Pilots dominated by foreign actors

Aussie Passmore in 'Masterwork,' season's last major role

After a long search, Matt Passmore has landed the lead on Fox's drama pilot "Masterwork," the season's last central pilot role that hadn't been filled.

Tapping the Aussie -- it's Passmore's first Hollywood gig -- is a fitting conclusion to a pilot season dominated by non-U.S. actors.

Foreign players have been gaining ground gradually during the past few years following the runaway success of Brit Hugh Laurie on Fox's "House." The trend exploded this year with almost 60 non-Americans cast in broadcast pilots and another dozen in cable pilots, the vast majority of them on the drama side.

Like Passmore, a well-known TV actor in Australia, several virtual unknowns in the U.S. but established in their native U.K. have been tapped to lead pilots this season: Charity Wakefield ("Legally Mad"), Christina Cole ("Maggie Hill"), Rupert Penry-Jones ("The Unknown") and Sophie Winkleman ("100 Questions"), along with the more familiar Brit Indira Varma ("Inside the Box"), Aussie Jason Clarke ("U.S. Attorney") and Canadians Tyler Labine ("Sons of Tucson") and Paul Campbell ("No Heroics"). They could join U.K.'s Tim Roth and James Purefoy, who topline the new drama series "Lie to Me" on Fox and "The Philanthropist" on NBC, respectively.

Additionally, non-American actors have been cast in other major pilot roles, including Brits Hugh Bonneville ("Legally Mad"), David Lyons ("Day One"), Miranda Otto ("A Marriage"), Jeremy Northam ("Miami Trauma"), Warren Christie ("House Rules") and Ben Hollingsworth ("Beautiful Life").

A number of pilots this season feature three or more major non-American cast members: four in Fox's off-cycle drama "Virtuality" and three apiece in ABC's "Flash Forward" and "Inside the Box," CBS' "U.S. Attorney," and Fox's "Maggie Hill" and "Masterwork, which is still casting.

All three roles cast so far on the 20th TV-produced "Masterwork" have gone to foreigners: Passmore and Brits Natalie Dormer and Tom Ellis, whose characters also are British.

The project, from "Prison Break" creator Paul Scheuring, centers on an FBI agent (Passmore), a specialist in the acquisition of stolen art and a fine-arts expert who teams with an MI-5 agent (Dormer). Ellis plays her fiance, a special agent at Scotland Yard.

Most executives can't pinpoint one major reason for the influx of non-U.S. actors into U.S. primetime.

"They're talented actors," 20th TV's head of casting Sharon Klein said.

Also factoring in are the rigors of pilot season, where 70-plus pilots were chasing actors at the same time, often depleting the existing talent pool. The dearth is strongest for leads -- fresh faces in their late 20s-early 30s who have to be good actors to carry a show.

The chances of discovering untapped but experienced talent in that age range are far greater abroad then they are in the U.S.

Also playing a role this year is the studios' decision to film more pilots than ever before outside of the country, mostly in Canada. That makes the process of hiring non-American actors much easier as they won't need work visas, which has been a hurdle for U.S.-based pilots.

"Masterwork" falls in that category; the pilot, directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff, will film in Prague.

Passmore was pitched to 20th TV by a local Australian casting agent hired by 20th TV to do a quick talent search. She uploaded a video with him reading for the part last Friday.

"I had no idea who he was; I had never heard his name, I had never seen his face, but when he came on the screen, everybody gasped," said Klein, who had been searching for a "Masterwork" for weeks. "He had command of the material and a perfect American accent; he was witty and funny and smart and very handsome."

Passmore was flown to Los Angeles immediately, and after testing for the studio Tuesday and for the network Wednesday, he got the part.

Passmore, who has starred on Australian series "The Cut" and "Underbelly," is repped by ROAR and RGM in Australia. Ellis is with Magnolia Entertainment and U.K.'s Curtis Brown.