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Rome and away - Empire building

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Rome and away - Empire building

Daily Telegraph

30 November 2005

An Aussie soap star tackles the cut and thrust of a Hollywood epic

Chris Egan has shed his schoolboy image to take Hollywood by storm -- and he's on the verge of being the next big thing

Apart from the similarities between a pair of Australian thongs and Roman sandals, you couldn't get much further away from Summer Bay than ancient Rome. Putting his soapie heritage behind him faster than most, Chris Egan was cast in the US miniseries Empire almost immediately after leaving Home And Away two years ago.

"I was very nervous with it being the first gig and not having had much time in LA because it was the first thing I went for," Egan says.

Set in 44BC, the $35 million six-episode production revisits the power struggle between Marc Antony and Caesar's nephew Octavius, which would shape the face of the Roman Empire itself. As if being cast in a big-budget international series wasn't enough, 21-year-old Egan found himself living in Rome for the duration of the six-month shoot.

"This was my first time there," he says. "I didn't expect in the first job I'd got to be straight off to Europe, straight off to Rome. But I've always wanted to travel and there's seriously no greater pleasure than seeing the world while you're working and doing what you love. We shot it in actual locations, historical sites and buildings that my character, Agrippa, built.

"Whacking on the sandals and walking around in the Roman soldier's outfit was a lot of fun but it was very overwhelming." Doing justice to the epic had Egan burying his nose in the history books.

"I was really bad at history at school. Actually I was pretty bad at school in general. I had to study and go to the museums and for me that is going to be the best way to learn," he says.

"It was important for them to be as accurate as they could. I think Roman history appeals to everyone because it really was the first established Senate and the first established structure of society in the world. You always wonder what it would have been like to live back then and the closest you get to that is doing something like this."

An Australian actor playing a Roman character in an American series does beg the question: what accent did he adopt? "They didn't concentrate so much on dialect," he says candidly. "Because there were so many actors in there with strong British accents you can actually hear a lot of my Aussie accent. Aussies will probably see it more than the Americans did - I mean, seriously, it is quite strong and it sort of comes and goes.

"You have these British people saying 'Fight for the empire'," he says in his best plummy tones, "and then this blond Aussie guy comes in and says [puts on exaggerated Australian accent] 'Hail Caesar'. It is very funny.

"There are a few moments where I watch it and I'm like: 'What am I doing there?' You can either completely buy it or just decide no, it just doesn't work - but it was a lot of fun."

Inconsistent accents wouldn't be solely to blame, but Empire was met with a lukewarm reception when it aired in the US in June. Although Egan was required to sign a seven-year contract, plans to extend it into an ongoing TV series were soon scrapped.

Not only that, management changes at American network ABC and funding glitches saw the series scaled back from an original eight hours to six.

"It was disappointing because I was excited about doing the other episodes but they had to do what they had to do," Egan says. Ancient Rome was flavour of the month and Empire faced competition in the historical stakes in a rival production, Rome, which will air on Nine next year.

"We were in different studios - the two biggest studios in Rome - and were sharing cameras and swords and shields," Egan reveals.

Despite some regret over Empire's lacklustre US performance, its abbreviated timetable allowed Egan to pursue other opportunities.

Having been befriended by Empire co-star Trudie Styler and her husband Sting, Egan was cast in the independent film Alpha Male, also starring Styler. More recently he returned to Italy to shoot Decameron opposite Mischa Barton and Hayden Christensen.

"That was just a blast," says Egan. "I left Sydney and it all really took off quite quickly - I feel very blessed."

Yet he hasn't turned his back on his old stomping ground and visits the Home And Away set whenever he's home. "I've also met a lot of the new cast," he says. "It's been pretty amazing to see how much the show has changed in the past two years."

Back in LA he admits pangs of homesickness are inevitable. "When it's a bit of a lazy week I start to miss home but when I'm busy I'm usually pretty happy. There's a good amount of Australians you're always running into. There's a nice little Aussie crew over here," he says.

* Empire, tonight, Seven, 9.30pm

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