Nov. 14--Romance, comedy, drama, action -- Michael Ealy has played it all during his eclectic career in film (Barbershop, Underworld: Awakening, Think Like a Man) and on TV (Sleeper Cell, The Good Wife, Common Law).
But he never thought his greatest acting challenge would be as a robot. Then again, Dorian, his character on Fox's buzzed-about new series Almost Human, has some unusual dimensions for an automaton.
Almost Human is a futuristic (2047, to be exact) buddy-cop show that teams a grizzled lawman (Judge Dredd's Karl Urban) with an android (Ealy's Dorian), who has been fitted with a controversial program called Synthetic Soul.
The twist is that Dorian is, in many ways, more human than his emotionally shut-down partner. But he's also a machine.
"I can't access my experience all the time to make this go," Ealy says on the phone from Vancouver, where the show is being produced. "I was shooting a scene an hour ago with Karl, and I wanted to play it funny, but I couldn't. I had to make it Dorian-appropriate. You always have to have that subtle hint that he's not a real person. I'm always playing jazz with that."
The other challenge is that Almost Human's sci-fi setting relies heavily on computer-generated effects that are added in postproduction. So Ealy and Urban are often acting in a vacuum.
"When we set up a scene, the director lets us know what the world is looking like around us," Ealy says. "For the most part, we're playing pretend."
The role may pique Ealy's legion of female fans who swoon over his glacial good looks and silky aura. Sorry, ladies, no romantic romps for Dorian.
"When I first spoke to the creator of the show, J.H. Wyman, I had to tell him I was kind of excited about playing a character who doesn't have a love interest," the actor says. "That's a rarity for me."
Wyman, previously an executive producer on Fringe, was sure he had found the right actor to be his Dorian.
"I had seen Michael in many things before and thought he was good," Wyman says by e-mail. "When we met, we had a three-hour meeting -- his wife was waiting in the car. It was supposed to be a 15-minute meeting, but we got to talking about the character, and the next thing we knew it was three hours later. (I don't know what happened when he got back to the car, but I bet there's a story there . . . .)"
(Ealy, previously linked with Eve and Halle Berry, married Khatira Rafiqzada last year.)
Ealy's handsome profile takes a serious pounding on Almost Human. Because Dorian can be patched up good as new, he gets disfigured quite a bit.
"I've never seen a TV show with this much action," he says. "That means I spend a lot of time in the makeup trailer, because so many things are happening to me."
Fortunately, they don't mess with Ealy's most arresting feature: his incandescent blue eyes.
Those orbs have been creating a sensation since he was a newborn in Washington.
"Big surprise. Big, big, big surprise," he says of his mother's reaction when she got a good look at her baby. "To this day, she says I looked like Winston Churchill when I was born. Nobody in my family has them. I consider it a freak of nature."
After growing up in what he calls a "Huxtable environment" in Silver Springs, Md., Ealy was introduced to show business at 19, while attending the University of Maryland.
"Two of my best friends were making a movie on 8mm video," he says. "They said I had to audition. I said, 'Against who? Who do you guys know?' They had a bunch of guys from the neighborhood. I got the part.
"While we were shooting it over the summer, I had this moment of clarity: 'I know what I want to do for the rest of my life.' "
After cutting his teeth in the New York theater community, Ealy got his big break playing evolving gangbanger Rick Nash in 2002's Barbershop.
He's worked almost constantly since, from 2003's 2 Fast 2 Furious to the current Last Vegas. But only now, at 40, is he about to make his debut as a leading man in About Last Night, scheduled for a February release.
It's the first of two films he recently completed with Kevin Hart. (The other, Think Like a Man Too, will come out in June.)
"What impresses me most about Kev is his work ethic," Ealy says of the Philadelphia comedian. "We were filming Think Like a Man Too in Las Vegas, and over the weekend he hosted an awards show and then went to Philly to do press for Let Me Explain, which was about to come out. Then he flew in overnight to be back on the set early in the morning.
"I said, 'This is why you have more money than me. You earn it.' "
Some of that money used to belong to Ealy. He lost a bet to Hart on the Eagles-Redskins game earlier this season. (The Birds won.) It could have been worse.
"I wanted to make the stakes really high. I said, 'Let's do this!' " Ealy recalls. "He said, 'Take it easy on yourself. Our bank accounts are totally different.' I was like, 'You're right. Let's keep it realistic.' "
Ah well, Michael. The Eagles and Redskins play again Sunday, the day Almost Human premieres. You've got all that TV money flowing in now. Double or nothing?
8 p.m. Sunday, Fox29
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