British actor Eamonn Walker says he can relate to Shakespeare's tragedy "Othello."
"I've been in love, and I've been hurt," says Mr. Walker, who plays the lead in PBS's new version of "Othello" (see review above). "And I can understand the complete irrational thoughts that go on with human beings."
The love between Othello and Dessie is "the kind of love that we wish for," he says. But eventually, jealousy, envy, and racism poison the passion between them.
After turning down the role of Othello three times during his stage career (because "I didn't have enough life experience," he says), Walker finally accepted it - this time for television.
"What made this 'Othello' different is that it took away the language barrier, which sometimes alienates people," says Walker, who also stars in HBO's series "Oz." "They're switched off just by the name. If they watch this [version], they'll get it."
This modern-day version of "Othello" is important to Walker because it addresses issues not normally associated with Britain. In it, Othello becomes London's first black police commissioner - something that is still a fictitious idea in Britain, Walker says.
"It's important to expose Americans to this type of British culture. Ordinarily, you get films from Britain, and they're kind of Merchant-Ivory, Hugh Grant, all very nice. But that's not what our society is like.
"We, like America, have an underbelly. It's not very pretty, and we don't promote it."
Stage-trained Walker arrived in the United States five years ago to audition for the role of American Muslim leader Kareem Said in "Oz," HBO's gritty prison drama. The role came his way after working with producer and director Lynda LaPlante, who pushed him to go to New York.
"I was petrified," Walker says. "It's a scary prospect to travel 3,000 miles to play an American accent in front of Americans."
He prepared for the role by visiting prisons and mosques, and speaking to Muslims. "The first 2-1/2 years, I used to call [Kareem] the bright light in a very dark tunnel because he seemed to have a direct link to God, and this man refused to let prison get to him. But slowly, but surely, prison got to him. Everybody has a breaking point, and he broke."
What does Walker say to viewers who find "Oz" too violent? "You need something to stir the stagnant waters," he says. "That is 'Oz's' job in the mediocrity of television. We are thought-provoking."
Walker may be British, but you wouldn't know it. He has worked hard at perfecting his American accent. "It's quite good," he says, proudly. "It's an affirmation for me."
While filming "Othello" in England last year, Walker bought his first house. But he's spent little time there. Four days after buying it, he left to resume shooting "Oz" in New York, where he resides almost year-round in an apartment. He now calls himself an "honorary New Yorker."
Before he moved to America, Walker ran his own theater company, called Flipside, for the flipside of humanity. The company produced plays, including American productions, which focused on multidimensional characters.
"That was the learning curve and a growth spurt for me as an actor. At the end of the day, that experience taught me self-respect. One of the things that you do when you're unemployed is that you try to please everybody." Flipside is now closed because Walker and his partner, who were "the engines," have moved on.
Walker, with a background in theater, has noticed there are many American stars who have never stepped on a stage. "That's almost near impossible ... in Britain because [every actor] goes through theater," he says.
As a young boy, Walker watched the film "In the Heat of the Night" and admired actor Sidney Poitier, who projected dignity and intelligence. The experience "switched the light on" for him.
"That's one of the reasons I wanted to be an actor," he says. "I'm trying to reach people. My stuff isn't about money or fame. I'm trying to improve who we are, using the medium of television."