Scott Caan: On the crest of a crime wave

His performances in TV's Hawaii Five-O have wowed critics and fans all over the world. Guy Adams joins Hollywood's rising star on location.

What better place to meet Scott Caan than the Hilton on Honolulu's Waikiki Beach? This dirty great monument to high-rise tourism flashes confidently across the opening credits of Hawaii Five-0. Since he happens to be the breakout star of this recently-rebooted TV series, which is filmed on a sound-stage just a few blocks away, we are therefore in what fans regard as his natural habitat.

To viewers of the show, or at least its modern re-imagining, Caan is Danny "Danno" Williams, a swaggering cop with an occasional temper who spends each episode chasing bad guys and getting told to "Book 'em, Danno!" His preposterous quiff and rolled-up shirt-sleeves are as central to the new "Five-0" franchise as fast cars, shoulder-holsters, and the opening bars of its splendid theme tune.

But Caan, 35, is more than just a TV rent-a-cop. Instead, he's a highly accomplished actor, with a fine CV and a growing Hollywood profile. Born into minor movie royalty – his Dad is the Godfather star James Caan – his back-catalogue includes Gone in 60 Seconds and Ocean's Eleven. More recently, he's also been a fixture on Entourage, the fashionable HBO show about the trappings of super-stardom.

We meet up at lunchtime. He's accompanied by a dog called Davvi and a demeanour that suggests that he'd rather be having root canal surgery, without anaesthetic, than meeting Her Majesty's media. Despite his growing celebrity, Caan is clearly uncomfortable with some of the more vulgar promotional duties of his prime-time career. There are, it is safe to presume, plenty of places he'd rather be.

I attempt an icebreaker. The other day, he was pictured in a gossip magazine, buff, shirtless, and walking along one of Oahu's white sand beaches. Does he ever pinch himself, and wonder where it all went wrong? "Ha! I definitely feel lucky," he replies. "I'm lucky to be on Entourage, and lucky to be on this show." The picture caption, incidentally, touted his Hollywood "it-boy" status. "This playboy image... I've not slept with anybody in literally years. Where's it from?"

One obvious answer would be Hawaii Five-O. The 1970s show was re-launched last year, with an easy-on-the-eye cast and expensive production values. The end result is fun and frothy. Audiences in several continents lap it up (and a second series commences in the UK on 1 January). It is what you might call reliable, mainstream weeknight entertainment; CSI meets Baywatch, with some intriguing narrative journeys into the dark side of Aloha culture.

Caan is probably the best thing about the show. His character, a grumpy foil to Steve McGarrett (played by Alex O'Loughlin) is both the programme's most complex individual and its comic fulcrum. In the first series, he chased cops and robbers, and was beleaguered by a broken marriage. This series, his romantic problems continue. Though Caan's own love life is sunnier than his alter ego's – he describes his relationship status as "taken" – he does admit to a similarly melancholic disposition. "I don't think anyone's ever good doing a part where they don't bring a lot of themselves to it. So I think, yeah, I'm a lot like Danno," he says. "Like him, there's a part of me that wakes up miserable every day. And I've got to shake it off. There's a part of me that hates things. I think I'm a pretty cheery person when I meet people. I mean, I have a good outlook. But deep down, yeah, I sometimes want to jump off a balcony."

A moment to be cheerful came along a year ago, when Caan's work on "Five-O" bagged him a Golden Globe nomination, in the Supporting Actor category. "When the Globes happened, it was really big for me, because I realised that people do actually like what I'm doing here," he recalls. "Matt Damon was there and Robert Downey Jr was there, and they were getting up. So I thought 'Oh, maybe people like me like that.'"

Mainstream recognition has been a long time coming. Since the late 1990s, Caan has earned a regular crust in small to medium-sized films, without ever achieving major fame. In 2009, he wrote and starred in perhaps his best work, Mercy, a tender picture about love and bereavement. In a different lifetime, that might have provided a platform to indy-movie stardom. But it wasn't to be.

Instead, just as Caan's professional reputation was rising, the bottom was dropping out of the independent film market. In 2008, movie jobs had long since begun drying up. By 2009, he was starting to despair. His move into television was, he recalls, prompted by straightforward economics: he could either start taking small-screen roles, or think about selling his house.

"Ten years ago, there was a group of us – Dash Mihok, Jack Black, Jamie Kennedy, Tobey Maguire, people like that. We weren't A-list stars, but it seemed like we'd get three or four decent films a year, easily. Some of the guys became very famous. Joaquin Phoenix was in the mix, too, before he blew up. The rest of us did pretty well. But then the business changed. And I realised that television is the only way now for someone like me to stay working, and to make money and stay relevant."

Caan took the part on Hawaii Five-O on a whim, jetting to Oahu to film the pilot, before learning that he was now required to stay nine months and produce 24 episodes. The repetitive nature of a "procedural", where each episode revolves around solving a crime, initially frustrated him. "I kicked and screamed a lot," he says. "Everybody who's done a show like this, they want more to do as far as exploring a character goes, and less procedural stuff. I hadn't known what I was getting into when I took the job. That was probably my stupidity."

Caan, who is close to father James, – he says they effectively "grew up together" in 1980s Los Angeles – asked for paternal advice. "He told me not to do the show," he recalls. "He didn't have fun doing TV. He got bored and said it gets dull playing the same role." Thankfully, Scott says, the show has managed to generate mass-market appeal without being an artistic desert. "Creatively, I get my fix just when I'm about to lose it from not getting it," he says. "I'm definitely more at ease than I was last year, but I don't think I'll ever be happy."

A hit TV show also generates large amounts of cash. Principal characters, on a network drama, can pull well into six figures per episode for 24 episodes a year. For a renaissance man like Caan, who learned his trade in theatre, has produced coffee table books as a professional photographer, was a teenage hip-hop artist, and still harbours ambitions of writing, producing, and starring in small movies, the freedom his growing bank balance can generate is quite a draw.

"When you mix creativity and money, there's always something very evil about that combination. But the truth is that when you get the right amount of money, and have the right amount of success, you get to choose what you want to do. If, in five years, I've got enough money, I might buy a theatre and do nothing but theatre, or write plays and do them with my friends. Or I might spend a million dollars a year making small movies that I really love." High-art may one day come from Hawaii Five-O. It's a strange, but comforting thought.

'Hawaii Five-O' starts on 1 January at 9pm on Sky 1

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