Zen 1.01 - Rurus Sewell
Aurelio Zen (Rurus Sewell) © 2011 Left Bank Pictures

Based on Michael Dibdin’s novels, Rufus Sewell stars in PBS’ upcoming drama Zen, portraying Inspector Aurelio Zen, a suave Italian detective who battles Italy’s insane bureaucracy, and killers.

Sewell also starred in CBS’ drama Eleventh Hour and in the Emmy Award winning miniseries John Adams, and can be seen alongside of Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie in The Tourist.

The actor spoke about his new series at the TV Critics Association tour at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena, California.

You recently did The Pillars of the Earth, were you specifically looking to shake things up to get out of the swords and sandals?

Zen 1.01 - Rurus Sewell
Episode 1.01 'Vendetta' - Aurelio Zen (Rurus Sewell) © 2011 Left Bank Pictures

I’ve been looking to shake things up and get out of the swords and sandals for about 20 years, actually.

An opportunity presented itself, and that’s slightly rare. So yes. I’ve never had any particular predilection towards period drama or swords and sandals.

It’s not something I’m particularly fond of or any better at than anything else. Just the offers don’t come in very often. So when I was approached for this, because it was good quality and it was coming my way, I was very eager.

Everybody thinks they’ve got stupid bosses that give them conflicting orders, but Zen really has in this. What was it like playing someone who has to deal with those kinds of conflicts?

The real pleasure of it for me is the fact that he’s always in a bad situation. He’s always one step behind. He’s not, for me, a winner.

In fact, to put it vulgarly, I liked the idea that at the beginning of every story he gets handed a turd sandwich and he basically has to deal with it. For me, the absolute heart of him is he’s cornered. And he has to be slippery. In the literature, he’s described as honest. I don’t think he’s particularly honest.

I think he’s perfectly capable of kicking a man when he’s down and being underhanded and sneaky. He’s not a bad guy, but to think of him as some kind of crusading moralist is to misunderstand him. I think he’s perfectly capable of being slippery and underhanded but on his own terms. That’s what makes him, as far as I’m concerned, kind of human.

Isn’t everybody around him more sneaky than he is?

Zen 1.02 - Rurus Sewell
Episode 1.02 'Cabal' - Aurelio Zen (Rurus Sewell) © 2011 Left Bank Pictures

Oh everyone around him is slippery but without any kind of moral code at all. So I think he’s basically a good guy, but is he down-the-line? No. I think that’s what’s fun about him.

Can you talk about the tone of the series?

Michael Dibdin wrote 11 books and they vary wildly in style and tone. Some of them are really overtly comic. Some of them are incredibly dark.

The character of Zen in some is very shadowy and, in some cases, doesn’t even appear until halfway and fails to solve the crime. And then in others, he’s right at the forefront. But one thing that is very much characteristic is that he’s strangely un-dynamic, which is quite interesting in that he’s very much a victim of opposing forces.

He’s basically, in many ways, just trying to get through the day He certainly has a moral code. He certainly is very good at his job. But there are so many bosses wanting one thing, there might be a regime change in government, and a certain result is expected.

Certain things are politically expedient if he wants to keep his job. He’s not at the top of his profession, even though he’s widely regarded as being incredibly good at his job, because he never makes the right political decision when it counts. So he’s back on a desk job. He’s living with his mother after a very unsuccessful marriage.

Things are not great for him.

Can you talk about shooting in Rome

Zen 1.03 - Rurus Sewell and Zoe Tapper
Episode 1.03 'Ratking' - Aurelio Zen (Rurus Sewell) and Donatella Pirotta (Zoe Tapper) © 2011 Left Bank Pictures

I worked there about 10 years before doing a film called The Honest Courtesan, or Dangerous Beauty in this country. And it was, at that time, my favorite place to work, my greatest experience.

I’ve [never] looked forward to going back because I didn’t want to spoil the memory. However, it was just as wonderful being in Rome with this, because I think what’s wonderful about Rome is unaffected by the tourists.

It’s just a magical place. We were working ridiculous hours, so I didn’t see a lot of it. But just to get dropped off and walk back through Rome at the end of the evening was one of the great pleasures really.

What was working on this like versus network television?

I’d say I’m burned out on network television, which is a pretty straight answer. I decided with a pretty good shot of something being good that it wasn’t for me, purely because I think the way that network television works is there are so many people you have to please in terms of business and demographics.

I wouldn’t necessarily want to be in a series for a very long time. I don’t think it suits my temperament. There were people that I worked with doing Eleventh Hour that I loved. And the experience was incredibly rewarding for me.

I learned more doing that than probably anything else I’ve ever done. But the first benefit of that knowledge is not to do another one. But if I decide to change my mind tomorrow, I will, and I don’t care what anyone thinks!

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.