Over bowls of Irish oatmeal at a beachside Santa Monica hotel, Dublin-born actor Jason O'Mara explains why ex-cop Charles Conti, his character on the Friday-night ABC crime/legal drama "In Justice," winds up doing all the hard work of exonerating wrongly imprisoned people -- and why that's a good thing for Conti's boss, swanky attorney David Swain (Kyle MacLachlan).
"It's important that we protect Swain," O'Mara says. "Swain can't be the character that does all the dogsbody work, the interrogations. He does, from time to time, depending on his involvement with the case, but it's important we protect Swain. He's the king of the castle, and he can't be seen doing lowly pleb work.
"As a result, Conti ends up investigating week in and week out and getting to the bottom of what's going on. So, generally, the story comes out of my mouth. I'm Exposition Boy, and my challenge is to make it interesting."
It's an irony, because, at least on American television, O'Mara usually plays a man of few words, as exemplified by his taciturn man-of-action CIA Agent A.B. Stiles in CBS' "The Agency."
"Conti is a man of few words," O'Mara says, "but, yet, I do the exposition. But you get good at finding new and exciting ways of delivering exposition."
Although he's a blue-eyed Irishman (who does a pretty good American accent), O'Mara is playing a character with an Italian name.
"I guess I am," he says. "We haven't quite figured out whether he converted to Catholicism to marry his wife, Charlotte, who's played by Rebecca Pidgeon, or whether he was already Catholic. We haven't figured that out yet."
Conti and Charlotte are divorced, but haven't yet gotten an annulment, so, as Conti reminded her in a recent episode, according to the Pope, "we're still married."
"There's definitely unfinished business there," O'Mara says.
It turns out that Conti has all kinds of unfinished business.
"He's a guy who's in a transitional period," O'Mara says. "He's in the train station of his life. His life used to be very set. He was a cop. There wasn't much mystery in his life. It was black and white. He went to work, and he did his job.
"One day he caught himself doing what he promised he'd never do, which is coercing a confession and forcing the evidence. He was punished for it because the guy he put away topped himself, and he carries around that guilt. That's what motivates him. I think it motivates us all, even if we don't want to admit it, says this Irish Catholic."
While Conti doesn't seem inclined to go back on the force, O'Mara says he is rethinking his marriage. "I imagine it was an event, a flurry of activity. It was a huge change in lifestyle, and now the dust is settling. He's starting to think, 'Hang on, why did I leave my wife? Why did all this happen? Why did I do that instead of just leaving the force? Did I toss the baby out with the bathwater?'
"I imagine that Conti lives in a $55-a-night motel. I also keep clothes and a toothbrush in the office. If you look closely, it's right beside his pens -- his shirts and sweaters. And he's got a little dying plant in the yellow window behind his desk. That was a personal request of mine, that Conti have a dying plant."
Many of the promos for the show use the song "Calling All Angels," but O'Mara isn't so sure that Conti and cohorts Swain, Sonya (Marisol Nichols), Brianna (Constance Zimmer) and Jon (Daniel Cosgrove) set out to be crusaders.
"I honestly don't think it's about do-gooders," he says. "I don't think the people who are involved in these humanitarian projects in real life come off as do-gooders either. I've met a few of them recently. They're normal people. Everybody's got their reason to be involved.
"There's something that compels them, ulterior motives. There's no such thing as true altruism. I don't think it exists. There are all sorts of reasons for doing what we do, and the end result may be positive or negative, but the means we take are about the same.
"If it happens to have a positive effect on society, it's more of a byproduct than actually wanting to make the world a better place. Do you see the difference? It's not like they're trying to save the world. They're trying to do their jobs because they see what's going on, and they have their own reasons to do something about it.
"Our motives aren't so pure as Mother Theresa's. I'm in it for some personal redemption thing. Swain's in it for God knows why. Jon's in it because it could be a steppingstone for something else, and it looks good on his resume. Sonya's in it because she got sucked into trying to get her brother out of prison."
So, if the characters are angels of any sort, O'Mara says, "We're more angels of circumstance."
"In Justice" airs it last episode of the season on Friday, May 31.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times