An accent on int'l stars

Fall skeds heavy with foreign leads

It's crunch time for TV studios' business affairs departments, but this year it seems as if they're spending as much time preparing work visas for the shows' stars as they are closing deals for new series.

A trend that emerged during the pilot-casting season came into focus this week when the networks picked up their new series: Foreign actors are playing the leads on a staggering number of new dramasnext season.

There have been a few here and there — Brit Hugh Laurie of "House" and Australian Anthony LaPaglia of "Without a Trace," both Emmy winners for their roles on the shows — but never quite like this. It's across the board on every network, and it's massive.

Almost all new drama series with a single lead that will premiere next season — a total of eight shows — have a foreign actor playing the role of an American. Even two iconic Hollywood characters, Jamie Sommers of "The Bionic Woman" and Sarah Connor of the "Terminator" franchise, will be played by British actresses Michelle Ryan and Lena Headey, respectively.

NBC picked up five one-hour series for next season, the ensemble dramedy "Lipstick Jungle," the action comedy "Chuck" and a trio of single-lead dramas, "Bionic Woman," "Journeyman" and "Life," all three of which are toplined by British actors: Ryan, "Rome" star Kevin McKidd and "Band of Brothers" star Damian Lewis, respectively.

NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly, who compared Lewis to Laurie at the network's press conference Monday, had been joking that NBC should be nominated for BAFTAs, the British TV awards.

British actors' ability to disguise their accents have always made them attractive for U.S. TV casting executives. But it was the drive to break new television stars that made them such a hot commodity this year, NBC head of casting Marc Hirschfeld said.

"I think that American viewers want to discover unknowns and watch them become the next generation of TV stars," he said. "I think the success of 'American Idol' is the most obvious example of that."

Sharon Klein, head of casting at 20th Century Fox TV, which produces "Journeyman," said that often the nature of the show demands going for an unfamiliar face.

"You don't want preconceived notions about the actor," she said.

With the success of shows fronted by a relative unknown — such as those in "My Name Is Earl," "Prison Break" and especially "House" — the networks have been more open to new faces, slowly opening the door for foreign actors in the past few years.

This year, the door was kicked down.

The title character in ABC's new drama series "Eli Stone" is played by Brit Jonny Lee Miller. Two of the four leads in ABC's new drama series "Cashmere Mafia" are played by British actress Frances O'Connor and Australian actress Miranda Otto.

The private investigator/vampire at the center of CBS' new drama series "Moonlight" is played by Australian actor Alex O'Loughlin, while the lead in the CBS musical/murder mystery "Viva Laughlin" is played by Briton Lloyd Owen. Colombian actress Paola Turbay and British actress Polly Walker play leads in the Latin family ensemble "Cane," and one of the main characters in the partner-swapping drama "Swingtown" is played by Brit Jack Davenport.

And at Fox, in addition to Headey starring as the title character in "The Sarah Connor Chronicles," Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau will play the lead in the new drama series "New Amsterdam," with British actress Zuleikha Robinson co-starring.

The casting directors of HBO's "Rome" should get a commission from the networks and the studios this development season.

Three of the show's stars — McKidd, Walker and Robinson — landed on series for next season, with CBS' drama pilot "Babylon Fields," toplined by "Rome's" Ray Stevenson, said to still be in contention.

Having so many foreign actors on primetime series has put one on-set service in high demand.

"It's the year of dialect coach," quipped Robin Schwartz, president of Regency TV, which is producing "Amsterdam." The company also produced the ABC drama pilot "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," which starred New Zealand's Martin Henderson as one of the two leads.

Added Klein: "A lot of dialect coaches will be in play. It is the job to have this year."