After a summer full of get-me-off-this-game-show-style reality crap, it’s nice to see good drama make a come back. Besides the fourth season return of Breaking Bad (tonight at 10 p.m. on AMC), a new short-order detective series from PBS begins tonight called Zen (part of Masterpiece Mystery!, 9 p.m., check PBS affiliates in your area).
Rufus Sewell, so good in Pillars of the Earth, steps away from the swords and sandals and into modern Italian suits to play a complex and intriguing Italian detective named Aurello Zen. Tonight’s 90-minute opener is called “Vendetta”; two more episodes air the following Sundays in July.
The English actor was in Los Angeles at the TCA press tour last January and says he likes Zen because he’s not your typical action hero. “What I like about him is that he’s almost passive sometimes,” says Sewell. “Sometimes his motivation might be to just get through the day and not get fired. If there’s a banana skin he might slip up on it. If he lands on his feet, he hurts his feet doing it.”
I had interviewed Sewell several months earlier when Pillars of the Earth premiered in Canada. He had been in Rome working on Zen at the time. I found him witty and engaging and very candid about the business, as he was again in Los Angeles. When I suggested all this exposure to North American audiences must be bringing offers left and right, Sewell told me he hadn’t worked in five months, since Zen wrapped.
That’s partly because Sewell doesn’t just do anything. The 43-year-old, who headlined the short-lived CBS series Eleventh Hour, picks parts carefully and has always been vocal about not wanting to be typecast. He’ll sit part of a year and grow his beard rather than do, say, another gladiator movie.
“One of the problems of my career,” he says, “is that the level of anonymity and notoriety I enjoy prevents me from getting the jobs I really want. While I’m as famous as I want to be, if I were better known I might get closer to the parts I want. I have to duck and dive and scavenge.”
He was happy to lose the beard he wore in Pillars to play the much more modern and dapper Zen. “I used to call it my unemployment beard and then I mucked it all up by actually doing a job with my beard.”
Sewell is philosophical about the business, suggesting Zen and/or Pillars could lead to intriguing jobs five years down the road. As Canada gets more and more involved with international co-productions, he’s one of those actors who could kick ass, say, on Republic of Doyle if Hawco ever runs out of Newfoundlanders.

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