Kiwi actor Antony Starr has landed his first American TV role on a new show by the producer of True Blood. Hannah Tattersall reports.
Charlotte, North Carolina is a long way from Auckland, but it's where Kiwi actor Antony Starr now spends much of his time, working on the set of new television series Banshee.
On this particular day Starr is kicking and punching his way around a small wooden table in a room with his co-star, Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen and their stunt doubles. They are rehearsing a scene in a slaughterhouse and the table is standing in for a large electric meat saw, the type capable of slicing sandwich meat - or in this case, facial parts.
This kind of role is new for Starr and one he admits has been physically demanding. Though he'd had some experience with martial arts, he says he was unprepared for Banshee "boot camp" and the complicated choreography of fight scenes.
"I've always been relatively active but these are huge fight scenes," he says. "It's far and away the most physical job I've ever had - and also the most physical thing I've ever done."
True Blood fans will be familiar with producer Alan Ball's brand of sexy television with swarthy leads. So when it came to casting his latest creation, Starr - with with his tanned skin, muscular physique and puppy dog eyes - was a natural fit for the new HBO/Cinemax drama which is on New Zealand screens next month.
Initially, however, Starr was passed over by Ball and his team because they thought he looked too young. It was only after the show's casting director convinced them to take a second look at his audition tape - filmed in a living room in Sydney - that Starr was flown to the US for a screen test.
"The minute we got into a room with him it was done," series writer Jonathan Tropper says. "And we loved the fact that nobody in America has really seen him in anything before."
At home of course, Starr will forever be remembered as playing disparate twins Van and Jethro West on long-running series Outrageous Fortune. And he's had some substantial Australian screen roles since.
Banshee will at the very least get him noticed in America. Starr plays convicted criminal Lucas Hood, who has spent the past 15 years in jail. Upon his release, and eager to make up for lost time, he goes in search of his past love (played by Yugoslavia-born Ivana Milicevic). He witnesses a bar brawl during which the sheriff of Banshee, a small Amish town in Pennsylvania, is killed, and subsequently takes on that man's identity.
It's an action-packed character drama, a story about haunted pasts and a town of secrets. The whole series is filmed on a handheld camera, which adds urgency and tension to the drama. But at the centre of the violence lies a love story.
"[Hood] is a very tormented soul, someone who's been abused and had the rough end of the stick pretty much his whole life," Starr explains. "He has a bit of a chip on his shoulder with the world and is out to get what's his. But, like everyone, he also wants to belong to a family or a community."
Starr grew up on the North Shore and got his first acting break in Shortland Street. Roles in Xena: Warrior Princess and a swathe of telemovies followed before Outrageous Fortune.
"With Outrageous Fortune I was world famous ... in New Zealand," he says ironically.
"New Zealand is small: you don't become successful; you become over-exposed."
Even so, when that show ended in 2010 after a six-year run, the actor struggled to find work. "I finished that show and I couldn't get a job for a year, so I spent that year going to Australia and coming to LA to establish myself," he says.
His efforts paid off. This year Starr appeared in Australian feature film Wish You Were Here and had a starring role in Sydney-based television drama Tricky Business.
Then of course, came Banshee, his first taste of the American market. He says the experience has been gratifying, particularly as the cast is very international, meaning everyone's in the same boat.
"It's very similar: work is still work, but the scale is different. Everything's a bit bigger, there's more money thrown around, but work is still work. I work with a great bunch of people. You are here primarily to work, but everyone is away from home so it would be kind of horrible if everyone were jerks," he says. "We're in Charlotte, not in LA or New York, so it's been nice to make some new friends and have a social element as well."
Ball is very trusting. "He's the overlord who's keeping an eye on everything that's done. He has given all the new talent and the writers a lot of space to find their voice and creativity.
"I've got no idea [what they saw in me]," he says of the audition. "I haven't really thought about that. I said thank you very much and have been head down and focused on my part of the job. It hasn't involved me sitting down and wondering why."
He contemplates this for a moment and then says: "I think that's why overseas actors do well [here]. We don't have that sense of entitlement.
"Some American actors see it as their birthright. We come over and see it as an opportunity and a gift."
Starr can't really predict what it could do for his career.
"There's not so much work going around that people can sit and be picky and choosy," he says.
"Obviously there are some things you'd rather do than others but I'm up for anything."
Who: Antony Starr
What: New American drama Banshee
When: Starts on SoHo, January 15