Shades of 'Grey'

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Kevin McKidd has played a time-traveling journalist, a tortured Roman soldier, and a star athlete–turned–heroin addict. But nothing quite compares to his most recent role: In "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief," McKidd moves earth and sea as the Greek god Poseidon. "You do some research into the traits of the gods, I guess," muses the actor, sounding remarkably laid-back as he reflects on how, exactly, one prepares to play a towering mythological figure. "You look at images. But in this movie, I had to take the lead from [director] Chris Columbus, pick his brains a little and see what realm he wanted us, the actors, to live in."

Much of this fine-tuning came down to making sure the international cast—which also includes Uma Thurman as Medusa and Steve Coogan as Hades—sounded like they could inhabit the same world. "[Chris] really loved the show 'Rome' that I did, and he said he wanted that, dialectically," explains McKidd. "In 'Rome,' we kind of used our own dialect but in that slightly more classical tone of voice."

Nailing Poseidon's godly cadences was a challenge different from the more down-to-earth acting obstacles McKidd faces every week on ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," wherein he plays former Army trauma surgeon Owen Hunt. The role represents a transition for McKidd: After anchoring his own show, "Journeyman," the actor has now been incorporated into the massive "Grey's" ensemble. "Suddenly, the workload has gone from being every single minute of every single day to—like, this week, I'm not actually working," he says. "It's fantastic for my family life, but the problem I find, as an actor, is that I have time to over-think stuff and question my choices and how I'm going to play a scene. If I'm not working this week and I've got a big scene next Monday, I'll have all these days to churn myself up about how it's gonna go. I become self-conscious."

Not that he doesn't enjoy all the meaty material the show has given him thus far: From Owen's struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder to his tumultuous relationship with fellow surgeon Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh), McKidd is pleased that he's had the opportunity to play such a full gamut of emotions. Now he's looking to take advantage of some of that aforementioned time off to get more involved in Los Angeles' rich indie film scene. "I've always been attracted to directors who are just about to break," he says. "I'm keen to find those kinds of projects; that was kind of the grass roots of my career, working with first-time directors. I miss that experimentation."

Career Engineer

As a kid growing up in "a very small, quite old-fashioned town" in the highlands of Scotland, McKidd used acting to escape his crippling shyness. "I found it very hard to talk to adults," he recalls. "Suddenly I did a school play, and I was given this dialogue somebody else wrote, and I could just pour myself into that. I think that was the initial spark for me; I could really express myself through somebody else's words."

He ventured to Edinburgh for a university education, intent on studying engineering. But he says he knew, deep down, that acting was his true calling. "I knew my folks would be scared if I left home at 16 to go be an actor," he says, chuckling. "I thought, 'I'll get out of town in a legitimate way and be at a good university.' I joined a student theater company in Edinburgh and spent way more time there than I ever spent at lectures."

McKidd ultimately dropped out of university and enrolled in Queen Margaret College to study drama. One of his first breaks came in the form of Danny Boyle's 1996 smash "Trainspotting": McKidd played clean-cut Tommy, a good-natured soccer player who descends into heroin addiction. The film came out around the same time as modest indie "Small Faces," which cast the actor as a villainous psychopath—pretty much the exact opposite of his "Trainspotting" persona. Though McKidd appreciated being able to show multiple sides of his talent, he also notes that the acting jobs dried up a bit after that initial break. "I was very lucky that those two jobs came out of the gate, so nobody could kind of pigeonhole me at that point, which was great," he says. "But I think in a way, that kind of meant things were slower, because people were scratching their heads, going, 'Well, what are we going to do with this guy?' "

A Long 'Journey'

Luckily, the casting community eventually figured him out, and McKidd began to build a solid, diverse career, acting in projects like the award-winning TV show "North Square" and films "Topsy-Turvy" and "Kingdom of Heaven." But it was the brutal, blood-soaked HBO series "Rome" that got him noticed by American audiences; McKidd's portrayal of brooding Lucius Vorenus won him raves from critics and passionate fans around the globe. Oddly enough, the folks behind the series had him in mind for pretty much every role except the one he ended up playing. McKidd recalls that casting director Nina Gold, who had hired him before, got him in the door for an initial read.

"Everybody there could only see me as Mark Antony," he says. "I said, 'Okay, fine, but I really think I should read for Lucius Vorenus.' They came back to me and said, 'We want you to read for Titus Pullo.' I said, 'Okay, but I still think I should read for this Lucius Vorenus part.' 'No, no, we don't see you as him.' I read for Pullo, and they went, 'Eh.' "

Finally the producers allowed McKidd to read for the part he had wanted all along. Their response? " 'Yeah, that really works,' " says McKidd with a laugh. "I think as an actor, you know what your strengths are going to be. And sometimes you have to lead the horse to water. I was lucky enough that I had a relationship with Nina Gold, so she kind of went to bat for me."

McKidd's next move was a lead role as an oft-perplexed time traveler in the 2007 series "Journeyman." The show attracted a modest yet fervent fan base, but it never quite got off the ground and was canceled after a single season. "I was with my wife, and we'd moved into a rented house, and we sat there—not only in the midst of a canceled show but the writers strike," recalls McKidd. "Nobody could get work. We were a long way from home, not knowing what was going to happen. I think no matter how much you are a professional and say, 'Just to get a network show on the air as the lead is a huge success,' part of you goes, 'Wow, people just hate me and don't want to watch me on TV.' You have those dark moments."

So what pulled McKidd out of his funk? Well, a call from "Grey's Anatomy" creator Shonda Rhimes may have helped just a little. "You think you're dead in town; you think, 'That's it'—but then the phone rings and you get another job," marvels the actor. "Somebody like Shonda Rhimes calls, and you realize maybe things aren't over, you know?"