As a Pasadena high school senior, Sophia Bush wore a gown and tiara in her role as the Tournament of Roses Queen.

These days, the actress known for movies like Van Wilder, The Hitcher and John Tucker Must Die—plus a nine-season stint One Tree Hill—is wearing leather and packing heat as Erin Lindsay, a no-nonsense detective on NBC’s Chicago P.D. (Wednesdays 10/9c).

In this exclusive Q&A, she explains what working with real cops has taught her about them… and herself.

“Because we spend time every day with real police on set, I hear what they went through last night. I have endless amounts of respect for them. You realize how lucky we are to have the good ones watching out for us.”

When Chicago P.D. started, did you do ride-alongs and all the cop-training stuff?
Oh yeah, and I still do all the time. In addition to the time at work that I’m with my advising officers, I spend a lot of elective time with them outside of work. But you know, it’s a very different thing when we put on our bulletproof vests on set that are padded with foam and when an officer hands you a real bulletproof vest and tells you to keep your head down.

What was the most interesting thing you’ve learned from the real cops?
I’ve learned from my head technical adviser when my intuition is spot on. It’s really taught me to trust my gut feelings about certain things. I notice things going on that a lot of people don’t. I was on a stakeout with three different units recently that were all working together to bring down a drug dealer, and I was picking people out in the neighborhood, spotting stuff, and they said, ‘Jesus, this chick sees stuff we don’t even see.’ I said, ‘I want to come work for you guys!’

Because we spend time every day, day in and day out with real police on set, I hear what they went through last night. I hear about the shooting they were involved in. I hear about the drugs they pulled off the street. I hear about the nine-year-old child they had to rescue from an unsafe home, and the public doesn’t get to hear about it. Seeing how upset they are about the bad apples gives me a lot of hope that things will be better. I have endless amounts of respect for them. You realize how lucky we are to have the good ones out there watching out for us.

Has playing a kickass role made you more confident?
I feel more at home in Lindsay probably almost than I have in anyone, but I don’t marry my personal evolution to my characters in any way. I can play her because I’m growing and becoming more confident in myself—as I think women just tend to do in their 30s—and knowing that I do my job well probably then sort of cycles backward into instilling further confidence in me.

Have you had much time to explore Chicago on your down time?
I do when I can, but honestly, I’m at work 15 hours a day every day, and we work a lot of Saturdays. We don’t have a ton of free time, but I try to get into one good restaurant once a week, and I’ve got a couple things on my list. There’s a great exhibit at the Field Museum that I’m trying to get in to see before it’s out. The Bowie exhibition at the MCA is unbelievable. It’s worth going to Chicago for. It’s the only American city that it’ll be held at. I’ve seen Bowie twice, which has been incredible. But I missed Magritte. I’m still upset.

sophia-bush-then-and-nowThen and now: At the Rose Bowl in 2000 and as Erin Lindsay today.

Has the cast become close, working those long hours?
We joke because it’s like we’re sickly and disgustingly addicted to each other. We spend every waking moment together. We wrap work. We go to eat. We wrap work. We go to someone’s house and order takeout, and we have a day off, and we’re all going to do something—go see a play, go to a movie, lay on someone’s couch and just be tired, whatever it is, but we’re together all of the time.

You’re a native Californian. Have you gotten used to Chicago weather?
Well, this year we started at the end of August; the polar vortex hit much earlier last year. You realize that you’re sick when you’re outside and it’s 30 degrees and you’re like, ‘God, it’s warm today.’ Then you realize it really is sick because it’s 50 degrees warmer than it was three days ago!

What do you miss most about L.A.?
I just want to go home and see my dogs. My two best friends and I live together, so the dogs get to stay home. I can’t take them into that cold. They’re California critters. They like to go hiking. They don’t want to be in the snow.

What do you like to watch on TV?
I just finished the first season of Transparent again for the third time. I’m obsessed with that show. A bunch of us have been actually going back and re-watching The Wire, because we’re all obsessed with that too. Orphan Black, I never miss, and Orange Is the New Black, I never miss.

Knowing what you know about the job, could you ever date a cop?
I don’t know. Life is hard enough without having to imagine that your significant other or the father of your child is going to die potentially every time he walks out the door. That would be tough, but one of my close friends is married to a Navy SEAL. I go through that, see that reality, with her. I think the women and men that are married to my police officer coworkers are incredible human beings, and I guess if there’s really any lesson any of us has learned, it’s that you can’t help who you fall in love with. So, I guess, never say never!

Third photo: Paul Drinkwater/NBC