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Jack's back

Declan Cashin talks to the 'This Life' star about his new musical adventure

It must take every ounce of actor Jack Davenport's professional training and restraint to force a polite smile every time someone says his new TV drama series 'Smash' is "'Glee' for grown-ups".

Yes, there's singing and dancing in every episode -- inevitable given that it's about the vicissitudes in mounting a Broadway musical from stage -- but the British star insists that the comparison ends there.

"Where to begin listing the differences," he says patiently over tea in a hotel suite located -- fittingly enough -- in the heart of London's theatre district.

"'Smash' is not set in a high school. When people sing in our show, they do so for a reason other than that they're so adolescent that they just have to sing.

"I think we have better singers, too, and original music from Marc Shaiman [composer of 'Hairspray']. Plus the world that our show operates in is a realistic one," he adds.

Jack continues: "We're grateful to 'Glee' for being the first show with singing to be successful on TV. It did open a door for us, but there really isn't any comparison."

Now that's cleared up, Jack can focus back on 'Smash' alone. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg, the series follows the creative team and stars of a musical theatre company hoping to stage a show about the life of Marilyn Monroe.

It boasts a strong ensemble cast, led by Jack as the show's womanising director Derek, Oscar-winning legend Anjelica Huston as a savvy producer, 'Will and Grace' star Debra Messing as the musical's songwriter, and 'American Idol'-produced pop singer Katharine McPhee and 'Wicked' stage star Megan Hilty as wannabe Marilyns.

Jack, who will forever be remembered as Miles, one of the sexed-up lawyers in the BBC's seminal 1990s drama 'This Life', grew up in the theatre as the son of two actors (Nigel Davenport and Dublin-born Maria Aitken), but his experience of Broadway before being cast in the show was non-existent.

"To be honest, I wasn't a big fan of musicals," the 39-year-old admits. "I liked the silly ones like 'Little Shop of Horrors', but as soon as they got a little pompous and historical, I was like, 'Forget it'.

"I've since revised my opinion because now I know how much work it takes."

As part of his research, Jack says he met with one of the few "director-choreographer hyphenates" still working in theatre, Rob Ashford, who put 'Harry Potter' star Daniel Radcliffe through his paces on stage last year in 'How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying'.

"The thing I took away from Rob is how lonely it is," he says. "It's all on you. At the development stage, shit really does roll uphill at you.

"That was interesting in thinking about Derek's coping strategy and about how he deals with people."

Indeed, Derek is something of a ball-busting, Miranda Priestly-with-tap-shoes-type director, bellowing out snarky lines to hapless hoofers.

"Playing someone who doesn't care what people think about him is amazingly liberating," Jack says. "The writers have been kind enough to give me some very good rejoinders, but also they haven't shied away from making him unapologetic.

"He's not a bully or a monster. He's just a pro. It's a hugely pressurised job. You can't piss about being diplomatic. There's no time. I think that's quite adult really."

Since starting on 'Smash', Jack has become a convert to musical theatre, and most recently enjoyed 'The Book of Mormon', from the creators of 'South Park'.

"It's one of the most joyful, profane, hilarious and, quite frankly, staggering evenings you'll ever spend in a theatre," he raves.

'Smash' is a show about landing -- and making the most of -- your big break in showbiz, something Jack understands only too well.

He was 23 when 'This Life' started, and before he knew it, the show had become a pop-cultural phenomenon, and he was one of Britain's biggest sex symbols.

"I remember at the time my dear old dad, who has been at this a lot longer than I had, saying to me, 'Savour this, because this kind of response is a potentially once-in-a-career experience'," Jack recalls.

"And he was right. You never get to be in something that was that universally adored. The writing was brilliant."

He continues: "What I loved about the show is that it showed life where if you had unprotected sex, you didn't immediately die of Aids. If you took drugs, you didn't have a heart attack. Most of the time this stuff just happens and people move on.

"There wasn't some great big moral judgement being made, and that was revolutionary. It was a huge opportunity for all of us, and we were damn lucky. Maybe it will be the one thing I do that stays in people's memories," he adds.

'This Life' ran for 32 episodes between 1996-1997, but the cast reunited for an indifferently-received reunion episode in 2007 entitled 'This Life + 10'.

Jack reckons there won't be another one.

"I think that was enough," he admits. "I liked it. I knew going in that we'd get a bit hammered. We joked about the Spinal Tap element of any type of reunion.

"In many ways we were just trying to nod to the audience with that reunion. I think what [writer Amy Jenkins] did in terms of bringing those characters' lives on was really kind of great."

Jack went on to star in movies such as 'The Talented Mr Ripley' and the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' franchise, as well as two TV series, 'Swingtown' and 'Flash Forward'.

Both of those, however, were cancelled after two seasons.

"American network television is Darwinian," he explains. "It's paid for by advertisers. Therefore, on a certain level, network television is a delivery system for advertisements.

"If not enough people are watching the commercials and programming they paid for, they have every right to take their advertising elsewhere."

Jack remains under no illusions. "Like everything else in showbusiness, you can't go in all glittery eyed thinking this is going to last. Life in itself is impermanent. Showbusiness is doubly impermanent," he says.

"Was I sorry to have to look for another job? Yeah sure, but I'm not an idiot. It's just the way it goes."

'Smash' starts tonight on Sky Atlantic at 9pm

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