The guard behind the desk at ABC’s offices in Century City stares intently at the man standing in front of him. A look of recognition flashes across the keeper of the gate’s face as he picks up the phone to call a network rep.
“The gentleman from ‘Superman’ is here to see you,” he tells her.
The man, dressed entirely in black, smiles at the guard. “My name is John Shea. And I’m no gentleman.”
Well, at least not the two-faced gentleman he plays on the ABC series “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.” Though Teri Hatcher and Dean Cain are delightful as Lois Lane and Clark Kent/Superman, it’s Shea’s deliciously evil Lex Luthor that gives the series its zing.
Handsome, charming and incredibly vile, Lex is one of the richest men in the world. He wears designer suits, smokes expensive cigars and lives in a posh penthouse apartment, which overlooks Metropolis. And he adores Lois Lane, who, in turn, adores Superman. Shea’s sexy Lex is far removed from Gene Hackman’s baldheaded bully of the popular “Superman” feature films.
Sipping on a cup of water in a reception area at ABC, Shea is engaging, articulate--and exhausted. He’s been filming into the wee-small hours all week and was working until 2 this morning. But his exhaustion soon evaporates when he begins talking about Lex.
“Lois & Clark” marks the second series for Shea. Four years ago, he starred in the short-lived CBS show “WIOU,” in which he played the earnest news director of a TV station. Shea took that series because he saw it as a chance to a play a complicated anti-hero.
“But they kept writing him to be a hero,” Shea says. “That wasn’t particularly interesting. When ‘WIOU’ folded, I was relieved because I had a chance to do four or five films and in each of the ones I chose I played a more complicated character, sometimes a questionable character.” Those films include the Lifetime remake of the Hitchcock thriller “Notorious,” the USA movie “Lady Killer” and the Disney hit “Honey, I Blew Up the Kid.”
“I kept reading scripts when they sent me ‘Lois & Clark.’ I wanted to play the bad guy, but didn’t want to play him as a conventional bad guy. I didn’t want to play him so that you knew he was a bad guy. I saw an opportunity to do this with this character.”
Shea found executive producer Deborah Joy LeVine’s pilot script witty and original. “I read it before I went to bed and woke up the next morning and saw a way to do it. I saw Lex as a combination of several characters I played.”
First, Shea says, he needed to define villainy in the ‘90s. “What we learned in the ‘80s is that it comes in pleasing guises,” he explains. “It would look like Donald Trump or any politician in Washington. Corporate villains are these guys who look good in suits and have dinner in the White House. They can do a tango, but underneath there’s this thing going on. I thought this guy should be a combination of the Cary Grant character I played in ‘Notorious’ and Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III': Somebody who looked like Cary Grant and thought like Richard III.”
At his audition, Shea discussed his ideas about Lex with the studio and network. “They said, ‘You got the job.’ I think I convinced them it could be played that way.”
Shea believes Lex sees himself as a “super man.” Before shooting the pilot, he read Nietzsche’s “The Will to Power.”
“It basically says the real ‘super men’ are the guys who are self-created by a force of will, who can bring themselves to power. In my opinion, Lex Luthor is a ‘super man,’ somebody, who by the force of his will, has drawn himself up from the streets and created this empire. Lex Luthor has built himself to this position on top of the world looking over his kingdom and he is bored. There’s no one to test him anymore. He would love nothing more than a challenge, and so this guy flies in from another world.”
Shea maintains Lex really does love Lois and will even pop the question to her during the series’ two-part finale on May 1 and 8. “If you are a control freak as Lex Luthor is, what’s the worst thing that would happen to you? You would fall in love. I’m in love with her and it’s the worst thing to ever happen to me. She really likes (Clark/Superman) and it spurs my competitive edge even more. Love for me is my Kryptonite. It’s my Achilles’ heel. I’ve been fairly invulnerable to this point, but suddenly feel vulnerable because someone has gotten to me. It’s a dangerous thing.”
Though Lex is a dangerous man, Shea likes him. “What I found sympathetic about him is that he can’t help what he does,” he explains. “I think Lex Luthor is a sociopath. Sociopaths are a social cripple. To continue the metaphor of Richard III, Lex Luthor is a psychological hunchback. He can’t help the fact that he’s deformed. In some way, he is to be pitied.”
Lex, Shea says, lacks a conscience. “It turns out a sociopath is someone without a voice that says, ‘This is right. This is wrong.’ He’s motivated solely by appetite, and he weaves an unconscious web around his victims to satisfy his appetite. Once the fly falls into the web and the spider consumes the fly, then, of course, there’s a moment of hedonistic pleasure and satisfaction. Then the appetite begins again. This is Lex Luthor.”
“Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on ABC.