THE small, fictional Kansas town of "Jericho" is freezing. There is no electricity, food supplies are dwindling, and there are no wild animals to be found. People are dying. The new mayor has a plan: Make resources stretch by forcing out refugees from nearby towns. He throws tear gas into a church and out run the refugees, tripping over one another on the steps. One woman lands at the bottom, face-down.
"Eat her!" yells Skeet Ulrich, who plays the CBS drama's lead character, Jake Green.
Everyone laughs. The line is not in the script and is definitely not something the complicated hero would say. But after developing his character and thinking about the show that has put him back in the spotlight after a self-imposed period away from Hollywood, it's nice for Ulrich to have a moment of levity once in a while.
Jake Green is what executive producer Carol Barbee calls a "reluctant hero," a guy with a checkered past who has returned to his hometown, after a five-year absence, on the eve of a multicity nuclear attack in the United States. He has enormous guilt over past acts -- the audience isn't privy to what those are -- and Jake winds up taking charge in the aftermath. Ulrich and Jake, it turns out, have a few things in common.
"Though he's lovely and friendly and sane -- and we don't take these things for granted when we're dealing with stars -- Skeet also is a person who doesn't give it all away," Barbee said. "He's not one of those actors who sort of tap-dances for attention. He's a man who keeps his own counsel and is respectful, but there's a mystery about him, which is also who Jake is. Jake has this great quality about him that says: 'I could save the world ... do I have to? OK, I will.' "
From the moment he signed on to lead what turned out to be one of the television season's few new hits, Ulrich became a collaborator on the project, which means he spends a lot of time on the Web researching nuclear weapons and attacks, watching documentaries about how different communities have survived all types of disasters, and is reading Jared Diamond's "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed."
"Sometimes actors can be disrespectful about stories or scripts, but he's not at all," Barbee said. "He's our creative partner. If Skeet's got a feeling about how a scene should be moving as opposed to playing it intellectually correct, he will say how he's feeling. I've adjusted scenes after talking to him because he's very much an organic, visceral actor, and he's very good about saying that a scene has to feel a certain way."
Ulrich never memorizes lines. Instead, he reads a script over and over until he senses that he's captured the context and the overall story. Then when it comes time to film, the words just come to him. "I feel like if I have to sit down and learn the lines, then I'm not really involved in the story in my head for some reason," Ulrich said.
His method of absorbing the entire script offers another bonus, Barbee said. "It's a little rarer for an actor to get the God's-eye view of the whole thing and realize what part they play in the bigger story and make sure they are giving us what we need and getting us to where we need to go," she said. "Sometimes an actor can get stuck in looking at everything from just one perspective because that's what they were hired to do."
For his most emotional scene in the pilot, for example, Ulrich suggested that the entire scene be shot at once instead of in parts as was written in the script to maintain the intensity. In the scene, Jake saves a young girl's life by performing a tracheotomy, even though he is not trained to do so.
The idea to film it that way occurred to Ulrich when he took the script home and cut it up, eliminating the descriptions and character names and leaving only the dialogue. It is a method that has helped Ulrich over the years when he is searching for a specific emotion because it allows him to see the purity of the words, almost as if it were a poem. It is also what prompted him to add a beat in which Jake tries to calm himself before operating on the girl, muttering "think, think, think" to himself.
"Jake has a lot of guilt, and a lot of that centered around the tracheotomy scene with that self-derisive humor about being a screw-up," Ulrich said. "I thought: 'Wow. That's really kind of interesting that someone could save someone's life and still feel bad about themselves.' There's something about heroes and their ability to empathize with other people."
By the end of the season, viewers will learn where Jake was for the last five years and what motivates him to help his hometown, but glimpses of his past as Jake the trouble-maker won't emerge until next year. (Assuming, that is, that CBS renews the drama.)
"The story of 'Jericho' for Jake is a story of redemption," Barbee said. "He needs to make up for past acts. He was a guy who was going down the wrong path and got into some bad stuff. But we haven't told the audience to mistrust him, and certainly Skeet's portrayal hasn't either. Another actor would have played Jake more as a swashbuckler, more as a showboat, more as guy who takes over the room. But Skeet doesn't do that. You always get the sense that the last thing Jake wants to do is call attention to himself, but when something has to be done, it has to be done. That's true of Skeet too, which is why he is the perfect Jake."