The stars in many EPIX shows would have been familiar to viewers 30-plus years ago. That isn’t just by chance. The burgeoning premium network started to build its catalog of original shows only a few years ago, and the best way to attract an audience is with big names like William Hurt, Forest Whitaker, Ben Kingsley, and Sela Ward.
Familiarity is certainly part of the equation, but why not go after a younger star? Did Emma Stone change her cell number?
We’ll get to that.
Getting serious with William Hurt
Clearly, EPIX is targeting viewers who are interested in Acting and Drama with capital letters. These are serious projects, and nobody is more serious than Hurt, 71, who stars in “Condor,” which returns with Season 3 on Aug. 3. Hurt made his name in the heart of the Reagan administration, with three straight Oscar nominations in the 1980s, including his win for 1985’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman.“
“Condor” is a CIA action drama, and Hurt made his mark on the series before the production had even started rolling tape. Co-star Max Irons told an Australian entertainment news site that Hurt showed up on set and demanded a full week of rehearsals, which is unheard of in Hollywood.
“Frankly, to get much rehearsal time these days, you rarely see it, but he made it happen; he recognized the importance of it,” Irons said. “That dedication to his craft, you see everywhere, and in everything, he does on the set. The minute he shows up in the makeup trailer he’s working, to the moment he leaves. He never breaks focus, and that rubs off on everyone else. It sets the tone to the set. So he’s amazing, he’s wonderful.”
That type of focus is more the norm than the exception on EPIX shows.
Long live the King (of Harlem)
Whitaker, 60, famously inhabits the minds of his characters. During filming for “The Last King of Scotland,” which led to his Oscar win in 2006, Whitaker said he even had dreams in the mind of Idi Amin, the brutal former president of Uganda.
He has appeared in everything from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” to “Platoon” to “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Black Panther” — that’s a teen comedy, a war movie, a comedy with Robin Williams, and a Marvel comic book movie if you’re keeping score at home.
Whitaker’s EPIX show, “The Godfather of Harlem,” resumes its second season on Aug. 8, with four episodes slated to run in late summer. The method actor said it was the true story of mobster Bumpy Johnson, a friend of civil rights activist Malcolm X, that drew him to the part.
“I get to play a character that’s been played many times before, but at a different time in his life and with a lot of depth in a series where you see him as a mobster and a drug dealer, but also as a chess master, as a family man, as a killer, as a businessman, as a banker,” Whitaker told The Daily Beast.
“He’s got a lot of sides that we’re trying to project out, and he becomes the eyes into this time. There’s this theme: the American Dream by any means necessary. I said that to one of the executives that it’s him trying to rise up any way he knows how, and when he gets there, he’s sanctioned to be killed by the Five Families.”
Of course, if Hollywood has taught us anything, it’s that there’s always an origin story. For EPIX, it’s Nick Nolte and Ward’s “Graves,” which ran for two seasons. The series included Spencer Grammer, Kelsey Grammer‘s daughter.
The series debuted in 2016 and ended in 2017, making way for other limited-run series on the premium network.
Few are more premium than Kingsley, who did one-season-and-done “Perpetual Grace LTD,” with Jimmi Simpson from “Westworld” and veteran actress Jacki Weaver. The 77-year-old Kingsley won an Oscar for 1982’s “Gandhi,” with three more nominations in his colorful history.
“Perpetual Grace LTD,” released in 2020, was a critical and audience hit, racking up an 88% critical approval rating on Tomato Meters. The noir thriller put Kingsley in the position of playing the antagonist in a series filled with complicated characters. It was the complexity that drew Kingsley to the show, he told Collider.
“I think the piece is so beautifully written,” he said. “All of us having an opportunity to inhabit this biblical landscape, for 10 hours of film, is bound to give us thought that we would not have had, had we not been in this series.
“Great pieces of mythology that guide us over centuries are populated by archetypes. Very often, as audiences, we’re invited to see a copy of a copy of a copy, and it’s immediately lost our interest. Human beings do respond to archetypes.”
Something new (and old)
What’s in it for the network? Name recognition, but the right kind of name recognition. These are actors with multiple award nominations, which fans of serious drama can appreciate. And yes, we are referring to drama fans of a certain age.
But if your tastes skew a little younger, you can check out “Bridge and Tunnel,” which debuted in early 2021. The dramedy focuses on a group of recent college graduates working in Manhattan.
Naturally, the show is set in 1980. This is EPIX, after all.