For Irish-American actor Aidan Quinn, who most recently starred in the cancelled NYPD drama “Prime Suspect,” the prospect of playing a New York police captain who solves crimes with iconic British private detective Sherlock Holmes in the new series “Elementary” was too delicious to pass up.
Set in contemporary Manhattan, the show stars Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes, a brilliant, but brash, recovering drug addict with an uncanny talent for deduction. Lucy Liu plays Dr. Joan Watson, the “sober companion” Holmes’ father hires to keep him out of trouble, while Quinn plays Captain Tobias Gregson, a cop who previously worked a case with Holmes at Scotland Yard and now consults him regarding seemingly unsolvable mysteries in the Big Apple.
“I wasn’t particularly looking for another TV project; I was just looking for work,” Quinn told the Irish Echo in a recent phone interview. “Wonderful actors to work with and they offered to have me come back to New York, come home, and they said they were going to expand the part and I could have fun with it – all good things. How do you say no to that?”
Born to Irish parents and raised in Illinois, Dublin and Birr, the 53-year-old actor is a married father of two daughters and the star of dozens of films, including, “The Eclipse,” “Song for a Raggy Boy,” “This is My Father,” “Evelyn,” “Michael Collins,” “Practical Magic,” “Benny and Joon” and “Desperately Seeking Susan.” The longtime East Coast resident also led the casts of the short-lived TV series “The Book of Daniel” and “Canterbury’s Law,” and was part of the ensemble of “Prime Suspect,” for which he lived most of last year in Los Angeles, even though the show was set in New York.
His latest small-screen character is a modern-day incarnation of Inspector Gregson, a lawman from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 19th century Sherlock Holmes potboilers. Quinn’s version of the character is intelligent, honest and fair and, so far, pretty patient with Holmes’ often exasperating lack of social skills.
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So, will their relationship remain as civil as it is depicted in the early days of the show or might Holmes wear out his welcome and be shown the door?
“There’s definitely a real mutual respect. But we have one [episode] coming up where there’s real conflict between us,” Quinn explained. “They’re going to keep it interesting. It’s not just all going to be the same every week.”
Asked if he was happy to play Gregson instead of Inspector Lestrade, a better-known authority figure from the Doyle canon, but one with whom Holmes has a less-friendly relationship, Quinn replied, “To be perfectly honest, I have no idea about who Lestrade is.
“I watched Sherlock Holmes [movies] when I was a kid,” he recalled. “People keep mentioning, ‘Are you Lestrade?’ And I say, ‘No.’”
The actor went on to say he would like to see the show delve into the U.K. case that initially brought Gregson and Holmes together.
“That would be fun to explore,” he said. “Maybe a nice little flashback where we get to see them in London.”
Quinn had high praise for his co-star Miller’s performance in such a demanding role. “He’s fantastic. He’s great. He’s a phenomenal actor. He has these reams of soliloquys to learn every week and it’s quite daunting, all the dialogue he’s got to learn. He’s amazing. There is an OCD element and I think the character is very funny. He’s doing a great job,” Quinn said.
And what is it like to be on the other end of someone who is speaking at length as Holmes does, but doesn’t really care if the other person is listening?
“It’s interesting. I think that’s my job really to bring him back to earth and reality, so he can deal with the people who are in the room. He certainly is in his own private Idaho a lot.”
Although there had been some initial backlash against the show because it arrived so quickly on the heels of the London-set television series “Sherlock,” which also puts a contemporary spin on the Holmes stories, critics have since praised “Elementary” and viewers have been tuning in by the millions to see it since it debuted last month. Quinn, who said he has not seen the British drama, emphasized the characters are so rich there is room in the world for more than one version of them at the same time.
“I never saw it. I heard it’s terrific, but our show is completely different,” he emphasized. “He’s like the original serial detective.”
Quinn said his previous experience playing screen cops came in handy when preparing to play Gregson.
“I had just come off of doing ‘Prime Suspect’ for six months last year. I have a friends and sources in the NYPD so I had a leg up there,” the actor said.
“Elementary,” which will feature mainly original stories with a nod to Doyle’s tales, airs on CBS Thursday nights.