He just closed his eyes and thought of Bill Clinton.
That's how Kyle Secor, the boyishly good looking, 48-year-old co-star of ABC's hit series Commander in Chief, describes his method in developing the role of Rod Calloway, husband of the first female president of the United States.
"I got some books on first ladies, because I really didn't know much about the position, and that is basically what I would be taking over. I read about Dolley Madison and Jackie Kennedy, but I still couldn't feel it," the actor says.
"I'll tell you what really helped in the end: Periodically, I just closed my eyes and imagined Bill Clinton in the role. He's the only one we can really think about right now who might someday be in that role - and how interesting that would be."
Best known as Detective Tim Bayliss of the Baltimore NBC drama, Homicide: Life on the Street, Secor is breaking ground this season in his role with Geena Davis as President Mackenzie Allen.
Though understated, Secor's skillful performance adds to the show an undercurrent of domestic tension that's likely to resonate with any married couple whose partners both work. It's a key element in making the Tuesday-night drama the highest rated new series of the fall and a regular member of Nielsen's weekly Top 20.
Balance of power
"I'll tell you, there is an excitement in playing this kind of role. Now, every week, we're asking ourselves, `How would this look?' - because we are, in a strange way for a lot of eyes watching TV, a template of how it could be with a woman in the White House," Secor says.
"And it's nice to be able to play the qualities we're playing with - the quality of integrity and the idea of what greatness could be, particularly in the remarkable performance by Geena. It's great to be dealing with large ethical and moral questions - and this whole notion of how a man would react to being first gentleman with his wife in that position of ultimate power."
In the pilot episode, Secor and Academy-Award-winner Davis adeptly established what has become the show's leitmotif: the underlying tensions that swirl between a husband and wife when the balance of power suddenly shifts. In one scene, President Allen tells her husband and long-time political partner that he will not be her chief of staff - despite his expectations. The look of surprise, hurt and anger that crosses Secor's face as the news registers captures the emotional complexity of the moment as no words could.
"Yeah, the scene in which he was supposedly emasculated - that's the word some people used to describe the scene," Secor says. "But to me as an actor, it's not very interesting to play emasculation, and I had to avoid letting that ultimately happen to the character."
Instead, Secor aimed to convey what Calloway might be thinking in the wake of such an announcement. "When she tells him he is not going to be chief of staff after all, you take it in and you work with it. Like, `Wait a second, that's not what we talked about.' I mean, for my character, it's dealing with the bomb," he says.
"What am I going to do - be whining in public? That would be a little weak. That would be him accepting and being weak in that position. My approach was: He's confused, but he's trying to find his way in this new structure within his household with her being elevated to this high position. He also has to find his way back professionally, which has been happening."
In recent weeks, Calloway has flirted with the idea of becoming commissioner of baseball and done crisis management at his wife's request on a book that could have been damaging to her presidency. She has since brought him back into the West Wing as a senior adviser.
"I think we've really moved away from the question of his being emasculated," Secor said. "I like this character. You never know what will happen on TV, but it would be a terrific thing to play out for a long time and see where the writers would take him. And also it would be great just to have a job for a while - we're all freelancers."
Defined by `Homicide'
Since his stint of six years of steady work on Homicide ended in 1999, Secor has worked on short-lived series and uninspired made-for-TV movies.
He was a cast member on two highly touted Steven Bochco dramas, City of Angels and Philly, but neither lasted a year.
As for the TV films: "As they say, made-for-TV movies are a crapshoot," he says. "They were always fun to do, but a lot of times, the finished product was me going, `Oh, God, no.'"
One production that Secor, who is married to actress Kari Coleman, feels good about is the 2003 ABC-Disney miniseries, A Wrinkle in Time. Based on the celebrated children's book series, it tells the tale of a brother and sister searching the universe for their missing father. "I liked doing A Wrinkle in Time, and it's something I can show my daughter."
These days, the Los Angeles resident is just happy to be working on a show he likes - in the city in which he lives.