"I used to be able to fill places like this!" shouts George Michael as he looks out at the middling crowd inside the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles. In fact, there's not a single paying customer in the house: The people here are extras, crew members on the new ABC series Eli Stone and connected folks who've wrangled an invite. (Yep, that's Bo Derek sitting in a chair by the railing.)
But this afternoon's shoot, one of several appearances Michael will make during the season, centers less on the singer on stage than the guy in a dark suit who sits at a table watching him. Eli Stone, played by British actor Jonny Lee Miller, is an ethically challenged San Francisco lawyer who's told he has a brain aneurysm and suddenly begins to have visions, many involving the pop idol known for a string of No. 1 hits in the '80s and an infamous scandal a decade later.
In Eli Stone, which treats social issues with a twisted sense of humor, the title character finds himself a prophet of sorts, drawn to the kind of good deeds sure to raise eyebrows inside a high-powered law firm. "He's kind of a reluctant hero," says Miller, 35, who says he "technically" lives in London but has spent most of the past two years in Los Angeles with his fiancée, actress Michele Hicks (The Shield). "He ends up doing good things, but that's not what he sets out to do. To me, that's a lot more interesting than him being a complete do-gooder."
Miller may still be best known in the United States for his rough turns in films like Trainspotting, or for his three-year marriage to Angelina Jolie, which ended in 1999. A soccer-loving Brit who's pals with Jude Law and Ewan McGregor, he was hesitant to commit to another series on the heels of his role in last season's Smith, a highly touted CBS drama that was pulled after only a few episodes.
"No one even got to see most of the work we'd done, so I was wary of doing another series," he says. "But this was such a good part that I couldn't not pursue it. A lot of odd things happen in this show, in a way that makes it different from anything else I've seen."
For cocreator Greg Berlanti (Dirty Sexy Money), Miller came at the end of what had been an exhausting 22-week quest. "It was the longest casting process I've ever had for TV," he says. "But as soon as Jonny sat down, we knew he was Eli Stone. I wanted the show and the character to be a little offbeat, but that didn't come to life until we got Jonny. His range is so immense."
At the Wiltern, his emotional gamut runs from serious (as Stone talks to his fiancée, played by Natasha Henstridge) to dismayed (when Michael walks on stage at the charity concert they're attending and Eli figures it's just another hallucination) to ecstatic (when he realizes that this time he's actually seeing his unlikely mentor in the flesh). "This," he yells, as Michael struts across the stage, "is incredible!"
With all 13 episodes written before the strike, Eli Stone is one of the few new shows with its abbreviated season in the can. This might well raise expectations — as will its coveted Thursday-night time slot, beginning immediately after the season premiere of Lost — but Miller is having none of it.
"I know a successful series can open huge doors, but I always have very low expectations," he insists. "I'm not trying to belittle what I do, but you just have to. It annoys me when people get overexcited and stress about this stuff." He laughs. "Of course, I can say that because I don't have money invested in it."
Watch a preview of Eli Stone in our Online Video Guide.
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