Jason O'Mara goes back in time in ABC's 'Life on Mars'

by Luaine Lee

McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

29 September 2008


BEVERLY HILLS, Calif.—When Jason O’Mara was a struggling actor in London he improvised a recipe that saw him though the lean times. “I got really good at going to the supermarket and buying frozen sausages which were very cheap and lots of dry spaghetti and tomato sauce, and basically I lived on that for months,” says the Irish actor in a meeting room at a hotel here.

“Right now I still find it hard to eat Spaghetti Bolognese because of my horrible concoction that kept me alive. There are moments when you think, ‘I must be crazy to go through this.’”

There were more than one. An unemployed actor, he managed to wangle a voice-over job of sorts, recording the daily horoscope. “I was the guy on the line saying, ‘Hi, and welcome to your Horoscope Hotline for Tuesday the Fifth of May.’ It paid $5 an hour. It was non-union,” he chuckles.

O’Mara also read the crossword results on a recorded message. ‘Hi, welcome to the Crossword Results Hotline. Here are the answers for all of the down-clues. One: zebra, z-e-b-r-a. Really boring,” he rolls his eyes.

“It was me alone in a booth with a pile of scripts. It was kind of funny looking back but you know, I got experience listening to the sound of my own voice and I learned how to do it a little better and got a little voiceover career going, and that helped supplement the theater I was doing and the times I wasn’t working. So that was probably the moment when it started to come together.”

Things have really come together for O’Mara, 36, who has appeared on “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Men in Trees,” played a pyromaniac on “The Closer” and was a regular on “The Agency.”

Now he’s starring in ABC’s new time-travel cop show, “Life on Mars,” premiering Oct. 9. O’Mara plays a NYPD detective who finds himself suddenly thrust into 1973 after a car accident. Watergate, women’s lib, the dedication of the World Trade Center—all confuse this 2008 changeling who has to learn to adjust to a technology-challenged world.

O’Mara had no idea his life would take this turn when he was munching spaghetti and calling out horoscopes. One day he got a call from the U.S. asking him to appear in a pilot for a new show called “The Agency.”

“Moving to the States was completely a huge decision even though I said I didn’t have a decision to make. Looking back it was quite brave really, or maybe it was just stupid. I just went. I didn’t even think about it. I just said, ‘I’m goin’.’

“It was a big risk and I was putting everything on red and letting the wheel spin. Thank God it worked out.”

Still there were times in L.A. when he thought he’d made the wrong decision. “I had a bit of a career back in London, but I’d spent a lot of money on flights and hotels and meeting agents, and I was running low. It wasn’t sausages and spaghetti, it was whether I could afford to eat breakfast in the hotel or go down to the local dinery. I wasn’t going to starve, but I had a mortgage back in London I had to pay. There are things that could’ve happened but things kept going,” he says.

After a lackluster career in high school he’d attended Trinity College in Dublin, chosen one of 25 out of 1,200 applicants. Still, he had majored in drama-theater instead of studying acting. He says he was fearful of committing to acting.

He has doubts even now about whether he can do it. “It never really ends. Every time you play a new role you think, ‘How am I going to do this? How am I going to make this character human?’ It’s always a challenge and I’ve heard very seasoned actors say the same thing, so it’s not just me. There’s always doubts. I think every creative person has doubts as to whether they can do it,” he says.

“The best part of the job is the phone call to tell you you have it, and from there on in it’s just plain old hard graft and preparation and panic, but you have to get over that because you can’t be panicky and act at the same time.”

O’Mara was fortunate when CBS cast him in the slick thriller “The Agency.” Not only was it a meaty role, he met the love of his life in costar Paige Turco.

It was a critical event, he muses. “Meeting my wife and falling deeply in love at first sight and getting married and having my boy—I realized this is REALLY what life is about. And it takes pressure off as an actor as well because it’s not really about me anymore. And I want to be present for my wife and son, want to be around. I think that’s what parenting is about, showing up and being there and listening,” he says.

“So that put everything in perspective. And what I thought were more responsibility, more things that I thought could hold me back perhaps, things started to take off from there. My wife thought that after being pregnant and having a baby her career would be over, and her career just went from strength to strength as soon as David (now 4 {) was born she started working and has done great movies and TV since. It's sometimes the opposite of what you expect, especially when you put family first."


For two years critics have been championing the Dillon Panthers and their show "Friday Night Lights." But the audience just didn't fill NBC's stadium. So for its third season the show will land on DIRECTV Oct. 1, and bounce back to NBC in February. Jason Katims, one of the show's executive producers, thinks that folks often have the wrong idea about "Friday Night Lights."

"So many people come up to me and say, 'I totally didn't think this was a show for me. And finally, somebody forced me to watch it -- my husband, my son, my brother, whatever it was. 'Somebody forced me to watch it ... I heard the show was really good. It wasn't for me and then I watched it and I love the show.' And I think that's been the biggest obstacle for us in terms of viewership ... For some reason people think, 'Oh, it's about football.' ... And I think that, really, when you watch the show ... football is so important in the show, but it's about these characters' lives. It's about this town. And it's observing those things in this way that's just so personal and so real that it transcends that subject matter. So I think the challenge for us has been just kind of getting people to watch the show, to sample it."

Let's hope a new audience finds it at DIRECTV. It's a winner in whatever field it competes.


PBS' "Masterpiece Contemporary," the new title for the edgier side of what used to be "Masterpiece Theatre," is offering "The Last Enemy," starring Robert Carlyle, starting Oct. 5. The show is about a Big Brother society that musters all kinds of personal information about its citizens in order to "protect" them. But abuses abound and the database falls into evil hands.

Peter Berry, who wrote the five-part miniseries, says he was not only inspired by the increasing intrusions by the British government but could barely keep up with the new restrictions.

"It was when the British government under Tony Blair decided to bring in I.D. cards, and it was brought in with the idea of there wasn't really a need to debate it. In fact, I think Prime Minister Blair said, 'It's an idea whose time has come.' I thought otherwise, that it did need debating, and there seemed to be sort of acquiescence that I.D cards would just be introduced, which is why I had a central hero who wasn't really that interested in whether they should be introduced or not."

The first draft was submitted about a month before the London bombings in July. "What was odd was that in the rewrites what was happening was the script started to become true because in the space of about a year and a half in the UK, we lost habeas corpus, we lost the certain rights to free speech and right of assembly, and trial by jury in certain circumstances was being under review. So everything in the script was becoming true. I had to start revising the script in order to keep ahead of events," he says.


The "Desperate Housewives" are back and there are plenty of changes afoot for the suburban shiksas. Marc Cherry, creator and executive producer of the show, says he intends this season to head in a different direction. "I wanted to get back to where we were that very first season where it's just the problems of some ordinary women and they were small and relatable," he says. "And, of course, the ball will start rolling and pick up steam as the year goes on, but I thought it would be a good chance to do something interesting and give everyone some challenges."

Marcia Cross, who plays the finicky Bree, says, "I was thrilled because I knew sort of where Bree was going and I was really looking for her to get out of the house. I mean, she's going to get out of the house with her muffins, but at least she's getting out of the house."

//Mixed media