SPOILER ALERT – The following interview contains spoilers about Universal Channel’s new acquisition Pure Genius, that some readers may wish to avoid.
Pure Genius, CBS’ new high-tech medical drama from Friday Night Lights and Parenthood creator Jason Katims, crossed the pond earlier this month, when Universal Channel revealed that they had secured the exclusive rights to the show in a deal with NBCUniversal International Distribution.
The series premiered on Universal last Wednesday, introducing UK viewers to Bunker Hill hospital, which was funded and created by James Bell, a young Silicon Valley tech titan who, in the pilot episode, enlists veteran surgeon Walter Wallace (Dermot Mulroney) with a troubled past to run the state-of-the-art hospital which has an ultramodern approach to medicine.
James Bell, the billionaire who launched Bunker Hill, is played by Augustus Prew, whose many credits include Major Crimes, The Borgias, The Village, Klondike and the upcoming Prison Break revival. TVWise recently caught up with the British actor to discuss Pure Genius, his character James Bell, what attracted him to the role and much more.
TVWise: Let’s talk about your new show Pure Genius…
Augustus Prew: Pure Genius is about a guy called James Bell decides to revolutionise healthcare. He builds the most cutting edge hospital in the world that brings together the best minds in technology from Silicon Valley with the best minds in medicine. [He] decides to spend infinite amounts of money on Bunker Hill to create the most perfect hospital possible that takes in the hardest cases that other hospitals are not able to do and try and fix problems that everyone else has given up on.
TVWise: But this isn’t your usual medical drama, what differentiates it from other shows in the genre?
Augustus Prew: It is different from other medical dramas because it is wish fulfillment, it’s hopeful. Our conflict isn’t the same as other medical dramas where you are constantly strapped for cash or resources or you don’t know how you’re going to do this, because we do have the best minds working on it. There’s usually some kind of plan, it might be really, really out there, but we’re going to try it. We’re always going to try it at Bunker Hill and so the conflict becomes a question of just because you can do something and you have the resources to do something, should you? You can get into very very murky ethical waters very very quickly and I think it’s safe to say they we do.
I think when you’re given a character that’s given such high stakes in the game – it is literally life or death for him – it becomes a character study of whether a person who is used to getting his own way becomes more selfish and egotistical or do they create a family for themselves and a support network. That’s kind of where we at. One of the last questions that is asked in the pilot is “I started the hospital for the wrong reasons, but does it really matter?” and that’s the conceit we answer in the first season.
TVWise: You mentioned that your character launched the hospital to essentially save himself. Do you think that was his sole motivation? Was it entirely about self-preservation?
Augustus Prew: Initially it was about self-preservation, but as the show develops and the enormity of what James has done begins to dawn on him, I think it does slowly become more altruistic. It does become about everyone else. That’s a huge journey for James. He’s not a bad person, he’s just a desperate man. But this is a man who is redeemed by his altruism and who realises there is more to this than he originally planned. What’s amazing about this is that we are right on the zeitgeist. Mark Zuckerberg has just started a research hospital called Biohub that he announced whilst we were shooting. It was top secret, no one knew it was happening. I can’t believe it! He’s put three billion dollars into it and built a hospital that takes the best minds in medicine and the best minds in technology and tries to solve the cases no one else has been able to. It is literally Bunker Hill. Mark Zuckerberg has created his own Bunker Hill. It not art-imitating life or life-imitating-art, they are happening simultaneously, it is so crazy!
TVWise: What was it that attracted you to the role of James Bell?
Augustus Prew: I love James Bell. I read this script during pilot season, which is infamously the most stressful time for everyone involved, and you’re sometimes doing five auditions a day. You get through so many scripts and this was one of those scripts that just popped out immediately. It’s very rare that you read a script and go “I know exactly who this guy is. I know this guy. I know exactly how I’m gonna play him, I know what his voice sounds likes, I know how he walks and I know how he talks”. I understood where this man was coming from in a really organic way. It was a very instinctive, guttural reaction and when you have such a gut feeling you just go with it.
I went into the audition and we all just clicked. It was pretty shocking because I had left the audition room and got back into my car and I was still in the car park, about to turn the key in the ignition, when my agent calls me and tells me I’ve got a screen test in two days time. Then when I got to the screen test it turned out I was the only one they had decided to screen-test [for this part]. It was just me. Sometimes it’s the right place, right time, right actor, right part. It just, for whatever reason, clicked.
This character just made sense to me and he’s someone that I haven’t played before. He’s part of a small club of people who have amassed huge sums of wealth, influence, access and power and that’s just interesting; to have a psychological construct where you are used to getting pretty much whatever you want. It’s unfettered power that we haven’t really seen since the Victorian-era. We seem to have regressed back to a model of society where the poor are incredibly and the rich are incredibly rich and the middle class is diminishing by the second. That’s just an interesting thing to explore and that’s what brought me to the script.
And I wanted to work with Jason Katims. He is one of America’s great storytellers. Friday Night Lights, Parenthood, About A Boy; this man has done some seminal iconic TV. He know how to craft really smart, intelligent shows for American television. So I loved the script, we clicked and it Jason Katims – it was a no brainer really!
TVWise: What did you do in way of research to get into the role?
Augustus Prew: I did a fair amount of research, actually. The timing was so lucky. A friend of mine, who works in bio-tech, moved from London to Silicon Valley. So I came and stayed with her for a few days and took me around Silicon Valley and showed me how it worked and I got a sense of the culture. On a personal level, I did research on the disease James has, GSS. And I also feel like James I very aware of how he brands himself, how he mythologises his own story and it reminded a lot of Steve Jobs, who created this cult of personality around himself at Apple. There’s that famous shot of Steve Jobs with his hand underneath his chin looking very pensive and intelligent, and I wanted to borrow that. So there are episodes where James puts his finger by his lip and has this iconic pensive stare. It comes up later in the season and gets discussed as to why he does this and the idea of mythology behind one man. So I definitely explored that and borrowed it from Steve Jobs. But ultimately, I wanted James to feel like a unique person, I wanted his story to feel unique to James Bell. He’s a unique character. He’s his own person, I’m not making someone else James Bell.
Pure Genius continues to air in the UK on Universal Channel on Wednesday nights at 9pm.