVs, basic procedures and CPR. When I transferred over to the firefighter role, I had to go through all of the training that a firefighter goes through physically. Of course there’s a lot of studying that these guys do over the course of six months to a year to become a firefighter, and I obviously didn’t do that, but I did do ride-alongs and the physical tests they have to do. So, it was taxing—and it still is, because we’re wearing gear that’s about 60 pounds all together: You have your tank, your helmet, your bunker gear and your boots. So it’s been very difficult, but challenging in a great way.

Aside from the specific firefighter or paramedic training, how do you stay fit? 
I decided to amp up my workout regimen, so I’m doing circuit and resistance training at home, and then I’m doing boxing with a personal trainer who’s also a firefighter here in Chicago. I go to boxing one to two times a week, I circuit train every day if I can, and then I try to do hot yoga. I’m actually in the process of getting my body in even stronger shape just because I want to. I think it’s important to stay strong to maintain the energy for the show.

For all of the training you’ve been put through, if you were to come across an emergency situation, would you feel comfortable acting as a first responder before the actual first responders got there? 
I’m still pretending; I would never be able to have somebody else’s life in my own hands and actually know what the hell I was doing. But, if it were basic first responder needs—just maintaining calm or knowing somebody’s dehydrated, or if I had to, I would probably feel comfortable performing CPR [or putting in an] IV.

“As a queer woman in this industry, I’m seeing it’s kind of popular… now, for TV and film to portray gay characters and queer characters, and that’s fine. It can be trendy, and it’s weird for me as a queer artist to see that, but it’s good because it opens the door for progress.”

That’s pretty good! So, how realistic are the situations we see on the show?
We consult our chief firefighter on the show, Steve Chikerotis, and all the stories you see in terms of incidents and fire are based off real situations that he went through. So, a lot of it is realistic in terms of what can happen at an incident or a fire—but obviously it is a TV show, so that’s an important element to remember. There is a little bit of a hyperbolic approach because we’re still trying to entertain audiences.

You’re one of only a few lead women on Chicago Fire. What’s the dynamic like on set?
It’s interesting because it’s such a male-heavy show and I’m around testosterone a lot, which is fun. But I’m also on the fire truck with the boys, so I don’t see Kara [Killmer] or Dora [Madison]; they’re on their own B story on the ambulance. I miss them a lot because, as much as I love my boys, being around testosterone 15 hours a day is exhausting… and sometimes you just need a spa day with some girls.

Did you have the chance to work with female firefighters and paramedics in Chicago to help inform your role? 
Oh yeah. I was working with Michele Martinez, who is the paramedic consultant on our show. She’s amazing and works on Ambulance 42 here in the city, and I did a bunch of ride-alongs and training with her when I first got on the show. I also met several other female paramedics and I met a few female firefighters as well, which is really cool to see. They’re a lot more jacked in real life than I am; those girls lift and they are strong—way stronger than I am! They constantly are saying thank you for representing us, because they really are the minority. I’m very aware of my role… of portraying the female firefighter and I wear it very, very proudly. [When my character transitioned from a paramedic to a firefighter, the producers] didn’t come up with the idea; I pitched it. I really saw an opportunity where I could possibly change the conversation about women in a man’s world here in America. That’s very important to me.

“People responding and receiving news of somebody coming out requires grace. The people who respond negatively or cruelly, those are the cowards of the world; those are the people who don’t know what grace is, and that’s OK—we can let them die out.”

On the show, your character has experienced discrimination based on her gender. Is that based on any real stories you’ve heard about the industry? 
Yup, it’s taken right out of the book. These women deal with that kind of discrimination every single day. I’ve heard stories about how difficult it is to find respect in the industry—and not just respect, but fairness and justice. Equality is still very much a battle, even in a first-world country, even in what’s considered supposedly the greatest country in the world. [There are] still some battles to be [fought] to increase equality for every person in this nation. And seeing it happen to first responders, where these are really the people who save… lives, is absolutely heartbreaking. Clearly we just have more work to do.

Last year, you publically came out as bisexual on Twitter by tweeting about the protests against Russia’s anti-LGBT policies. As an actress, how do you think the industry is doing as far as its portrayal of LGBT characters? 
As a queer woman in this industry, I’m seeing it’s kind of popular… now, for TV and film to portray gay characters and queer characters, and that’s fine. It can be trendy, and it’s weird for me as a queer artist to see that, but it’s good because it opens the door for progress—and I’m seeing progress happen quickly in the industry, so I’m hopeful. I’m very hopeful that we’ll continue to see that kind of progress for the LGBT community. I am very optimistic about the progress we see in terms of gay rights and gay portrayals.

When you publically came out as bi on Twitter, you also noted that you’ve been out—and proud—in your personal life for several years. If you could give any piece of advice to other LGBTQ people who may be struggling with coming out and acceptance, what would it be?
Coming out is a very hard thing for many people; it’s obviously a matter of life or death in some places. I’m very lucky. I was born in 1986; I have very progressive parents; I am an artist; I grew up knowing that there are gay rights and around gay people; and when I came out, my family was amazing. But not everybody has that experience, so I think it’s OK to take your time and to be thoughtful about how you come out and who you come out to. And… hopefully that will translate into being unapologetic and, through standing by what you feel in your heart and your soul, maybe the people who hear it can see that takes grace as well. People responding and receiving news of somebody coming out requires grace—as much grace as it takes for the person coming out. The people who respond negatively or cruelly, those are the cowards of the world; those are the people who don’t know what grace is, and that’s OK—we can let them die out. People who respond positively with love and acceptance: Those are the intelligent people. Those are the ones who are really gonna change the world.

Photo by Elizabeth Morris/NBC