Foreigners Playing Americans Star In U.S. TV Shows

Brits, Aussies and an Irishman star as Americans in a number of U.S. TV shows like House, The Mentalist and Without a Trace. Each network has a show with a non-American star playing an American. What's their appeal?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Do you recognize this voice?

Mr. HUGH LAURIE (British Actor): I could only say I have learned a huge amount of medicine from doing this role. I've also forgotten a huge amount of medicine.

MONTAGNE: Maybe this sounds more familiar.

(Soundbite of TV show "House")

Mr. LAURIE: (As Gregory House) Cocaine explains the narcolepsy. Narcolepsy explains the sleepwalking. Whatever is in the cocaine, other than cocaine, explains the memory loss.

MONTAGNE: Yes, that is Hugh Laurie from the hit series on Fox TV "House." He's only one of many actors - British, Irish, Australian - who play American leads on television dramas. NPR's Kim Masters ask why these roles aren't played by, if you'll forgive the expression, real Americans.

KIM MASTERS: House is a medical man. These other guys are in law enforcement. There's Rufus Sewell in the new CBS series "Eleventh Hour."

(Soundbite of TV show "Eleventh Hour")

Mr. RUFUS SEWELL (British Actor): (As Jacob Hood) ...the plane crashed, the temperature on the ground was minus 20 Celsius...

MASTERS: He's British. This is Jason O'Mara in ABC's "Life on Mars."

(Soundbite of TV show "Life on Mars")

Mr. JASON O'MARA (Irish Actor): (As Detective Sam Tyler) Speaking of which, can you go down to 215th Street Impound in the morning? Give Reeve's car a once over. There may be something in there that gives us a line on this guy.

MASTERS: O'Mara is Irish. And just to show it's not only the boys, here's Australian Anthony LaPaglia and British actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste in the CBS show "Without a Trace."

(Soundbite of TV show "Without a Trace")

Mr. ANTHONY LAPAGLIA (Australian Actor): (As Jack Malone) So what's with the whole swastika thing?

Ms. MARIANNE JEAN-BAPTISTE (British Actress): (As Vivian Johnson) Well, apparently, one of the groups saw the fight between Tom and Allen online and asked Tom to join. Now, what are you...

MASTERS: That's quite an invasion of talent from overseas.

Mr. PETER GOLDEN (Executive Vice President, Talent and Casting, CBS): There is a limited number of actors who really can, kind of, carry a series on their shoulders.

MASTERS: Peter Golden is head of casting for CBS. Given how hard it is to find a real star, he says, it only makes sense to look abroad.

Mr. GOLDEN: It's really throwing the net wide.

MASTERS: And lately, that wide net seems to be catching a lot of actors from England, like Damian Lewis on the NBC show "Life."

(Soundbite of set of TV show "Life")

MASTERS: Life is about a cop named Charlie Crews who returns to the force after being wrongly imprisoned for murder. Far Shariat is one of the executive producers of "Life." He says, he and his partner, Rand Ravich, considered American actors to star in the show, but Shariat said something was missing.

Mr. FAR SHARIAT (Executive Producer, "Life"): You're either a geeky American lead or you are the big brawny American lead. But we didn't have those kind of '40s, '50s movie stars we used to. It's tough to find somebody who could be verbal, but also manly.

MASTERS: Ravich says he's a bit of an Anglophile, but more importantly, British actors are trained. Damian Lewis performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Ravich says that training is built, in part, on a strong comic tradition.

Mr. RAND RAVICH (Executive Producer, "Life"): What we found out about English actors is that they're funny. The American tough guys, we had a hard time finding one who will be the butt of the joke. Whereas Damian, when that is appropriate, Damian has no problem doing it. He's like half Stan Morrow and half Steve McQueen.

Mr. SHARIAT: And you could argue that in our system, if you're a young actor who isn't leading man handsome, you're probably not going to get nurtured the way that you would in England or in Australia, just based on talent.

Mr. RAVICH: Damian is very handsome. I mean, I'm a married man, but I think Damian is very - well, Damian is very, very handsome.

Mr. SHARIAT: Absolutely. But you know, when he was 19 years old, he was probably a little bit gangly, and he wasn't like a young heartthrob-looking guy.

MASTERS: Ravich says "Life" is very much about its Los Angeles setting, and Lewis had to be convincing as a native. Lewis had played an American hero, Major Richard D. Winters, in HBO's "Band of Brothers," so they knew he was up to the task.

Mr. DAMIAN LEWIS (British Actor): And I have started to develop an American persona that I actually feel as comfortable in almost as my native English one.

MASTERS: I found that pretty convincing, but Lewis admitted that switching takes a little time.

Mr. LEWIS: First thing in the morning, if I come in, you know, I find myself just twisting my words up because I get caught between an English and an American pronunciation.

MASTERS: In his trailer during a break from shooting, Lewis answers my questions in American. He says playing Charlie Crews is harder if he switches, and he thinks consistency helps the cast and crew.

Mr. LEWIS: If they are only dealing with one Damian, you know, throughout the 16 hours or 15 hours that we spend together each day, I just think it's more settling for people.

MASTERS: Lewis says he's not sure why so many British actors are being tapped to play American heroes. But he says one theory is that American actors of his generation have either made it by their mid-30s or not. British actors, he says, are fresh faces, even though they have lived enough of life, so to speak, to make them interesting to watch. Kim Masters, NPR News.

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Correction Nov. 17, 2008

In some versions of this story, we incorrectly said that actor Simon Baker is British. He's actually Australian.

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