Stuart Townsend stars in ABC-TV’s new drama, “Betrayal,” which airs on Sunday nights at 10/9c. We’ve seen three episodes so far in which he plays Jack, a lawyer who married into a family with a morally questionable patriarch played by the great James Cromwell. Henry Thomas plays Jack’s mentally challenged brother-in-law.
Jack meets Sara (played by Hannah Ware) by chance, and they are irresistibly attracted to one another, even though each of them is married to someone else. To complicate matters, Sara’s husband turns out to be an ambitious prosecutor who must go up against Jack in court. Yikes!
The show, which is set and shot in Chicago, is filled with intrigue and multi-layered story lines, including what looks like a budding lesbian relationship between Jack’s teenage daughter and one of his young employees. It’s nice to see different kinds of characters represented on network TV for a change.
You might remember Stuart as the Vampire Lestat in “Queen of the Damned,” an iconic role that he played more than a decade ago. If you haven’t already, I recommend checking out some of his other films, like “Trapped,” “Head in the Clouds,” “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” “Shooting Fish,” “Unhitched,” “Shade,” “Chaos Theory,” and my favorite, “About Adam.” (Check out his IMDB page for more info.)
He also starred in the Canadian series, “XIII,” a Bourne-like story with lots of action. “About Adam” and the 13 episodes of “XIII” are streaming on Netflix, so get to it.
I had a lot of fun chatting with Stuart on the phone. We covered a number of topics, including acting training, screenwriting, and his native Ireland. Mostly, though, we talked about the pleasures of working on “Betrayal.”
So far, eight episodes have been shot, so I asked Stuart if he could give us any teasers about what’s to come (without any spoilers, of course).
“Episodes three to seven really get more and more intense,” he said. “The knowledge of our illicit affair – it’s becoming harder to keep that quiet. That tension just ratchets up a lot…. six and seven are really big episodes, and we find out quite a lot about the characters that we didn’t know before. Yeah, it gets pretty juicy.”
Beyond what has already been shot, the actors don’t know much more than the audience. ”The writers refuse to tell us anything past what we’re doing,” Stuart said. “We can ask them questions about various things, and they explain stuff to us. But they try not to tell us too much.”
I asked if it was helpful for him as an actor to not know more about what will happen. “I like it. Some actors want to know everything, and they’ll really grill the writers,” he said. ”I kind of enjoy just finding out what we’re doing next week. One of the joys of the job is getting a script every two weeks and going, ‘Oh, wow! This is where I’m going. That’s why I said that two episodes ago. That’s why I feel that way.’ In a way, if you know too much, you can play too much subtext.”
One of the things I love about “Betrayal” is that the characters are not all good or all evil. One minute, Jack appears to be a good guy, and the next, not so much.
“He’s a compulsive liar, which I’m really enjoying,” Stuart said. “He really is a fixer. He’s the guy who smooths things out, makes everything fine, even if that means doing something amoral or immoral or just plain old lying. And I think it’s really interesting to play that.”
Then, when Jack finds himself attracted to Sara, his world is turned upside down. “His heart has been broken up by this woman, and in a sense, the show is a romance. And I think we all love that and relate to that and all want that for ourselves. So, when we recognize that, it’s kind of endearing,” he said.
“But his job description, what he does, is not so nice. Then, the repercussions of this affair are not so nice either. A lot of things are upset through his actions, and some of it’s kind of unforgivable. But that’s great [laughter] because that’s life, and I think so many people can relate to Jack because they might have sleepwalked through their lives and got married early on, did the thing that you’re meant to do, grew up too fast…. I think that’s very relatable.”
Stuart enjoys the romantic aspects of the character. “This episode I’m getting ready to do now, it’s kind of a romance episode again. I haven’t done it yet, but I’m excited to get back to it because we just had a whole family drama in a few episodes,” he said.
“Now, I’m excited to get back and be ‘romantic Jack’ again because when I play that, I feel younger and lighter. When I’m acting it, that’s what I try to get across. This woman makes him feel alive and makes him feels things, and he loves those things and that’s why he’s willing to do this. He feels so much even though the consequences are awful.”
I asked Stuart if he was concerned with making the character sympathetic for the audience. “I don’t even care if the audience loves him or hates him because I hope they do a little bit of both,” he said. “That’s what’s so great about this show. These guys are not one-dimensional.”
Stuart has nothing but praise for his cast mates. Wendy Moniz plays Jack’s wife, and she will have more to do in upcoming episodes. ”You haven’t seen much of her yet, but she’s so good!” Stuart said. “Oftentimes, when I’m doing a scene with her as my wife, I’m like, ‘This is terrible. This is such a lovely relationship. Why am I throwing this all away?’” [laughter]
Jack is American, but Stuart was born and raised in a suburb of Dublin. So, I asked if he has to work at the American accent. “The accent is pretty easy. I mean, I’ve been here for 12 years. I’m pretty naturalized at this stage,” he said. “It’s the words. There are so many little words that are different. ‘Record’ – you say ‘reck’-erd.’ But we say ‘reck’-oared.’ It’s so small, but there’s about 200 of those words. Sometimes, you remember them, and sometimes you don’t…. The script supervisor – maybe once a week she’ll come up and say, ‘By the way, it’s reck’-erd.’”
“When you have to emote, when you have to shout and get angry, that’s when the accent can slip back in,” he said. “I enjoy doing American because it’s slightly different from the way I normally speak, so it kind of gets you into the character.”
That led to a brief discussion about our mutual interest in shamanism – another word that’s pronounced differently depending on where you live. (You say “shah-man,” I say “shay-man” – let’s call the whole thing off.)
I had also read somewhere that Stuart is a musician. ”I wouldn’t go that far,” he humbly corrected me. “I can play instruments; I can jam. But I would never call myself a musician – no way, not even close. I grew up in Ireland jamming, but I’m not a musician … I’d love to be.”
Even if he isn’t a musician, he is a filmmaker. He wrote and directed “Battle in Seattle,” released in 2007 about the protests during the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. I asked if he’d like to make more films.
“Yeah, in a way, that’s what I wanted to do,” he said. “That project ["Battle in Seattle"] took me six years to complete. Then, I spent two years after that involved in three projects to direct. For one reason or another, they all fell apart, and I remember going, ‘Jesus, two years of life with nothing to show for it.’ And that’s when I decided to just go back to acting because I realized that there are so many variables [in filmmaking].”
“There was one script where we spent two years working on it,” he continued. “It was a great script – still is. No one would touch it; it’s just too controversial. No one would go near it. But it took two years to figure that out before we kind of went through everybody.”
Now, he’s writing another script when he has time in between acting work. “This is a bigger film than the last one, and it keeps growing…. There’s a lot of research,” he said.
“The first film I made, I spent a year and a half researching, six months writing the script, and a year and a half rewriting. This one, I wrote 40 pages straight away, and then, I got stuck. Then, I started to research more. Then, I rewrote another 60 pages, and then I threw out 60 pages and worked with a writer…. Now, I’ve just gone back to researching, and it’s crazy because I keep finding more stuff to research.”
He called the process almost a “treasure hunt.” Such is the world of filmmaking; you have to devote years to a single project. The slow work of researching and writing isn’t a drudge for Stuart, though. “It is so much fun. It’s amazing; I love it. Part of me doesn’t want to end it,” he told me. “It’s very creative for me. I enjoy that, and it’s more conceptual than acting.”
If you haven’t seen “Betrayal” yet, catch up on the first three episodes on ABC’s website. Then, watch the fourth episode Sunday night at 10/9c. Here’s a teaser.