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Kevin McKidd: From ‘Grey’s’ to the deep blue sea

If you want to know what it’s like to be a television star, walk down a Los Angeles sidewalk with Kevin McKidd, whom “Grey’s Anatomy” fans instantly recognize as the tortured trauma surgeon Owen Hunt. If you want to know what it’s like to be a movie star, listen to McKidd describe a solitary stroll he took on a New York street during the filming of “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.”

“There’s a shot where I arrive in the city and walk up out of the ocean,” says McKidd, who portrays Poseidon in the modern-day adventure with gods of Greek myth. “It was one of those moments as an actor where you say, ‘Wow, I am making a big movie.’ There was a huge crane for this one big, long shot of me and the city skyline as I’m walking toward the Empire State building. The preliminary work was, like, two or three weeks getting the lighting just right on all of these buildings.”

McKidd, with a wink and a sly smile, said it’s a day at the office he won’t soon forget. “I felt pretty special after that shot.”

The 36-year-old McKidd has high hopes that “Percy Jackson,” which opened Friday to mixed reviews, might become a franchise just like the bestselling bookshelf series of the same name by author Rick Riordan. The film chronicles the adventures of a young boy who might remind some moviegoers of Harry Potter -- both are young outsiders who discover they have a supernatural heritage and then get an education at a magical sanctuary while battling mysterious forces with the help of young friends.

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Instead of a boy-wizard, young Percy (played by teen heartthrob Logan Lerman) is a demi-god, the son of a mortal woman ( Catherine Keener) and Poseidon, the god of the seas. If the movie does click and becomes a trilogy as hoped, it would mark another new chapter in McKidd’s peripatetic career, which began with a memorable turn as a member of the hard-luck junkie crew in “Trainspotting” and reached its zenith, as least in the eyes of critics, with his lead performance as Lucius Vorenus on the HBO series " Rome.”

The Scotsman said he has a sort of compartmentalized celebrity now. Women know him from “Grey’s,” men for “Rome” and youngsters, he suspects, will soon be referring to him as “Percy’s father.” With two children of his own, ages 7 and 9, he’s finding that the tour of duty holding the trident has a lot of traction with the elementary- and middle-school crowd.

“My son has read all of the books and he is immersed in it, like a lot of kids,” McKidd said. “It’s going to be interesting to see how the film does. The hope it will be a trilogy.”

Poseidon is an absentee father to Jackson in the film and that strained relationship is the defining theme in the movie, which finds Percy and his friends caught in the middle of impending war between the gods, who never left earth even though they keep a far lower profile. McKidd said that young Lerman, who was also in “3:10 to Yuma,” is a star in the making -- the older actor was impressed that the teenager spoke up about a pivotal scene where his character and Poseidon were supposed to embrace for the first time.

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“It’s this ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ moment and Logan said, ‘I don’t think at this point my character would do that. I think he would just go as far as shaking hands, this is the start of their relationship,’ and I was impressed that someone of his age would recognize that and not just go along with what was on the script page,” McKidd said. “At that age, I would have said, ‘The script says hug, let’s hug.’ ”

Director Chris Columbus, who also directed the first two “Potter” films, said that McKidd brought a “quiet power” to the role of the sea god and that his experience in historical roles gave him the gravity needed to be a Greek statue come to life. Still, McKidd said that he and Sean Bean, who plays Zeus, had a rough time during one scene keeping a straight face despite their years of experience.

“There’s a scene where we meet and we glare at each other and the music is going and the lightning and I walk up and say, ‘Zeus,’ and he greets me, ‘Poseidon,’ and after a couple of takes we started chatting just about how silly it all is,” McKidd said. “Now Sean is a real giggler. Once he starts he can’t stop. . . . And this not a cheap scene, this is expensive. And there we are laughing. . . . “

McKidd moved stateside 2 1/2 years ago to take on the lead role in “Journeyman,” the short-lived NBC time-travel series. That opportunity sprung from his acclaimed work in “Rome,” but it was “Grey’s,” where he plays a former battlefield doctor, that he connected with his largest audience. His character is dealing with post-traumatic stress and relationship challenges with his girlfriend, Cristina Yang, played by Sandra Oh. McKidd arrived on the show in 2008 and has found it a life-changing role.

“I really just like acting. I’m not always aware of what is hip and what is popular and what is zeitgeist,” McKidd said. “But ‘Grey’s’ is just a machine. I wasn’t really prepared for the epic nature of how popular the show is.”

Walking the career line between commercial success and critical satisfaction is an interesting topic for McKidd. The early reviews for “Percy” have not been especially kind and there has been a backlash for major plot changes and eliminated characters. “It’s not just that it’s a lot less funny than the book,” Michael O’Sullivan wrote in the Washington Post, “it’s also a lot less fun.” Kenneth Turan, in the Los Angeles Times, dismissed the film as “generic filmmaking at its most banal.”

McKidd (who was interviewed before the film was screened) said his personal goal is to put together a career that keeps him energized by its surprises. That’s clear with his next big-screen project: Guy Moshe’s “Bunraku,” a film that melds live-action and animation for a surreal noir tale.

“It’s a very, very strange film,” McKidd said. “It’s a hybrid of a western and a martial arts film. The world it’s set in is almost circus-like in the feel of it and it’s all origami. The whole universe is constantly folding paper to create a cityscape or interiors of rooms or the sunrise. . . . I play a very effeminate, master killer who’s almost like a Fred Astaire tap-dancing his way through the movie. It’s so different than anything I’ve done.”

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geoff.boucher@latimes.com


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