This is the life

Jack Davenport and Andrew Lincoln are among the British actors wowing audiences in the US. By Sarah Hughes

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 the neurotic Steve in sitcom Coupling and found a measure of success as cast-over 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.

They were undeniably successful. 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 for ever 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 a 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 (The Walking Dead draws higher ratings for AMC than either Mad Men or Breaking Bad, and went on to be a global success), 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.

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 at the moment. 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.

 

'The Walking Dead' is on Fridays at 10pm on FXUK. 'Smash' starts on Sky Atlantic in April

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