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Friday, July 5, 2002

MUTANT X'S JOHN SHEA

By Rob Allstetter/The Comics Continuum

TORONTO -- "Welcome to Mutant X."

John Shea gets up from behind a desk, smiles and extends his hand in greeting. It's a busy Monday on the set of Mutant X, and Shea's Adam -- leader of the Marvel-created team -- is in almost every scene for the "Meaning of Death" episode.

"Something, isn't it?" Shea asks rhetorically, letting go of the handshake and turning his head. Behind him and through an archway, two dozen extras dressed as medical attendants mill about the set, a high-tech lab where Adam is forced to work with agents of the enemy Genomex to try to save new mutants infected with a virus. Twenty-seven patient beds, attached to scifi-ish monitoring devices, neatly line up in three rows, with airbag-like canvas walls against red and yellow tarp backdrops.

You would never guess it's really an indoor soccer practice field on an old air base in northern Toronto.

Dressed in a silver lab coat and looking very much the doctor, Shea excuses himself. He's called in for the scene, a heated exchange with Genomex associate Marlowe, played by Anthony Lemke, an invulnerable new mutant who saw his family die and struggles with his seeming immortality.

As an infected new mutant goes into cardiac arrest, Marlowe leans over her, sickly fascinated by her imminent demise. "What's it like? Tell me," he pleads, grabbing her face.

Alerted by a flatline signal, Adam races to her bed, and confronts Marlowe. The two shout each other, raising their voices with each line. "You get outta here!" Adam finally screams.

As Marlowe leaves, Adam looks down at the mutant, now dead, and pulls a blanket over her head. Another death on his hands, and his steely-eyed rage turns to sorrow. Adam hangs his head in grief and guilt, and the director cuts the shot.

Guilt. It's not a feeling Shea had to display much as the suave, deadly Lex Luthor in Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, the television role for which he is probably best known.

But that was five years ago. This is a different world and a different character. And it also raises the question: Where has Shea been and how'd he return to the comic-book world with Mutant X?

We'll let him explain.

"After being part of that team that created Lois and Clark and having been involved in that creative team for a period of over four years and having seen it go global, and become a global phenomenon, I waited five years," Shea says.

"I retreated into the independent film world, to the New York theater world, and I didn't want to come back into the mainstream television world until I knew that I could come onto something that was equally good and not be embarrassing. I knew I wanted to do something different and that was going to be a hit.

"I read a lot of pilots. I was offered lots of TV series, and I waited until Mutant X came along. It was the perfect place, it was the perfect series, at the perfect time in my life."

Seth Howard of Tribune Entertainment, which produces the syndicated Mutant X in association with Marvel Studios, agrees.

"Everyone involved had their own opinions as to who should play Adam, and we were submitted every actor that was out there," Howard says. "This was the hardest part to cast because no one was sure how to see this character. When John's name came up, everyone's eyes lit up. His stage work, movie roles, and of course his unforgettable -- and definitive -- portrayal of Lex Luthor in Lois and Clark, made him the perfect choice. From how well the series has been received, you have to agree."

Shea says he was struck by concept of Mutant X, where genetic tampering, based on Adam's research, has created thousands of emerging new mutants. Disgusted with where his work has gone, Adam heads underground to form Mutant X. His mission is simple: locate mutants, help them and protect them from Genomex and its government guise, the Genetic Security Agency.

"This show should not be really confused with the X-Men, which is a very different kind of show," Shea says. "The writing here is making these characters very different and very human. One of the best things about Lois and Clark is that we tried to make those comic-book characters human and bring to them all kinds of emotions you might not read in a one-dimensional or two-dimensional comic-book style. We're creating a drama here."

While Shea says it's fun to be a hero, he considers Adam to be more of an anti-hero.

"It's complex, a very human being, not a one-dimensional superhero by any stretch," Shea says. "The guy is a scientist, and that's already a weird thing to be, and a complicated thing to be. Secondly, he is on the run, so he's a fugitive scientist. He's being hunted down by the GSA, but that's actually part of the government, and that's the law, so he's an outlaw scientist. So that becomes complicated for me emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. And it makes him much more interesting to play."

"Adam is a tortured soul," Howard says. "This is a character that feels so much guilt and responsibility, his actions become a direct reaction to those feelings. Not every actor can bring that much to the table and still be able to kick some ass. There are so many guys out there that could have been cast but there are only a handful of actors. John is one of those actors. We are lucky to have him on the team."

Having been involved with a comic-book show before, Shea knows the importance of visuals. He says Mutant X has raised the bar for TV, with flashy camera angles and cuts, lots of wire-work action and special effects.

"The stuff that we can do on this show couldn't be done on a television show, even when we were shooting Lois and Clark," Shea says. "Because in the last seven years, the technology has allowed us to do astounding things on a weekly basis that seven years ago, you could only do on a feature film. So it looks astonishing."

Despite the popularity of Mutant X, some people will always associate Shea with Lex Luthor, a character first brought to life by Gene Hackman in the Superman movie series and now being continued by Michael Rosenbaum in Smallville.

Even as production of Mutant X started, rumors swirled about a possible Lois and Clark reunion -- the show remains a fixture on TNT these days. At a comics convention the previous weekend, fans approached Shea about returning as Luthor.

"There are no Lois and Clark projects that I know about that are planned," Shea says. "If there were to be, I would probably be part of them. Teri Hatcher, who played Lois, was just in town shooting a film. She and I stay in touch all the time. We talk about doing something maybe down the line, but at the moment there is nothing planned."

Besides, with 44 episodes of Mutant X ordered and a second season on the way, Shea will be plenty busy.

"It gives us a future to evolve this for two seasons," Shea says. "That's a real luxury for the writers and the actors and the directors and the production team, so we can plan these stories out over a long period of time."

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