Today at Comic-Con, Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu sat down with us at a roundtable interview to discuss their starring roles in the upcoming new CBS television series, Elementary, which premieres this fall on CBS. In this latest re-imagining of the classic story, the legendary characters get a contemporary update cracking cases in present-day New York City. Miller plays the brilliant investigator fresh out of rehab and Liu plays his sober companion, Dr. Joan Watson, whose job is to ensure that he maintains his newfound sobriety. Together, Sherlock’s unique detective skills and Watson’s medical expertise form a formidable force capable of solving the NYPD’s most impossible cases.
Miller and Liu told us what attracted them to the project when they first read the pilot, why they think audiences will identify with the characters and some of the dark and edgy issues the series tackles, why Robert Doherty’s writing makes it easy to play the intelligent master detective, and why they think the network is taking a big risk with the characters. Miller also discussed his experience starring opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in the world premiere of Frankenstein, a new play based on Mary Shelley’s classic story, presented at London’s National Theatre under the direction of Danny Boyle. Hit the jump for the interview.
We’ve got a lot to talk about because your characters have a lot of major issues.
Lucy Liu: Major issues.
What was your first reaction when you read the pilot and also what about the tenuous sobriety issue that may be part of the arc for your characters?
Jonny Lee Miller: That element was a huge attraction for me. I always feel that characters that have problems and issues to deal with are more fun to play, especially if you’re trying to balance that with a supposed genius for something and then make him not comfortable with that. You know, give him an edge. It leads into the relationship that Holmes and Watson have. That’s a plus all round for me to bring some darkness into it and have some problems, and it’s something a little more edgy that we don’t necessarily see too much on network television. So, I was very happy about that.
Liu: I do think there’s an element of mystery that’s involved in characters that are damaged and that CBS is taking a big risk for their network to allow that to happen and to have someone who had a history in drugs, or whatever addiction it was, and have a sober companion as well. I think there’s something dark and it allows you to go to different places. Watson is a character that’s hiding behind what she needs to really look into which is her past and why she was kicked out and the malpractice. She lost a lot of respect and her integrity. She’s actually more insecure than she leads on and he sees through that. She’s trying to help him but the reality is the clarity of helping him is just a distraction for her to not look at herself.
Miller: I think audiences like to identify as well with people who are struggling with trying to be the best people that they can. If you’ve got someone who’s supposed to be a master detective, it’s much more interesting to watch them struggle with that sometimes.
Liu: I think the idea of relapse is a great thing because it gives you the opportunity to fall, and people fall all the time and they want to see you get back up. That’s an important aspect of an actor to not just play it straight all the time. You have an opportunity to land on your ass and get back up.
Sherlock Holmes is highly intelligent. Is that intimidating to play?
Miller: Huh? Are you saying…? Thankfully I don’t have to write it which is good. I mean, I love the way Rob (Robert Doherty) writes and I have the utmost confidence in him. I love his scripts. So, yeah, in a way, it’s a really good feeling to have that behind you and to know that you’ve got these wonderful words to say. It’s a good feeling. It’s nice to pretend to be intelligent. Alright everyone!
I had the great opportunity to see you do both roles in Frankenstein. Can you talk about that experience and how you prepared for two such iconic yet different roles?
Miller: It would take us all afternoon really so I can’t do that now. It was one of the best working professional experiences I’ve ever had in my life. I love the theater and the chance to do really [good work]. I guess the main thing about doing those two roles is that you inhabit the entire play. You see it from here and you see it from there. You get to really work in depth with another actor and share in stuff. You never get to share like that because for it to be a success, there can be no room for the ego, like “That’s my idea.” “I don’t like the way you’re doing that.” There’s no one-upmanship. In the end, we were exchanging ideas. We would borrow stuff from each other quite openly. You never get that in the acting experience with other actors. You can get on with people really well but you never like really share in stuff.
It was a beautiful production.
Has Benedict Cumberbatch spoken to you about playing Sherlock? [Cumberbatch plays Sherlock Holmes on the BBC version.]
Miller: Of course, I wanted to assure him that it was different enough and he was excited for me and he was very encouraging and we discussed it. We haven’t had a chance to get together a lot recently. It’s a wonderful character to play and he wanted to pass that on. We discussed that for a minute. Yeah. You know it’s a strange one.
Catch up on all of our continuing Comic-Con coverage here.