BY: Frazier Moore
NEW YORK – On ‘The Event,’ Blair Underwood plays newly sworn-in President Elias Martinez, who, like every president before him, meets with crises he could never have imagined when he took office.
One problem he inherits is from out of this world: What to do about extraterrestrial aliens who crash-landed in Alaska in 1944. While an unknown number of them remain at large to this day (and happen to be indistinguishable from humans), 97 are imprisoned as Top Secret detainees. After more than six decades of interrogation and torture, they still press the U.S. government for release. And since they’ve barely aged with the passage of time, they’d still be young enough to enjoy it.
But how would the American people react on learning of the aliens’ existence? And do some of these creatures pose a threat to human life?
Such questions dog Martinez, who is just one of many characters in this multi-strand ensemble thriller also starring Jason Ritter, Sarah Roemer, Laura Innes and Zeljko Ivanek.
Airing on NBC Mondays at 9 p.m. ET, ‘The Event’ has the action-adventure rambunctiousness of ’24′ and a time-shifting narrative that smacks of “Lost.” While not a smash hit since its September premiere, it has won a full-season order. And so far, it’s been a wild ride.
But Underwood recalls that, when he was first approached by its producers, “My major question was, ‘How authentic do you see this show?’ They said, ‘We want to keep it as realistic as possible.’”
It figures Underwood would ask. During a quarter-century of roles, the 46-year-old actor has tried to keep at least one foot on the ground with performances that feel real, going back to his breakout role as smooth but headstrong attorney Jonathan Rollins on ‘L.A. Law.’
He subsequently starred on the medical drama ‘City of Angels,’ joined the cast of ‘Sex and the City’ its final season and set off sparks with Heather Locklear on their short-lived airport drama, ‘LAX.’
During 2008, Underwood was appearing on no fewer than three TV series. He had a recurring role as the sexy grade-school teacher on the CBS sitcom ‘The New Adventures of Old Christine.’ He was a regular on ABC’s comic melodrama ‘Dirty Sexy Money.’ And on HBO’s acclaimed drama ‘In Treatment,’ he was a troubled Navy fighter pilot undergoing psychological therapy.
Then, after a jobless 2009 he describes as “tough” but instructive (“Maybe the larger lesson was about being still”), ‘The Event’ came his way.
In crafting the character Martinez, Underwood says he asked himself, “What do you look for in someone you’d vote for?”
Whatever it is, Martinez seems to have it, even as, radiating dignity and leadership, he wrestles with a crisis he still can’t fully grasp. Most recently, he has focused on the mysterious disappearance of Sophia Maguire (Innes), the leader of the detainees with whom Martinez had met to discuss their release.
Martinez was born in Miami to Cuban refugees, but his Afro-Cuban heritage is just one of many details that make up the character. That’s the way Underwood likes to see himself as an African-American actor inhabiting roles.
“Race comes into play in every aspect of life, whether we acknowledge it or not,” he says. “But the conscious effort I make as an actor is, ‘Just let this man be a person.’”
That includes on-screen romances, which, with Underwood’s leading-man good looks, come naturally for him.
He points to his pairings with Locklear, Cynthia Nixon (‘Sex and the City’), Melissa George (‘In Treatment’), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (‘Old Christine’) and Julia Roberts (the 2002 feature ‘Full Frontal’).
“But with every one of those roles,” he says, “before I came on board I had a conversation with the producers and said, ‘If it’s about an interracial relationship, I’m grateful and I thank you, but I’m not the actor you’re looking for.’ In every one of those roles, race almost never comes up.
“I think because of the choices I’ve made, it’s opened up doors where I’m not perceived as just one type of actor.”
His interest in acting was triggered at an early age.
“I’d watch the kids on TV and think how cool that must be,” he recalls. “I wanted to know, ‘How do I get in that box like those other kids?’”
He studied musical theater at Carnegie Mellon University, then, at 23, arrived on the red-hot ‘L.A. Law’ as it began its second season in 1987.
He still voices gratitude for his seven-year run and the career it launched.
“Most of us in life, especially in my industry, just want a shot,” he says, “and when I got that opportunity, I wanted to make the most of it. I still carry that with me. I hope I never lose that sense of being hungry — a sense of being happily discontent.”
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