Don’t let his Irish accent fool you — Jason O’Mara is a New Yorker. Sure, he has done his fair share of moving around, from Dublin to London, from London to Los Angeles, but his latest relocation casts him in a new role: New York actor playing a New York cop.
A credit to his talent, O’Mara was the last man standing when ABC decided to move Life on Mars from the West to the East Coast, scrapping the original pilot (and the original cast) to re-imagine the show, now filmed on location in New York. O’Mara, the show’s star, plays Sam Tyler, a detective that travels back in time to 1973 after being hit by a car on the streets of present-day New York. The cause of his time travel is unknown, but Sam is determined to find out what happened to him and do everything possible to get back to the future. In the meantime, he has to embrace his new reality, one filled with racism, sexism and old-school crime fighters, played by iconic New Yorkers Harvey Keitel and Michael Imperioli. But O’Mara’s the star of this show, with a mystery to be solved, a killer wardrobe and an on-screen New York accent that rivals the real thing.
New York Resident: Your character, Sam Tyler, has to navigate the ambiguity of two very different time periods. What’s that like?
Jason O’Mara: It’s really a fun role to play. Sam can never really commit to the time and place. He has to always fight to get back home. It’s interesting to see the differences between the two time periods and see how far we’ve come, but also the similarities. That’s what’s kind of scary — to see how little progression we’ve made in other areas in the last 35 years.
NYR: What would you say are the most notable differences between New York, then and now?
JO: There was very casual and socially acceptable racism and sexism and there was a higher tolerance for police brutality. New York was a far more dangerous place than it is now. This is not only pre-Giuliani, but there were still armed gangs running the city. The Russian Mob was establishing itself, the BLA [Black Liberation Army] and the Panthers were active and there were a lot of muggings taking place with innocent bystanders walking down the street. We forget that. New York now is far more clinical and clean and there’s a Starbucks on every corner and everybody’s walking around with a latte. It wasn’t that way 35 years ago.
NYR: You mentioned there are similarities, too?
JO: In terms of the similarities, we struggled over the summer with the high gas prices, just like they did in 1973. They were trying to get out of a war that they were bogged down in and we find ourselves doing the same thing. They were dealing with what to do with their, for the most part, unpopular president and we’ve had similar issues with the popularity of our current president, soon to step down. Those are a lot of the similarities. It reminds us that time and place can be a very cyclical thing.
NYR: There are two very important women in Sam’s life, Annie Norris [played by Gretchen Mol] and Maya Daniels [played by Lisa Bonet]. How would you compare the two characters?
JO: They are both very strong women who know who they are and know where they fit in the world. It’s very important because a lot of this show is about female identity. Maya is Sam’s equal. She’s his partner. She’s just as smart and just as able in the modern day to do her job. She takes initiative and they’re on par with each other. Annie, on the other hand, even though she’s probably more qualified to be a detective than her peers are, is smart enough to know that she has to bide her time. Alone, she won’t be able to change the world, but once the infrastructure is in place, she knows her time will come. She’s a closet feminist. If you look closely at the show, Annie has been doing very good detective work and, the more it goes on, she actually becomes responsible for solving a lot of the crimes simply using her own intelligence and initiative. I really like that part of the show, seeing the different characters flourish.
NYR: You reinvent a role made famous by John Simm in the British version of the
series. Are there a lot of expectations that come with doing something like that?
JO: The hardest thing about this was to try to make Sam Tyler my own after another very talented actor had already done such a wonderful job with the role. I never felt like I was in his shadow because I think that’s a choice. I could never allow myself to feel that way about him because, after all, I was the guy who was bringing this character to a whole new audience. I tried to make the things apply to me as a person and use my own experiences for the character. I tried to make the fish out of water aspect personal to me because … I’m an Irishman here in the States. I’ve spent some time in Los Angeles and I’ve been in New York for quite a few years. Even though we have a place in Connecticut, my wife and I love spending time in New York. We have an apartment on the Upper West Side, but I’ve always felt like a fish out of water. I’ve only been in the country for six years and I still feel like I’m discovering new places in New York City to eat and to go and new people to be friends with. Even in the business, I’ve been doing it quite a long time since I left Dublin 15 years ago, but now I’m just starting to break through in America. I’ve been trying to bring that experience to Sam. That experience of being not of the same place that you find yourself in.
NYR: It’s great experience to draw from…
JO: Exactly. In some ways, Sam Tyler represents every person who has moved house or moved countries or moved states or started a new job or perhaps is getting over a divorce. Anyone who finds themselves undergoing massive change. Everybody in life, at some point, experiences that. That’s what Sam represents. In a way, every character in the show is trying to find their way home. In a way, as human beings we’re all trying to find our way home. We’re all trying to find happiness or a place of belonging or some sort of peace where we can feel at home.
NYR: The show went through a lot of last-minute changes before its debut, with you as the only constant. What was that like?
JO: It was an interesting experience because that had never happened to me before. It was like survivor’s guilt — why do I get to stay on and my fellow actors and my friends won’t be coming with me? They also wanted to change producers so they brought this whole new team of producers on board. They didn’t want it set in Los Angeles. They thought it might work better set in New York. I met with [the show’s executive producers] and we exchanged ideas and I realized we were all on the same page. I told them I was still sort of licking my wounds at the news that I wasn’t going to be working with the actors that I had been working with and they said, well, we understand that, but we’re going to get a great cast together and it’s going to be a lot of fun. That’s just the way the business goes sometimes. And boy, when they said they were going to get a great cast, I didn’t know they were going to get Harvey Keitel, Michael Imperioli, Gretchen Mol, Jonathan Murphy, Lisa Bonet — I was stunned. I did feel a little pressure too. I was like, wow, I’m in really good company. I have to raise my game here.
NYR: Harvey Keitel and Michael Imperioli are such iconic New York faces — what’s it like to play a New Yorker opposite guys like that?
JO: It was a little daunting at first, but what was useful to me was that I had to prepare a dialect as well. I worked with a dialect coach every day and I wanted Sam Tyler to not necessarily sound as New York as Gene Hunt [played by Harvey Keitel] or Ray Carling [played by Michael Imperioli], but I didn’t want him to sound like he was from anywhere else. There were planned moments where Sam is a little more New York than others, but we wanted to give it a flavor of New York, a sort of subtle twist, but not have him be as tough a New Yorker as the other guys. We still wanted to keep him as a fish out of water. I think that part has been successful. I think it reminds the audience that Sam Tyler is a New York cop, but he’s not from this world.
NYR: The show films in New York. How do you create 1973 in present day New York?
JO: The locations and the production design team on this show have done such a great job. I’m always stunned whenever I show up to a location. There are some areas in Manhattan that we’ve been shooting like the East Village and around there, which, with some set dressing, looks really good and really authentic. The show is pretty much set in the East Village and on the Lower East Side. Also, we go out to Williamsburg and some areas in Queens and the Bronx. It’s amazing what a billboard will do to block out the things that would take you out of 1973. Also, when you add lots of ’70s cars to a street, that helps a huge deal.
We have made some mistakes! I’m not going to say where they are, but we have made some mistakes where things haven’t been quite period and were meant to be taken out. We’re in an awful rush to turn these episodes around. Some episodes we were shooting and then four or five days later, they would air so we didn’t have the time to sit and go through with a fine-tooth comb and use computer graphics to erase certain things that got in the shot by accident. It’s kind of a fun game to play when you watch Life on Mars — see the things that slipped through the net. Sometimes you notice them, sometimes you don’t. It’s tough to shoot a period show this fast. We shoot this in the same amount of time that they shoot any other show. We’re set in 1973 and we like to bring the show outdoors, whereas a period show like Mad Men, for example, wouldn’t spend as much time outside.
NYR: How do you feel about Sam Tyler’s wardrobe?
JO: I enjoy it. Sam has found his uniform now. It’s this black leather coat and his pointed, collared, mostly stripe-y shirts. He also has his corduroy or flannel pants with bell bottoms and boots, which are sometimes very difficult to run in. I’ve pulled hamstrings and turned ankles in those boots. Another concern is that if Sam runs too fast, he may take off with these pointed collars and we may never see him again. It’s been fun.
NYR: After growing up in Ireland and then spending so much time in London, what is it like to be in New York now?
JO: I love it — I think New York is one of the best cities in the world. Dublin is a much smaller city and even though it’s been modernized a lot, it’s still quite intimate. You can pretty much walk around end to end. Dublin is a great place, but it’s hard to make a living as an actor there so I went to London in 1996. The first couple years were tough. I was the clichéd starving actor, but then I started to do some theater and television and some voice-overs and things started to come together. Then in 2002, Hollywood came knocking. I made a tape with a casting director for a pilot that was going to be shot in Canada and I sent it over and they flew me over to Fox Studios to do a screen test. This pilot was never picked up. I went to Vancouver to shoot it, then I went back to London and I thought maybe I should try Hollywood for a little while. I went over and I got this show, The Agency, that starred Beau Bridges and Will Patton and Rocky Carroll and my wife Paige Turco. [My wife and I] met and fell in love, and came back to New York, got married and had a kid, our boy David is five in February. I suddenly felt like I was here to stay. But it happened very fast; it happened in the space of a year really.
NYR: And now you’re a New Yorker!
JO: Yes! I’m proud to be a New Yorker. London is a fantastic city, it really is. But there’s something about the block system in New York that is very user-friendly for visitors. You never really get lost. It’s fantastic. It’s very easy to find places. London is like Boston on steroids — they are all one-ways with little lanes and streets and you can’t always get to where you want to go and you’ve got to go the long way. But New York is so much easier really in that respect. It’s a city I’ve really enjoyed and that I’m falling in love with.
NYR: You play a character whose storyline really won’t be resolved until the show’s final episode — give us a hint, what’s ahead for Sam?
JO: I only know what Sam’s doing as the scripts come in. We’re definitely answering questions as we keep asking more. I don’t know how the show ends, but the producers assure me that they know what the last 10 minutes of the show are. So whatever that last episode is — and hopefully the networks will let us shoot that last episode — whether it’s next year or in six years time, the whole issue will be resolved. I think if it’s resolved well, and they seem very excited about it as a place to move toward, I think it will allow the series to live on for years to come.