'Saving Hope': Erica Durance and Michael Shanks mix science and spirituality

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michael-shanks-erica-durance-saving-hope-nbc.jpgMedical procedurals usually deal with the hospital staff, the patients and their friends, enemies and relatives.

The one group that has always been left out is the dead and dying -- until now.

On "Saving Hope," debuting Thursday, June 7, on NBC, one of the main characters is a doctor in a coma. Originally produced for CTV, the series is the latest Canadian network show to be sold to a U.S. broadcaster.

Dr. Charlie Harris is doomed to lurk around the hospital where he used to work, talking to other coma patients and the recently dead.

The situation is almost as creepy and lonely for the actor playing the role as it is for the character, says Michael Shanks, who plays Harris, the alpha-dog chief of surgery at the fictional Toronto Hope-Zion hospital.

"You do feel like you're off in your own little world," he tells Zap2it. "You start to find yourself as an actor feeling the same kinds of things the character feels: isolation and frustration and things like that.

"You watch all the consultation and surgery, and you start to think, 'I want to do that, too.' It's a very strange thing."

A native of Vancouver, Canada, Shanks has carved out a place for himself as a regular in the subgenre of science-fiction series that are made in his hometown, such as "Stargate Atlantis," "Stargate SG-1" and "Smallville" (in which he was Hawkman/Carter Hall).

Now he's playing a doctor in a medical procedural -- with one catch. His character fell victim to blunt-force trauma after a car accident on his wedding day.

So he hangs around the hospital in a tuxedo, occasionally talking to other disembodied spirits. Mostly, though, he delivers monologues on his situation, like a morose comic playing for an audience who can't hear him.

The one person he wants to reach, though, is his fiancee, fellow surgeon Alex Reid ( Erica Durance), who struggles, with the help of new star surgeon Joel Goran ( Daniel Gillies), to save Charlie's life.

As Durance says, the situation drives the two doctors to reconsider their attitudes toward science and spirituality.

"With my character, its science first, Western medicine" she says. "I'm choosing to believe in only what I can see, what I can touch.

"But when her fiance goes into this coma, she's forced to question those things about herself."

Like Shanks, the Alberta-born and raised Durance is a veteran of Vancouver-produced sci-fi shows and is best known for playing comic book icon Lois Lane on "Smallville."

Unlike her character in "Saving Hope," Durance says she's inclined toward things spiritual.

erica-durance-saving-hope-nbc.jpg"I grew up evangelical with a very fundamentalist upbringing," she says. "As I get older, I don't know that I buy into the idea of organized religion, but I'm always seeking, and believe in -- whatever you want to call it, God or Allah -- that there's something making the universe happen."

"Saving Hope" grew out of an idea one of the co-creators had when she was waiting at a hospital emergency room and began to wonder about whatever spiritual presences might be hanging around a place where people live or die on a momentary basis.

What grew out of that is something of a cross between "ER" and "Life on Mars."

"It's a balancing act between delivering a medical procedural and an exploration of what it means to be alive," says show runner Aaron Martin. "That's what we're doing every week."

Unlike Shanks, who just has to hang around and critique the medical work, Durance had to learn to act like a real surgeon.

So she shadowed one for a while and had to deal with some fairly graphic surgical re-enactments.

"I went to some surgeries and saw some of the real deal there," she says. "I seem to be fine with it. I haven't found myself feeling nauseous, but I do have colleagues who see the fake blood and -- I'm kind of the weirdo at the other end, where they're like, 'You're enjoying yourself a little too much.'

"I don't know where that came from. My sister likes to say it's because we grew up on a farm."

As for Charlie, "his whole life has been about fixing the body, and now, on the spiritual plane, he has to worry about fixing the mind and fixing the spirit," Martin says.

As Shanks says, this means Charlie learns not only to heal himself but falls into a role of counselor to the life-challenged.

"I think what's unique about our show is that we don't just explore the aspects of medicine," he says. "We explore the realm of spirituality, too.

"What's interesting for me is that I get to play a character who is a devout atheist. And now he's in this between-ground.

"And he has to start questioning everything he's ever believed in -- including his own sanity."
Photo/Video credit: NBC