In 2007 when Jack Davenport and Andrew Lincoln appeared in the ill-conceived This Life reunion special it was hard to shake the sense that the two men continued to be defined by their roles in the cult drama. This Life had ended in 1997. Since then, Davenport had starred in the underrated Ultraviolet, played Steve in sitcom Coupling and found a measure of success as naval officer James Norrington in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Meanwhile, Lincoln was carving out a line in "nice guy" roles in everything from Teachers and Afterlife to Love Actually.
Yet for viewers of a certain age, it didn't matter that Davenport received an Olivier nomination for The Servant in 2002 or that Lincoln garnered strong reviews in everything from Jez Butterworth's Parlour Song to Joe Penhall's Blue/Orange, they remained forever bad boy Miles and good guy Egg.
Although they remain sanguine about it, it must have incredibly frustrating to be pigeonholed in that way. "Honestly, it's wonderful to have that sort of problem, it means people have taken the roles to their heart," says Lincoln. "That said, I do think it's your responsibility to choose roles to confound people and when people have identified you so much in one role then it's fun to smash the stereotype."
Smash the stereotype both men have. In the five years since that disastrously reviewed reunion special they find themselves at the forefront of the latest British assault on US television: Lincoln has won widespread acclaim for his turn as the taciturn, trigger-happy Southern sheriff Rick Grimes in zombie thriller The Walking Dead, which returned to FXUK this month while Davenport turns in a scene-stealing performance as a sarcastic theatre director in the much-hyped Broadway drama Smash, which comes to Sky Atlantic in April.
"It's a radically different role for me," says Lincoln, who hired a dialect coach and admits that he found himself keeping Rick's Southern accent throughout filming. "Yeah, I took it very, very seriously," he says with a laugh. "When my wife first heard me speak she said, 'Are you going to be doing this all the time?' I said, 'Yes' and she went, 'Oh my God'. I'm probably certifiable but it feels really, really normal doing it while I'm working on the show."
Davenport has less of stretch playing British theatre director Derek Wills, a man British audiences will almost certainly see as Miles Stewart with a theatre degree and 15 years more experience in delivering withering put-downs. ("I knew you'd say that you're British," he remarks caustically when the comparison is made.)
Yet, while the sarcasm and smarm are familiar, the actor says he was surprised to win the role. "I haven't actually played a part like this for 15 years," he says. "I'm mostly known over here for playing a bunch of cuckolds and losers [in addition to Norrington he had roles in short-lived shows Swingtown and FlashForward, playing a would-be swinger in suburban Seventies America and a conflicted quantum physicist respectively]. I couldn't quite believe that Theresa [Rebeck, Smash's writer] asked me to do it. To be honest, I'm thrilled that I'm finally getting the chance to get the girl again."
And Davenport insists that while his character might be lacking in morals, he's not an out-and-out villain. "His lack of tact is in the service of something else," he says. "A musical in development is an unformed things... somebody has to take charge and you can't pussyfoot around. When I do or say something unspeakable there's often a scene where I don't apologise particularly but I explain my behaviour and you go 'oh OK, I get it, somebody has to run this show."
While Lincoln has the safety of heading the cast of a bona fide hit, Davenport, who after his Swingtown experience knows all about starring in well-reviewed, low-rated network dramas, has admitted to some trepidation about his new show's prospects, telling Interview magazine: "I would be a fool to have solid expectations of how a network audience might respond." Yet he remains hopeful that Smash's pedigree (in addition to the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Rebeck, the show features songs written by Broadway composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman) will shine through: "I think that as each week goes by and more and more songs get added to the show... you'll see that the music is integral to the action... you really get to kind of go along for the ride and see how an entire production is shaped, and that's a pretty exciting thing to watch," he says.
How does it feel to be on the verge of making it big in the US, all those years after becoming household names in the UK? "The lovely thing is that we're a testament to the fact that if you hang around long enough you become the last men standing," says Lincoln, adding that he's been delighted by how many British actors are doing well in America right now. In addition to the usual suspects such as Hugh Laurie, whose run in House is nearing its end, and Gossip Girl's Ed Westwick, this year has seen much praised turns from Jack Huston in Boardwalk Empire and Damian Lewis in Homeland. Meanwhile, Stephen Mangan has received strong reviews for Episodes, Ioan Gruffudd is playing Sarah Michelle Gellar's untrustworthy husband in Ringer, Spooks' star Raza Jaffrey has an eye-catching role as ingénue Karen's supportive but sardonic boyfriend alongside Davenport in Smash, Jason Isaacs is the lead in upcoming thriller Awake and Identity's Shaun Parkes is currently co-starring in horror series The River.
"It's lovely to see people like Stephen, Shaun and Jack who are great friends of mine doing well here at the same time," says Lincoln. "For Jack and me, it's great that we had the sort of experience we had with This Life at the beginning of our career and can now share a similar working experience at the midway point."
As to what the future will involve, Davenport, who has already been hailed as something of a sex symbol by the US press, is simply hoping that Smash will be a hit because "I personally think it's a fantastic show", although he's adamant that no matter how big it becomes he won't be singing. Lincoln too remains hopeful that Rick Grimes will battle zombies for a couple of years yet. "Of course, I'm looking at film roles," he says. "To have had this sort of introduction into the industry in America is beyond my wildest dreams. Honestly, I couldn't have wished for a better start."
'The Walking Dead' is on Fridays at 10pm on FXUK. 'Smash' starts on Sky Atlantic in April
This Life: Where are they now?
Daniela Nardini (Anna)
The only housemate to win a Bafta, for her memorable turn as the bad-girl barrister Anna, Daniela Nardini was expected to be the show's breakout star. As it is, she has worked steadily since 1997 in a series of one-off television dramas and a film, 'Elephant Juice' by 'This Life' creator Amy Jenkins. Most recently, she has starred opposite Rachel Weisz in 'A Streetcar Named Desire' at the Donmar Warehouse, playing landlady Eunice Hubbell and appeared in 'The Fades', a new BBC3 fantasy/horror series by Jack Thorne. She lives in Glasgow with her partner and daughter.
Jason Hughes (Warren)
Leaving Warren's gay metropolitan lifestyle behind, Jason Hughes has been holed up in the crime-ridden countryside for the past six years, playing poor, put-upon Detective Sergeant Jones in 'Midsomer Murders'. Before migrating to Midsomer, he notched up several British films as well as an impressive list of theatre credits – at the Donmar, the National and the Royal Court. He lives in Brighton with his wife, Natasha Dahlberg, a jewellery designer, and their two children.
Amita Dhiri (Milly)
The actress behind the most famous punch on British television has thrown her weight behind a number of long-running series since 'This Life' appearing in 'Silent Witness', 'Judge John Deed' and 'Holby City'. In 2007, she joined the cast of 'The Bill', playing DC Grace Dasari in 95 episodes until the series was axed in August 2010.
Ramon Tikaram (Ferdy)
The catalyst for the 'This Life +10' reunion episode in 2007 as the other lead characters gathered for Ferdy's funeral, Tikaram has enjoyed a varied career appearing in cult shows such as 'Primeval', 'Crossroads', 'Nathan Barley' and 'Dream Team'. On stage, he has played Judas in 'Jesus Christ Superstar' in the West End and Gaddafi in the ENO's dub/punk opera 'Gaddafi: a Living Myth'. Since 2009, he has played Qadim Shah in EastEnders, putting in several stints on the soap. He is currently touring the country as the lead in 'The King and I' and next week will appear in the BBC's latest house-sharing cult drama 'White Heat', as Jay.
- More about: