NEW YORK — Starring in an American prime-time TV series "has opened up a whole new world" for British actor Edward Woodward, a 40-year veteran of English stage, screen and television.
The choice of Woodward as star of "The Equalizer," one of 16 series CBS has renewed for next season, clearly did not assure instant good ratings when it was launched last fall. (The network has shifted the series from 10 p.m. Tuesdays to 10 p.m. Wednesdays for next season.) Although well-known to British stage and TV audiences, Woodward is less known to American audiences, though he won high praise for his performance in Bruce Beresford's 1980 Australian film "Breaker Morant."
"For an actor, at 55, this has been a great and exciting experience," said Woodward, who plays suave, self-styled, urban vigilante Robert McCall on the one-hour weekly series. "And it's especially pleasing now to have the chance to build upon the foundation that we have laid over this past season.
"I keep having this strange feeling that people are amazed that an English stage actor like myself, known here for only one movie, would want to come over to do an American TV series . . . and even I sometimes ask myself what I'm doing here," Woodward said recently on the set of show, which is shot entirely on locations here.
"Yes, it's obvious that anyone in his right mind would want to be part of the largest, most vibrant TV industry in the world. Even with all its garbage, American TV is the best, and one wants to be where the best is.
"There's also the matter of reaching a vast new audience," he continued, "and not only an American audience, but the billions of people all over the world who watch American television."
Woodward, who is more earthy, talkative and straightforward than his TV character, said he hadn't sought out the American exposure, or the new audiences; nor had he even been looking for a TV series.
Rather, he said he was planning to take on yet another of "the numerous stage roles that come along" in England (with one of his four grown children, all of whom are actors) when "The Equalizer" came to him. "English actors move readily from stage to TV, and occasionally to film, but the stage is still considered the route to stardom," he said.
The script for the series pilot was sent to him last year by Universal TV at the behest of its author, Michael Sloan, a British writer/producer who 14 years ago wrote a short student teleplay that Woodward said he appeared in without pay. (The actor also was known to CBS for his role last year in George C. Scott's TV version of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol.")
"The character fascinated me, and I thought he'd fascinate other people too," Woodward recalled, noting that "nobody along the way ever suggested that he not be played as English." He said he was intrigued by the "mysterious" nature of the character. "He was and remains a puzzle to me," he said.
"It's rare that a part comes along you want to explore and develop, and rare that you have an opportunity to do so," he continued, pointing out that the opportunity almost never comes in a one-time film shot, and that it comes "rarer and rarer even on the stage. A TV series allows you to do so."
Woodward was quick to point out that English TV series are more profitable to actors than American series (he said salaries usually include royalties for repeats and therefore average higher than here, where royalties come later, if at all). He finds the English production schedule more conducive to "quality work"; with nearly twice the time to prepare for a weekly series, including "the luxury of adequate rehearsal time." And there is "a higher quality" of material on British television than on TV here.
"There is a lot of horrible British television too--a lot of horrible television everywhere," said Woodward. But he was especially critical of what he called the "over-importance" given to audience ratings here, adding that "the second-guessing, playing down to and fear of offending" American audiences often contribute a degree of "censorship" not usually found on stage or in films.
"We have and have not been guilty of all this," he said, referring to "The Equalizer," at the same time crediting CBS with being "bloody good" about not interfering.
Still, he recalled his initial impressions of going to work on the American series as "an unadulterated horror: You are suddenly in an altogether different world, and you have to cut your coats to fit it. Also, like a long run in the theater, you have to have a sense of humor, and hope that everyone else does too.
"But it's like a drug," he added. "You get used to it. And now we are catching our second wind.
"Any series, anywhere, takes time to build, and you also have to find your way through the (central) character, and with the time pressures we have here, it's even harder," continued Woodward, who said the series' creators--at his suggestion--are now taking time to look at "where McCall's coming from and where he's going."
As for the intense and sometimes explicit, graphic violence that erupts regularly on "The Equalizer," Woodward said, "I'm totally ambivalent about the violence. The character's a really violent man, even though he often covers it with charm; he lives in a violent city, and he's involved with violent cases (as a vigilante). You just hope that it's not gratuitous violence, and that 14-year-old kids are in bed (and not watching)."
Woodward expects to remain in New York and be available for as long as he and the series are wanted. "I can always return to the stage," he said, "but I'm enjoying this enormously, even with some of the frustrations. And, after all, being in a series is not quite the same as being confined to Sing Sing."