A Surprising 'Sleeper'

Actor Michael Ealy is an intriguing choice to play a new, complex kind of television hero

November 20, 2005|By DAVID ZURAWIK | DAVID ZURAWIK,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Darwyn Al-Hakim is, to say the least, a complex character. He's an African-American with blue eyes. He's a Muslim who is an undercover federal agent. He's a religious man who, by the end of his first hour of television, is shown partially naked and having sex with a woman who is not his wife.

Meet television's newest hero: a dashing, devout law enforcement officer who defends Americans by pretending for much of the time to be someone other than himself. Played by Michael Ealy, a 32-year-old actor perhaps best known as Halle Berry's on-again, off-again boyfriend or for playing the reformed felon Ricky Nash in the 2002 hit Barbershop, Al-Hakim will make his debut Dec. 4 in Showtime's newest drama, Sleeper Cell.

Set in Los Angeles, the 10-part series embodies post 9 / 11 anxieties as it tracks an al-Qaida sleeper cell and the FBI agent who penetrates it. Think Donnie Brasco -- only instead of the mob, it's a terrorist cell that the FBI is trying to crack. This undercover agent, American television's first Muslim hero, reflects changes in attitudes that have seeped into the culture since the World Trade Center attacks about who's a hero and who's a threat. It also promises to be a lightning rod for emotionally charged attitudes toward religion, race, government and terrorists.

And Ealy has no idea why he was chosen to fill it.

"I have not seen a character this complex on television," Ealy said. "That was part of the appeal, and I was really flattered that they thought of me for the role -- I mean, my agent and the producers. I can't believe they thought of me for this part. I took the role with a lot of pride, but also a lot of pressure to fill those big shoes. ... Honestly, I can't tell you why they chose me."

His producers say that in the University of Maryland graduate they saw a star quality and a set of acting skills surprisingly honed for someone who has been performing professionally for less than a decade. No doubt Ealy's looks -- he was named one of the sexiest men alive in 2002 by People magazine -- didn't hurt either.

"We wrote the part of Darwyn for an African-American character for a number of reasons -- including the growing number of conversions to Islam among African-Americans -- and then we were lucky enough to get Michael Ealy, who gives a phenomenal performance in the pilot," says Ethan Reiff, co-creator and executive producer. "In fact, he's pretty amazing in all the episodes. He's really something, and his presence helped get this series made in the face of endless hurdles due to its subject matter."

But Ealy has something else, too. A certain something that co-creator and co-producer Cyrus Voris calls "one of the great qualities of all great leading men." He describes it as an ability to hold an audience's interest even when sitting still.

"[Ealy's] character had to spend a lot of time undercover with the terrorist cell just observing what was going on around him. This is most of an undercover agent's job -- don't draw attention to yourself, but observe and note as many things as possible that will help law enforcement bring the bad guys to justice. A lot of actors can be compelling when they have big speeches to give on camera, but very few can be as compelling when their job is to watch other actors recite dialogue and yet still be the focus of the scene, the character the audience is rooting for."

Levels of role

For Sleeper Cell to succeed, Ealy must make the Al-Hakim character work on several levels, starting with an appeal to audience fantasies: "We're dealing with subject matter that is very intense and scary," Voris said. "And, if we're just showing terrorists plotting under our noses each week, that could be pretty tough to take. But here's a good guy on the inside who can do something about it. Wouldn't it be great if there was this guy out there?"

But such wish fulfillment is only one aspect of the role, according to the producer: "Islam is such a huge worldwide religion and there are so many ethnicities and strains that we also created Darwyn to be a metaphor. The subtheme of the series is that there's not just a war on terror, but also a war within Islam between the radical and the peace-loving Muslims. And we thought it was a great, dramatic thing to have a guy who represents that moderate element having to hide his beliefs and feelings as he moves within the cell of extremists."

Therein lies the greatest challenge: Ealy has to reveal parts of Darwyn to the audience while concealing the same information from the other members of the cell.

"We created all this back story for Darwyn and figured out who this guy really is at the core, and then, basically, I couldn't play that except in glimpses," Ealy said. "The real Darwyn is so submerged in this undercover mission that he has a hard time being himself. I mean, in one sense, he can't be himself or it would get him killed. But, at another level, he is also fighting against who or what he is becoming."

Waiter, actor

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