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THE ACTORS : fall television preview

'Life,' to live as he chooses

British actor Damian Lewis heads to L.A. to portray a guy who gets back his existence and, his ordeal over, turns mellow.

September 16, 2007|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

Damian Lewis, the British actor known for dark dramas, has left London for L.A. sunshine and the lead in NBC's quirky "Life," a series about an ex-cop still optimistic after being freed from years of wrongful imprisonment.
Charlie Crews, the eccentric LAPD detective he portrays, was sentenced to life and spent 12 years in jail before being released with a $50-million settlement. Now he drives a Bentley, chomps green apples and drops Eastern spiritual tidbits like, "You don't have to understand here to be here."
"The central thing to hang on to is that because of his experience, he's undergone an experience no one else has," Lewis said. "So when he comes out of jail and is given his life back, he isn't bound by the minutiae and banalities of everyday life. He rises above that. He sets his own behavior codes. He's been changed by the physical and psychological abuse that he suffered in jail."

Despite the brutality of his character's imprisonment, the show, which debuts Sept. 26, is meant to be a light entertainment, Lewis said. "He is almost a naif. He's an optimist; he has childlike qualities. He's fun, light, all the things he hasn't had. He chooses to live his life to the full. He's not always successful. He chooses to see the good in every situation."

He may be one of those quirky detectives TV seems to like lately, but he's not "quirky for quirky's sake," Lewis said. "He possibly lives in a state of mind we all wish to be in," he said.

Lewis, best known for "Band of Brothers," "The Forsyte Saga" and the BBC drama "Friends and Crocodiles," was volunteering for Christian Aid, one of the U.K.'s oldest charities, when he got a call from NBC asking if he'd be interested in the part. He said he agonized over the opportunity, since working in Los Angeles could mean lengthy separations from his new family. Lewis' wife, actress Helen McCrory, is pregnant with their second child.

"We were discussing the possibility of moving out of London for a few years," he said. "I've grown up all my life in Northern European cities. It rains a lot. The skies are gray. It might be fun to go live on the Pacific Ocean."

NBC has ordered 12 scripts and will presumably await audience reaction before ordering the remaining nine. Until then, Lewis said he'll be renting his place on the Pacific.

Lewis, who has much experience as a Shakespearean actor, said the TV scripts he has been given to read lately are of higher quality than the film scripts. "I like long-form drama. There's the opportunity to do something over a period of time," he said. Steven Spielberg's "Band of Brothers," for example, was able to achieve much more than his film "Saving Private Ryan," Lewis said.

Lewis said he found the "Life" scripts and the role of Crews particularly strong. After talking with producers, Lewis said he knew he would be working with an "intelligent, talented and creative" group. As long as they were given creative freedom, he said, he concluded "it could be a happy experience."

As it turns out, Lewis is one of a slew of Brits polishing American accents to appear in network series this season. Kevin McKidd ("Rome") will star in NBC's "Journeyman"; Lloyd Owen ("Monarch of the Glen") will be in CBS' "Viva Laughlin" (a remake of "Viva Blackpool"); Michelle Ryan ("EastEnders") will play the lead in NBC's "Bionic Woman"; Julian Ovenden ("Foyle's War") will play one of the love interests in "Cashmere Mafia"; and Alex O'Loughlin and Sophia Myles will star in CBS' "Moonlight," among many others.

While some, including Lewis, have joked that British actors may cost less, the actor chalked the trend up to coincidence.

British actors are often offered roles but aren't available to accept them, he said. "It was a coincidence that everyone said yes. Then a good proportion of those who said yes had their projects picked up.

"Talent has been coming from abroad for 100 years," he said. Hollywood isn't just the center of an American industry, he pointed out. "It's the center of a world industry. Talent from around the world will pass through here at some point.

"The large numbers of British actors says more about the strength of television," he said. "Television has changed massively in quality in the last 10 years as quality films struggle to be made. The lines and boundaries have blurred between film and TV."

Lewis' latest role has already been likened by some critics to Hugh Laurie's idiosyncratic genius doctor in "House."

The character also recalls Kyra Sedgwick's offbeat LAPD detective in "The Closer" or Vincent D'Onofrio's eccentric whiz in "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."

But Lewis had only one response to such speculation.

"Comparisons," he said, paraphrasing Shakespeare, "are odious."

--

lynn.smith@latimes.com

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