Emmy Contender: Eric Mabius

'Ugly Betty'

If Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly was the high priestess of fashion editors, a cruel slave driver to her simpering assistants, then Eric Mabius’ Daniel Meade is her polar opposite.

A reckless playboy more concerned with filling his own sheets than the magazine’s pages, Daniel would be utterly lost were it not for the ever-vigilant Betty (America Ferrera) — and, as it turns out, she’d be lost without him, too.

“When we shot the pilot, I thought it was America’s show,” Mabius recalls, “but it turns out it’s really Betty and Daniel’s show. Even though it’s not called ‘Ugly Daniel,’ most of my scenes are tied to hers, so I’m there all the time.”

In a show characterized by scene stealers and finger-snapping zingers, Mabius plays it down — to the extent that the actor fretted that his “dry and quirky” sense of humor might work against him.

“I thought they were going to cast the spot-on cad, so I went on with several other auditions,” he says. “I think the next day was ‘Heroes,’ and it was down to Milo (Ventimiglia) and me for that part.”

Mabius needn’t have worried. He was the “Ugly Betty” producers’ first choice, so while Ventimiglia got the superpower (on “Heroes”), Mabius landed the chance to spend an entire season exploring a very human character’s many vulnerabilities.

“If we were to get clinical about it, there’s a case of arrested development in his childish nature,” Mabius explains. “That wave breaks both ways: He can be irresponsible and chase girls like a teenager, but he also gets wounded like a teenager.”

And while Daniel’s family implodes in a succession of soapy details — his father’s philandering, his mother’s arrest, his brother’s sex-change operation — Betty becomes a surrogate sibling. “It’s an interesting thing to try to explore, because in almost every way he’s closer to Betty than his own blood. She’s always cleaning up her own family, and Daniel’s not terribly different.”

Favorite scene: “Daniel’s like Betty, we’re fish out of water. But the episode in which I woke up in her bedroom in Queens and had such an overwhelming realization about the differences between my upbringing and hers was really funny and really touching.”

Where you’d like to see your character go next year: “The viewers project what they want to, and they’re always imagining a day when (Betty and Daniel’s relationship) becomes romantic. I personally think that’s the quickest way to kill a show.”

TV guilty pleasure: “My buddy Walton (Goggins) is on ‘The Shield,’ and I think that show has maintained a level of quality and intensity. There’s something very cinematic about every episode.”

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