Trapped in the '70s With 'Life on Mars'
Best known for his work in intense British dramas, the 36-year-old actor stars as Sam Tyler, a contemporary police detective who awakens after a near-fatal car accident to find that he has been propelled back to 1973 in "Life on Mars," a quirky new series premiering Monday, July 24, on BBC America.
"There is a lot of memorabilia on the set, authentic magazines and newspapers, other things from the '70s," Simm says. "The first few months we just sat there flicking through everything. When new people come in right now, they get all excited and start talking about it and 'What do you remember about the '70s?' and we're kind of, 'Um, yeah, we've been there. I'm '70s-ed out!'"
Sam's close brush with death happens in the first episode as he is rushing to rescue his girlfriend, who may have been kidnapped by a serial killer, so he is desperate to return to the present. His job as a cop in 1973 is complicated by a lack of modern technological features such as personal computers and cell phones, let alone DNA testing and other advanced scientific developments.
He also isn't happy to be working with a bunch of unreconstructed "old school" cops led by his hard-nosed new boss, Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister, "Byron"), who is the antithesis of everything the upright Sam believes in. It's a role that invites an actor to go gleefully over the top, yet Glenister gives a smartly calibrated performance that is at once a delightful comic foil for Simm's cerebral Sam and also a sly tip of the hat to celebrated '70s TV cops.
"The detective shows back in the '70s were much more character-based [instead of today's procedurals], shows like 'Cannon' and 'Columbo' and 'Kojak,' " says Glenister, 43. "Even when they started getting a little trickier, like 'Starsky and Hutch,' they were still character-driven and gritty, and that's what we have tried to do with this show, which is kind of a nod to the great buddy cop shows.
"As soon as I read it on the page, I just instinctively knew where to pitch (my character), if you know what I mean. That's a sign of really great writing, and it's so rare when that happens. Forgive the cliche, but it was a gift of a part."
An addictive blend of fantasy, police drama and odd-couple comedy, "Life on Mars" is a breakout hit in the U.K. and has attracted stateside attention from David E. Kelley ("The Practice"), who reportedly is working on adapting the show for an American cast. Still, both Simm and Glenister initially had their doubts about the show's literally fantastic premise.
"I was very reticent at first, looking at the script and going, 'You've got to be joking,' but because it was so ridiculous, I thought it would be a real challenge to make it feel real," Simm recalls. "I look for earthy, realistic projects because I try to find the truth in everything, so I thought, well, if I can make this real, I can make anything real. It was that challenge that made me really want to do it."
"My very first impression was that the entire concept was absolutely ridiculous, but I knew the company behind the production had a good track record, and when I got the script I just couldn't put it down," Glenister says. "I read the part of Gene Hunt and thought: 'I have to play this guy.'"
Both actors say they were avid fans of American police shows when they were growing up ("I was completely obsessed with 'Starsky and Hutch,' " Simm confesses), and Glenister especially likes doing some of his show's action scenes.
"We do pretty much all the fighting stuff," he explains. "We're halfway through filming our second season over here, and I'm doing quite a bit more of the driving this time around. We have a really great stunt coordinator, and he knows the tricks of the trade, and he just trusts me now to do quite a bit of the driving."
Simm has a distinctly different take on that subject, however.
"It gets a little hairy now and then, with Phil's driving. Those shots of me hanging on for dear life? That's not acting, I can promise you," Simm says. "He thinks he's a stuntman. And, frankly, I don't think they really trust him to do it now as much as it's that they don't have the money to hire a proper stuntman."
Despite the show's success, both actors feel certain "Life on Mars" already is quickly approaching the logical end of its story.
"As you get into the second series we are working on now, you are kind of nudged into thinking, 'Oh, Sam is really in a coma,' " Simm says of the show's central mystery. "But they're talking about some amazing endings, since we obviously can't carry this on forever."
"That's the big talking point at the moment, with the BBC and the writers," Glenister adds. "John and I are pretty adamant that we don't push the show beyond its natural shelf life, and we think that's probably sooner rather than later. There really is nothing worse than having a show that has really done very well over here -- and we're hoping it does well in the States -- and have the audience saying, 'Oh, yeah, that show used to be so great, but it's gotten kind of tired, hasn't it?'
"Whether we wrap things up at the end of this season, or whether we have a two-part special afterwards, we're not quite sure yet. We don't want to start repeating ourselves."