The new USA Network drama series Rush is about renegade physician Dr. William P. Rush (Tom Ellis), a “medical fixer” who privately caters to the elite of Los Angeles for large sums of money. Rush’s unorthodox business is thriving with the help of his savvy assistant Eve (Sarah Habel), but his self-destructive personal behavior puts him at odds with most of the people in his life, including his best friend, Dr. Alex Burke (Larenz Tate).
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Tom Ellis talked about how he came to this show, what drew him to this particular project and character, how much he enjoyed collaborating with writer/director Jonathan Levine, trying to find the truth in a sometimes unlikeable character, where Rush draws the line, and how the character relationships will develop. Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
TOM ELLIS: The last couple of years, I have been coming over and doing pilot season. And I’ve done a couple of pilots in the last few years that haven’t been picked up into series. But every time you get one and do one, it gives you confidence that you might be doing the right thing because people are responding to you, at that level. And then, it’s just a matter of the right thing at the right time. This job in particular was weird for me because I’d deduced, if I was going to come and work over here, what I wanted to, given my experience with pilots that hadn’t worked out, I wanted to work on a cable show and with a writer/director because that’s a much more fulfilling and freeing experience, as an actor. And then, this job came in and it was like, “Oh, my god, this is everything that’s on my list to Santa.” It happened at a time in my life where I’d just been doing a play in London for three months, and hadn’t done a play for 10 years. I realized that I really needed to and wanted to, and it was a bit like checking back into acting rehab. I just felt in a very good place, when the job came along. When I got the script, I felt confident that I had a really good chance of getting it. I made a tape for Jonathan Levine and he called me within 24 hours and was like, “I really want you to do this.” It was a strange, crazy meeting of worlds, wishes and timing. I feel very lucky to be doing it.
How awesome is it to get to play a character that doesn’t care about the consequences of his actions?
ELLIS: That is the beauty of playing a character like that. It’s possibly the most fun I’ve had playing a character, ever.
What was it about this character that appealed to you?
ELLIS: There are several things that I tuned into, straight away, with him. The way that he deals with life and his sense of humor is something that resonated with me, a lot. I enjoy his witticisms and his verbal repartee. He’s also got a beautiful car and he wears nice clothes and he’s surrounded by women, all the time. It’s like the James Bond gig, a little bit. But more than anything, when you read a lot of scripts, ones that are really good and really well-written pop out and really explode off the page, and this certainly did that. I hoped it would be something that worked out, and when it did, I was like, “Oh, my god!” I feel very happy about it. If I’m going to do something for several years, I want it to be something I want to do, enjoy doing and can be creative with. This was that.
How was the experience of working and collaborating with Jonathan Levine?
ELLIS: Amazing! Being on the floor of a TV show is sometimes a quite frustrating experience. You have to make really quick choices about how you’re going to do things, and you just haven’t got the time that you have when you make films. But for some reason, Jonathan was able to create this atmosphere. He’s got incredible energy that he brings to the set, and he encourages his actors to be creative. We’ll do a few takes as scripted, and then he’ll say, “Just do it how you want to do it and say what you want to say,” within the realms of what’s been set out in the scene. It’s his words on the page, but he’s not overly precious about them. He’s more interested in something coming to life on camera. To have that luxury of responsibility and creativity is a privilege, as an actor. That’s something that we’ve tried to continue in the series. Every director that’s come in shares that philosophy, in shooting the show. It’s a very nice place to work, as an actor.
This is a character that’s not immediately very likeable. Were you concerned about making him likeable, or is it more about making him interesting and intriguing, and making sure people want to continue to see where he’s going?
ELLIS: I don’t get overly concerned with trying to make a character likeable. I try to find the truth for them, and I try to find a way of empathizing or sympathizing with that character to understand where they’re coming from and why they reason the way they reason. Once you, as the actor, get a grasp of that and feel an affection towards that character, then it’s easier for other people to tap into that somehow. When I read it, I never thought this guy is a bad guy. He does some bad things. I think he’s a good guy who makes bad choices. Trying to find a human side to the character is a way to give them a chance to have people like them.
What exactly is a medical fixer?
ELLIS: It’s someone who has the skill set of a doctor. He’s one of the most qualified, brilliant doctors around, but he has eradicated his moral responsibility. Basically, he’s a mercenary. He’ll do any job for money, and he won’t ask any questions or tell anybody. He’ll be utterly discreet about it. That’s the appeal for most of his clients. There’s no comeback on them or reporting to the police. No one is coming in and telling them how to live their life. He literally comes in to fix somebody up, and that’s it. Job done. He goes away, no questions asked. That’s the principle behind it.
ELLIS: There’s two ways of looking at it. I think he is obviously a real guy who has real feelings and a real soul and a real heart. In spite of any of the choices he’s made, he can never get away from that. There will always be things that resonate with him and touch him, even though he thinks that he can keep that from happening. Obviously, he takes a lot of drugs, which enables him to be numb in certain situations. But he’s got a heart and a soul, and that’s what he fights, constantly.
Does he have lines that he won’t cross, or will he do anything for the right price?
ELLIS: I think he likes to think he would do anything for the right price, and he believes that he can do anything for the right price. But as the series goes on, you’ll see that life just ain’t that simple.
What can you say about who Dr. William P. Rush was before we meet him?
ELLIS: One of the things that I love about this show, and that differentiates it from a lot of medical dramas, is that it’s not a procedural medical show. In fact, I’m reluctant to call it a medical show. Him being a doctor is part of the show, but it’s not the show. You learn a lot about him, as a man, and why he is the person he is. We explore, through the series, the fact that actions and choices have consequences, all the time. It’s not as simple as just walking around and being this medical fix-it guy, in this formulaic TV show. It’s a much richer show than that. That’s what we’re striving for. It is very much a serialized drama.
As the actor embodying a character, you want your character to grow, but would you personally prefer that he not grow so much that he loses the edge that he has?
ELLIS: No, ‘cause I think that every time you add more depth to the character, it becomes more interesting to you, as an actor. I’m much more satisfied to go the other way, then to just plateau on, “This is who this guy is, end of story.” I think it’s much more interesting to have an arc of realization and discovery.
The relationship between Rush and his best friend is so interesting because they’re seemingly such opposite people. How did the two of them even become friends, and are we going to get to see why that friendship is still there?
ELLIS: Oh, yeah, for sure. Larenz [Tate] is amazing. We talked, at length, when we were doing the pilot, about backstory, and not just with those guys, but with everybody. We give them solid backstory and real proper reasons for why they are friends. The backstory for those guys is that they were roommates at Harvard. They were two people from opposite sides of the world, in terms of where they were coming from to be doctors, but they have a very tight brother-like friendship. I love those elements of this character. He has very different relationships with everyone, and it gives it a very three-dimensional aspect.
Do you think Rush envies his best friend, even if he wouldn’t admit it?
ELLIS: Yeah. The interesting thing about that relationship is that they both envy each other, in certain aspects of their lives. Alex lives vicariously through Rush, a little bit, in terms of doing the things that he would love to do, but can’t because he has these commitments in his life. Ultimately, Rush would turn around one day and say, “You don’t know how good you’ve got it.” That’s a clue into the psychology of the man.
How do you think he keeps his assistant (Sarah Habel) around, with as difficult as he seems to be to work with?
ELLIS: When we slowly explore that relationship and find out how it came to be, and that story comes out, there are exceptions in his life, as to how he is and the choices that he’s made. What we’re trying to achieve within the series and every relationship in it, everything is explained and everything is rich and true. We have a real depth in each relationship.
Rush doesn’t have the healthiest relationships with women, and he’s faced with his first and only love, back in his life (played by Odette Annable). Could she be the one to make him want to change?
ELLIS: She is one of the few people who can look him right in the eye and see right inside of him, beyond all of the surface and beyond the shell of the guy that he’s pretending to be. She looks right into his soul. That’s something that is very exposing for him, as a man. She is the one person that he’s ever really loved. Whether he wants to go down that road again and leave himself open to that is another question.
Is Rush someone who really can have true and genuine friendships and relationships while he’s as messed up as he is, or does he just take advantage of the people in his life?
ELLIS: I think every relationship is a true and real one, but the state that he’s in affects how much he respects those relationships. There’s only so far that you can push people or take advantage of people until that friendship reaches a point where it’s questioned whether it wants to continue or not. He spends a lot of time in denial.
Rush airs on Thursday nights on USA Network.