August 20, 2020

From These Roots

How does a series about the roots of evil engender so much goodwill? Ask Tom Ellis of Netflix’s Lucifer, now starting season five. “Even though it’s about the Devil, our show has a really good message,” he says. “It’s about people taking responsibility for their actions and trying to accept everyone around them.”

Bob Makela

Tom Ellis has been living in his own private pandemic hell.

The Lucifer star and executive producer was a week away from wrapping production in Los Angeles on season five of the hit series — the first half of which arrives on Netflix August 21 — when the cameras stopped rolling in mid-March.

"i think it was Friday the 13th, oddly," Ellis recalls with a slightly Luciferian laugh. "it was so bizarre."

Back in March, the Welsh actor was more than ready for a break. Playing devilish charmer Lucifer Morningstar during the extended fifth season — slated to be the show's last when production began — had been draining.

(The series is based on the DC comic book that sprang from Neil Gaiman's The Sandman comic books.) The light at the end of the production tunnel for Ellis was going to be a trip to London to see his three daughters (ages 15, 12 and 8) once shooting had wrapped.

"I was so naked at that point," Ellis says. "It's been a very full-on season for lots of reasons. I love the British expression 'I was on my knees.' I was looking forward to seeing my kids and that perfect tonic in my life. Then it stopped."

At first Ellis thought, "I can do this. I can catch up on my sleep. I can drink without feeling guilty, all that sort of stuff."

At home "in the bowels of Hollywood" with his wife, actress-writer Meaghan Oppenheimer (Queen America), and their two rescue cats, Cain and Abel, Ellis soon realized nobody knew how long the lockdown would last. The months passed, and he still couldn't see his daughters. It was by far the longest he'd ever been away from them.

His five-year Lucifer journey has been fraught with obstacles and detours, so the shutdown and quarantine are simply new bumps on a rocky road. But Ellis, unlike his onscreen character, seems preternaturally positive.

"There've been plus points," he allows. He's watched ESPN's 10-part Michael Jordan documentary series The Last Dance and did get out to golf when the lockdown temporarily eased up ("I broke 80 for the first time in my life").

Ellis and Oppenheimer also fostered a trio of kittens — William, Harry and the Duchess — from the rescue charity they support. (Yes, Lucifer fosters kittens.)

And newlywed Ellis has had time to get to know his bride even better. "I got remarried a year ago," he says, "and my wife and I are so used to being on the go all the time. So, we were forced into a place where we spent time with each other — quality time with each other. That , in the first year of a marriage, is a real gift.

"If I hadn't had my wife with me, I really would've gone insane," he adds with a chuckle. "That's a silver lining I can cling to."

Part cop procedural, part love story, redemption quest and philosophical inquiry — and at times, very funny — Lucifer has a long history of silver linings.

The show is set in Los Angeles, where Lucifer owns a nightclub and solves crimes with Detective Chloe Decker (Lauren German, Chicago Fire), who is the show's moral center and the object of the Devil's growing affection.

The first silver lining was the production's move to Vancouver, after shooting the Fox pilot in Los Angeles. The change of venue didn't go over well with a cast looking forward to working in L.A.

"They were quite bummed for a while," admits coshowrunner–executive producer Ildy Modrovich (Californication). "But in retrospect, it was the best thing for the show. Everybody got a new level of closeness. It was like going away to camp."

"That move to Vancouver really galvanized the cast," confirms Ellis, who took all of his costars to dinner before shooting began.

"We liked to socialize together. We really bonded as a group because we had each other. If we had started in L.A., people would have gone to work, driven home, done their own thing. It wouldn't have evolved the way it has."

After two years in Vancouver, the series returned to L.A. to film season three — only to be canceled by Fox at season's end.

"I just couldn't believe it," recalls Ellis, who was at a fan convention in Rome when he got the news. He'd been traveling the world the previous couple of years, talking to fans and hearing how much they loved the show.

He could sense a serious fandom was brewing globally, which is one reason the news hit so hard. "I was literally in a state of shock," Ellis says.

"I remember talking to him that night," Modrovich says. "I'd had two fat glasses of wine and we FaceTime-cried to each other. I remember Tom saying, 'I'm coming to L.A. and I'm fightin'.'"

Sensing the worldwide fanbase would protest the cancellation, Ellis rallied the troops. He gave interviews and told fans not to give up. "Tom put his actorly reputation on the line," coshowrunner–executive producer Joe Henderson (White Collar) says.

"He basically said, 'This is a show that I believe in. This is what I'm gonna fight for.' If you do that as an actor and it doesn't work out, you've spent some of your cachet." [For more on that cancellation and reprieve, click HERE]

Roughly six weeks later, Netflix picked up the series for season four. And now it heads into season five as a staple of the streamer, with an executive- producing team that — along with Ellis, Modrovich and Henderson — includes Jerry Bruckheimer, Jonathan Littman and KristieAnne Reed.

Rachael Harris (Suits), who plays Lucifer's therapist and former lover, Linda Martin, notes, "If we hadn't been canceled, we never would have known how popular the show was."

Ellis agrees. At the cancellation, he says, "I was like, 'I don't think people are going to like this decision.' But I didn't realize how vocal they'd be or how many people would speak up. [Witnessing the reaction] was the most uplifting experience I've had as an actor."

Portraying the Devil easily could have been a nonstarter for Ellis. Born in Cardiff, Wales, but raised in Sheffield, England, he grew up in a religious family. Not only was his father a pastor, but his sister and brother-in- law are as well — and his uncle is the head of theology at Oxford.

So, the subject matter could have been troubling. Harris was afraid to tell her mother in Ohio that she'd been cast in a series about the Devil. And before the show even aired, the Christian advocacy group One Million Mothers tried to get it canceled. Still, Ellis was undeterred.

"It's weird," he confesses. "In my religious family, we didn't talk about the Devil or Hell or that side of things. Religious scare tactics weren't part of my experience. So, when this part came in, I wasn't fearful of that.

"But I obviously was aware that everyone has an expectation about this character. And there've been so many different versions of it that I was like, 'Okay, where do we start?'" Indeed, how do you take one of the most reviled characters — the personification of ultimate evil for many — and make him charming, funny and relatable?

A solid pilot script from Tom Kapinos, initially an executive producer of the show, made for a strong launch. Just three pages in, Ellis had laughed out loud several times and was ready to sign on.

"Tom is brilliant at writing reprehensible characters that are likable," says Ellis, who studied acting at the Royal Conservatoire in Scotland along with his good friend James McAvoy (Atonement).

"The language had a sort of heightened sense to it and a certain cadence. So, when I was working on it, I was like, 'Hmm, it doesn't work as an American character.' It doesn't feel right, to the point that he just sounds really unlikeable."

Two things solved that problem: the first was to give Lucifer a British accent. (Ellis has often said that he saw Lucifer as a mix of Noel Coward and Mick Jagger.) The second? Hearing that accent from an actor with the charm of Cary Grant. ...

For the rest of the story, pick up a copy of emmy magazine. The article originally appeared in its entirety in emmy magazine, Issue No. 9, 2020

Go behind the scenes with Tom Ellis HERE

For earlier stories on on Lucifer, see Family Reunion from Hell, and The Devil's Advocate

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