PASADENA, Calif. — It’s one thing to suffer a mid-life crisis. It’s quite another to do it in your 20s. But that’s what happened to actor Chris Vance, known as the mysterious inmate, James Whistler, in “Prison Break.”
It’s not the only unique thing about Vance, who’s starring in the upcoming Fox drama, “Mental,” premiering May 26. Vance plays a stubbornly unorthodox psychiatrist who’s the new administrator of a hidebound psychiatric hospital. It seems perfect casting for the actor who seized his mid-life crisis and changed everything.
He was doing fine as a civil engineer — the only one in his Irish-Catholic family to earn an advanced degree — when everything went sour.
“I was on a building site in Brecon in mid-Wales developing a training facility for the Army ... I was working there for about a year and I was not really passionate about being there, and in my mind I stopped listening and was self-centered ... This guy called Tony White pulled me over and said, ‘Chris, here’s the thing. Everybody has a story to tell. It doesn’t matter who they are. You just have to listen.’ I realized in that moment that I’d stopped listening,” he says ordering a coffee with milk at a diner here.
“I was living my life in complete isolation. It wasn’t fun, it wasn’t good. It wasn’t good for other people and it wasn’t good for me. I said, ‘OK, I need to take a break from this.’”
That break included an obsessive drive to study everything he’d avoided in school. “Storytelling is about listening in any media,” he thinks. “Because I’d come from a very math and science background at school I was hopeless at literature and at art, and it was a lot to learn. I went on a furious reading spree. I read everything from the classics through new novels to poetry to everything I could catch up on all through my 20s.
“I think when I went into literature and the arts I just found this world of possibilities. There were 50 different opinions — all just as right. I thought, ‘Yeah, this is great.’”
It was a massive culture shock when he arrived at drama school. “People were so free and they had no hang-ups. And little conservative me came along, who wouldn’t say boo to a goose, and it was just amazing to me to see these (people). I’d always been the confident guy in school. I was good in math and English, but I was still shy. I couldn’t get up and speak in front of people. I was asked to do it when I was 10 years old and I burst out crying,” he recalls.
“Here people were very free. There were a lot of insecurities and they were afraid. But here’s the other insight: While they were free, they did carry an awful lot of baggage. They did carry a lot of insecurities and issues that I guess experience in the world lets you know — unless someone’s dying or critically ill — things aren’t that important. It gives you perspective. I found a lot of this ego a little bit out of whack. I thought if they could see a little bit more, work a little bit more, ground themselves a little bit more, they’d be able to express themselves more confidently. That’s was a fascinating step in my mid-20s to see that.”
Though he didn’t tell his parents at first that he’d quit engineering, he skipped to London to pursue acting. “There was a time in London I didn’t work for at least a year and money was very, very hard. It was then I realized how hard this particular pursuit of career might be. Being out of work in London was tough for the family and tough for me,” he says.
“Dad was going through a period of ill health at the time as well, so in the end we rallied and we ended up helping each other. I went back to engineering and dad got better and it was great. That particular thing challenged how much I wanted to be a storyteller. That long period when you start losing bank accounts and your life starts slipping away there, letting people down that way, you question whether to carry on doing this. Because of the frailty of the situation you start to question is there any hope of having a family? Is there any hope of sustaining a relationship? That sort of thing.”
But he found work and he established a relationship. “I met a girl in my 20s in London beautiful, lovely, still is,” he says, smiling into his coffee.
“We got married and she came from Melbourne. And at some point we decided it would be great for us to spend some time in Australia, and that’s what we did. We uprooted and went there. If I was purely driven by a career instinct it wouldn’t have been the No. 1 choice probably, but as I’m not really that career driven, it’s more about telling stories, then that was a great story to find yourself in the middle of. We had a relation for a while but we separated after four years and that was around the time I got ‘Prison Break’ and came to the states.”
Vance, who has a sweetheart now, would like to have a family someday. He blames himself for the breakup of his marriage. “I was very disappointed in myself for not making it work. I think that’s a natural state of mind to be in. I don’t know how it lasts. Certainly my drive for the career for storytelling became absolute once again in my life.”
NBC is ready for the dog days of summer with the “reality show” “I’m a Celebrity ... Get Me out of Here” starting June 1. Lately the definition of “celebrity” has become so all-encompassing your mail man might show up on reality television if he ever delivered a letter to anyone in the 91020 zip code. Anyway, the so-called “celebrities” who will suffer the degradations of the Costa Rican jungle include Sanjaya Malakar, the wannabe “American Idol” who became a hit for losing. “I would probably have to say that the moment that I realized that I was a celebrity was the first time that I went to the Beverly Center and had the entire Redlands cheer squad scream and run and, like, mob me,” he says. “That was pretty intense. That definitely, kind of, made it all real for me.”
Patricia Arquette is surprised that her NBC show “Medium” is still spellbinding after five years. “I didn’t have any expectations,” she says. “I was very ignorant about television, and I was told if I did this pilot the chances are it would never even get aired, that it was such a long shot. But I really liked the material so I certainly didn’t expect to be here in five years because people started making it clear to me how rare that was.
“But I have seen a lot of transition I think when I look back — I just knew that there could be interesting stories for several years, if that was the case. And I think the writers have done a very good job of being very inventive along the way.
“And one of the major things I think that I knew would be interesting but I couldn’t foresee exactly how because I have a 20-year-old son now, is the changes in the kids. I mean, when we started Ariel was just a little girl, our character Ariel, and now she’s like a young woman. And the transitions that the kids go through and exploring that a little bit as a family I think is interesting. And I didn’t really foresee it going so fast.”
Beauteous Catherine Bell will be leading the ladies in Lifetime’s “Army Wives” when it returns on June 7. Bell, who established herself as the spit-and-polish lawyer on “JAG,” says she was always a tomboy. “I was very late bloomer, tall, skinny and gangly, wore boys’ clothes because I was such a tomboy, and all the girls would make fun of me because I wore boys’ tennis shoes. It wasn’t till the 11th grade that a friend showed me how to put on makeup. I never did my hair. I had short hair, would get out of the shower and brush it and it would dry naturally. And I didn’t care. She taught me how to blow dry my hair and put makeup on. Still it’s so hard for me to put outfits together because I never know what matches. I put something on and it just looks geeky.”