One might imagine Ashley Zukerman feeling daunted by a role that Tom Hanks has already inhabited in three huge films.
"Everything about it should have been intimidating," he acknowledges, "but for some reason, it hasn't been. I think because we've transposed the story to an earlier period, where the character's a bit rougher around the edges."
In Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol, which premiered September 16 on Peacock, the Australian-American actor plays a younger version of dashing symbology professor Robert Langdon. Though it's based on the third volume in Brown's best-selling book series, the show is a prequel to the film trilogy of The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons and Inferno.
"It's really an origin story, set 10 to f15 years before the first book," Zukerman says.
In the pilot, Langdon is teaching at Harvard when a mysterious caller summons him to Washington, D.C. His mentor, Peter Solomon (Eddie Izzard), has been kidnapped, and as the show unspools, Langdon must solve a series of deadly puzzles to save him.
The dilemma for Langdon, Zukerman explains, is that "he only believes in the truth and what can be proven — he would love to have faith but can't seem to get there. Over the course of 10 episodes, we look for every opportunity to challenge him."
Another challenge: Langdon's romantic relationship with his mentor's daughter. But Katherine (Valorie Curry) "believes in the unknown," Zukerman points out. "And because believing in the unknown is integral to my solving the puzzle and saving my mentor, that creates a lot of conflict."
Zukerman was born in Santa Monica, California, but grew up in Melbourne, where he graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts. He made an early splash in the Australian series Rush and starred in The Code a few years later. But it was his role as a scientist in the WGN America series Manhattan, about the Manhattan Project, that sparked an epiphany: "This is what I would love to do forever," he recalls thinking.
Since then, he's had recurring roles in ABC's Designated Survivor and HBO's Succession and costarred in the FX on Hulu miniseries A Teacher opposite Kate Mara. Coming up: the Netflix horror trilogy Fear Street, in which he plays the same character in 1994 and 1978 — and that character's ancestor in 1666. "It's an extraordinary piece," he says, "a thriller-slasher film on the surface, but there's fun and nostalgia in it as well."
Zukerman also aspires to produce and direct. "As much as any of these acting projects," he says, "to be at the center of a creative experience is so satisfying for me."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 10, 2021