This is a longer version of my story on the cover of today’s Los Angeles Times Calendar section.
If you want to know what it’s like to be a television star, walk down a Los Angeles sidewalk with Kevin McKidd, who “Grey’s Anatomy” fans instantly recognize as the tortured trauma surgeon Owen Hunt. If you want to know what it’s like to be a movie star, listen to McKidd describe a solitary stroll he took on a New York street during the filming of “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lighting Thief.”
“There’s a shot where I arrive in the city and walk up out of the ocean,” says McKidd, who portrays Poseidon in the modern-day adventure with gods of Greek myth. “It was one of those moments as an actor where you say, ‘Wow, I am making a big movie.’ There was a huge crane for this one big, long shot of me and the city skyline as I’m walking toward the Empire State building. The preliminary work was, like, two or three weeks getting the lighting just right on all of these buildings.”
McKidd, with a wink and a sly smile, said it’s a day at the office he won’t soon forget. “I felt pretty special after that shot.”
The 36-year-old McKidd has high hopes that “Percy Jackson,” which opened Friday, might become a franchise just like the bestselling bookshelf series of the same name by author Rick Riordan. The film chronicles the adventures of a young boy who might remind some moviegoers of Harry Potter — both are young outsiders who discover they have a supernatural heritage and then get an education at a magical sanctuary while battling mysterious forces with the help of young friends.
Instead of a boy-wizard, young Percy (played by teen heartthrob Logan Lerman) is a demi-god, the son of mortal woman (Catherine Keener) and Poseidon, the god of the seas. If the movie does click and becomes a trilogy as hoped, it would mark another new chapter in McKidd’s peripatetic career, which began with a memorable turn as a member of the hard-luck junkie crew in “Trainspotting” and reached its zenith, as least in the eyes of critics, with his lead performance as Lucius Vorenus on the HBO series “Rome.”
The Scotsman said he has a sort of compartmentalized celebrity now. Women know him from “Grey’s,” men for “Rome” and youngsters, he suspects, will soon be referring to him as “Percy’s father.” With two children of his own, ages 7 and 9, he’s finding that the tour of duty holding the trident has a lot of traction with the elementary- and middle-school crowd.
“My son has read all of the books and he is immersed in it, like a lot of kids,” McKidd said. “It’s going to be interesting to see how the film does.the hope it will be a trilogy.”
Poseidon is an absentee father to Jackson in the film and that strained relationship is the defining theme in the movie, which finds Percy and his friends caught in the middle of impending war between the gods, who never left earth even though they keep a far lower profile. McKidd said that young Lerman, who was also in “3:10 to Yuma,” is a star in making — the elder actor was impressed that the teenager spoke up about a pivotal scene where his character and Poseidon were supposed to embrace for the first time.
“It’s this ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ moment and Logan said, ‘I don’t think at this point my character would do that, I think he would just go as far a shaking hands, this is the start of their relationship’ and I was impressed that someone of his age would recognize that and not just go along with what on the script page,” McKidd said. “At that age, I would have said, ‘The script says hug, let’s hug.’ His instincts for his age are amazing. I was so uncomfortable at that age in front of a camera. He’s very grown up in his choices.”
Director Chris Columbus, who also directed the first two “Potter” films, said that McKidd brought a “quiet power” to the role fo the sea god and that his experience in historical roles gave him the gravity needed to be a Greek statue come to life. Still, Mckidd said he Sean Bean, who plays Zeus, had a rough time during one scene keeping a straight face despite their years of experience.
“There’s a scene where we meet and we glare each other and the music is going and the lightning and I walk up and say, ‘Zeus,’ and he greets me, ‘Poseidon,’ and and after a couple of takes we started chatting just about how silly it all is,” McKidd said. “Now Sean is a real giggler. Once he starts he can’t stop. He’s this intense actor, right, but when he starts giggling…and that happens and this not a cheap scene, this is expensive. And there we are laughing…”
McKidd moved stateside almost three years ago to take on the lead role in “Journeyman,” the short-lived NBC time-travel series. That opportunity sprung from his acclaimed work in “Rome,” but it was “Grey’s,” where he plays a former battlefield doctor, that he connected with his largest audience. His character is dealing with post-traumatic stress and relationship challenges with his girlfriend, Cristina Yang, played by, Sandra Oh. McKidd arrived on the show in 2008 and has found it a life-changing role.
“I’m really just like acting I’m not always aware of what is hip and what is popular and what is zeitgeist,” McKidd said. “But ‘Grey’s’ is just a machine. I wasn’t really prepared for the epic nature of how popular the show is. I’ve never been involved in anything with that kind of reach. It’s worldwide now.It’s weird.”
In person, McKidd has a strong accent from his native Elgin, a city on the River Lossie, and he modulates it for his different roles. It’s a bit of a challenge for any actor playing a role of antiquity to pick a voice to speak in, but instead of obsessing about it, he said, the most successful approach is to “keep the regional sound in each actor’s voice” but add a certain formality in the cadence.
“You don’t want to sound like some posh British guy but you do want this heightened, slightly classical form,” McKidd said, who was also in sword-swinging territory with his roles in “The Last Legion” and Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven.” “You can’t just walk around acting like you’re in ‘Trainspotting.’ It’s about tone and tonality but if the actors hold on to some of their own regional background it sounds more natural to the audience over the course the movie.”
McKidd left drama school in 1994 and, right away, found himself in the vile and sublime heroin epic “Trainspotting,” based on the Irvine Welsh novel, which was directed by Danny Boyle and featured an Oscar-nominated script by John Hodge. Mckidd played Tommy, a jock who goes into a needle spiral after his girlfriend ditches him for losing a sex tape.
“It was an amazing thing to be part of,” McKidd said. “It was so low-budget, nobody knew it would be that big, not even Danny Boyle. It was a great early gig for an actor… I saw Danny the night he won the Oscar for ‘Slumdog Millionaire ‘ and we had a good laugh and I told him, ‘Do you remember, we had no money at all?’ I was so happy for him. He’s one of the best directors. He was offered a lot of the big franchises but he turned them down so he could do what he wants to do.”
Walking the career line between commercial success and critical satisfaction is an interesting topic.
The early reviews for “Percy” have not been especially kind and there has been a backlash for major plot changes and eliminated characters. “It’s not just that it’s a lot less funny than the book,” Michael O’ Sullivan wrote in the Washington Post, “It’s also a lot less fun.” Kenneth Turan, in the Los Angeles Times, dismissed the film as “generic filmmaking at its most banal.”
McKidd (who was interviewed before the film was screened) said his personal goal is to put together a career that keeps him energized by its surprises. That’s clear with his next big screen appearance: McKidd is also part of the cast of Guy Moshe’s “Bunraku,” a film that melds live-action and animation for a surreal noir tale. The $30 million movie, to be released later this year, takes its name from a Japanese form of puppetry. The cast includes Josh Harnett, Woody Harrelson, Ron Perlman and Demi Moore.
“It’s a very, very strange film,” McKidd said. “It’s a hybrid of a western and a martial arts film. It was also shot in Bucharest on green-screen stages. The world it’s set in is almost circus-like in the feel of it, and it’s all origami. The whole universe is constantly folding paper to create a cityscape or interiors of rooms or the sunrise…. I play a very effeminate master killer who’s almost like a Fred Astaire tap-dancing his way through the movie. It’s so different than anything I’ve done.”
More than anything, McKidd aspires to return to his “Rome” character. The series, which lasted only 22 episodes, was created by Bruno Heller, John Milius and William J. MacDonald and set in the roiling days when Rome was transitioning from a republic to an empire. Heller, the architect behind the CBS hit “The Mentalist,” has a film project in mind that would carry on the tale of the noble, duty-bound solider Vorenus and his friend Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson), who has more of a pirate’s soul.
“I spoke to Bruno a few days ago and it’s looking good, but the problem is money’s tight in the independent film world right now,” McKidd said. “I hope it will happen, though. If things work, ‘Percy Jackson’ will do well, and then I can do a second one and the ‘Rome’ movie, too. If the gods are willing….”
— Geoff Boucher
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Photos: Top and third, Kevin McKidd in Hollywood in January 2010 (Jay Clendinin/Los Angeles Times); Second, McKidd and Sean Bean in “Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lighting Thief (Fox); At bottom, promotional posters for “Trainspotting,” “Rome” and “Percy Jackson.”