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Peter Horton on ‘American Odyssey,’ ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ and ‘thirtysomething’

Peter Horton may have launched his Hollywood career as an actor, but his real passion is for writing and directing. And he’s never prouder of any project than NBC’s “American Odyssey” (premieres April 5th), on which he serves as co-creator/writer (along with Adam Armus and Kay Foster) and director.

Horton talked to Variety about the challenges of wearing multiple hats — as well as filming in Morocco. “We had great fun riding camels,” he says. “When they stand up, that’s a thrill!”

How did you come up with the idea for “American Odyssey”?

My writing partners, Adam, Kay and I, had been working on a pilot for NBC that didn’t work. We had kind of bombed it. We were trying to figure out what to do next, and a producer came to us and suggested a modern take on the Odyssey. We didn’t want to do anything with Cyclops and sirens. But the basic theme of the Odyssey was about someone trying to find their way home. So we hooked into that idea and started to spin about what was interesting to us.

You created three very different worlds.

This was during the time of the Occupy Wall Street movement, so that was interesting to us. This originally took place in Pakistan, so that was interesting to us. And we started thinking about who a third character, a third world might be. And Adam, who’s a former lawyer, said, “What about Eliot Spitzer? He’s an interesting character, minus the prostitution.” We just started to spin about these three worlds. Part of that came about from Adam and Kay’s experiences with “Heroes,” where they told a story through multiple lenses. So we thought, there are three of us. Why don’t each of us take a story bubble and see if we can come up with a tale that’s interesting? It became a thread on the ground that we started to pull, and pulled it more and more came to light.

How did it evolve as you wrote?

Initially Odelle (Anna Friel’s character) was a man. Our executive at the studio said, “What if she were a woman?” We looked into it and they had just instituted a program called FET (female engagement team). These are women who go on assignments with special forces and special patrols. They are there to bridge the gap, once a unit goes in to a village. This is how the soldiers can communicate with the women of the village. These women know the language, the culture, the folklore of the region. We thought, that’s a cool character. It evolved like that, step by step from that point of view.

It feels like it’s ripped from the headlines.

We promise we had nothing to do with the recent Greek elections! A character comes along in episode two who is a prime minister candidate for Greece who is running on a “Greeks for Greece” platform. Her promise to the Greek people is once she gets in to power she will cancel the debt, drop the Euro and get into a Greek economic system independent of Europe. To suddenly see a version of that happening in Greece is quite shocking. Or going to North Africa instead of Pakistan. At one point Bob Greenblatt suggested to make it fresh, what about Mali, just because there’s been so much already done in the Middle East. We looked into it, and it seemed like an area that so much was starting to devolve, unfortunately. And sure enough, here we are. Isis is moving into Libya. It seems to be exactly what we thought it would be. We’re taking things from what’s happening and turning them into our story.

What are the challenges unique to directing such a complex story?

This project is a directors’ feast. Not only do you get to delineate worlds visually with colors — you get the blues and grays of New York, versus the earth tones of northern Africa — you also get to use tension as your fuel which helps define every shot. How do I tell this scene with tension? How do I describe what we’re trying to accomplish in this scene in ways that make you a little bit on the edge of your seat? And then the fact that you get to shoot in New York, which is already a visual feast, and then go over to Morocco, which just doesn’t have a bad angle. It’s the reason we really wanted to shoot over there. The original conversations we had were, is there a way to do this in the California desert or go to Toronto? The very first suggestion was there’s a rock quarry up there in Toronto. But to NBC’s credit, we kept going back to them and saying in this day and age, the images are so familiar to us in North Africa, not only with its topography, but with its people, the toothless faces that so describe that world and give it credibility. And they allowed us to go over there and really explore it. And lo and behold, Morocco really came out shining.

What were the actors able to bring to this?

It’s so gratifying to walk on a set and see them building what was in your head not that long ago. Anna Friel is just so stunning. She learned Arabic phonetically for this part, and she speaks French. She’s an Irish woman speaking with an American accent speaking Arabic phonetically and speaking French when she needs to. What Odelle goes through this season is so extreme — she’s just brought intense amounts to this part. And Peter was always this really charming boy on film to me. When we talked to him about this part, we said, “You’re 40. This is your chance to be a man.” And boy, did he bring it. He’s like Russell Crowe. He’s so manly and vulnerable and committed to this part. He just knocks your socks off. And Jake (Robinson), the same thing.  We’d been looking around for this part for quite a while, and he gave this great read. He goes through a journey this season as well. I remember talking to Ed Zwick on”thirtysomething.” I said, “How’s it going?” And he said, “Other than the fact that the actors and directors are screwing up our work as writers, it’s going great.” There’s a little bit of that feeling when you write something a certain way in your head, and there it is on the screen. It’s never exactly what you envisioned. When you have really good actors and directors, you get to step back and say it’s not exactly what I thought but boy is it good. That’s just so gratifying.

What do you hope audiences take away?

The best way to describe the show is to start with what it’s not. It’s not a cop show. It’s not an FBI show. It’s not a CIA show. It’s a very original show about a theme that’s very important and weighs on most of us in this country and this world, about where is power. Who’s got it? Do we still have representative government? Or are the powers that be taking that power away from us? What this story is about is three normal people who see something they think is wrong and try to exercise their sense of right. And the honest question, the non-rhetorical question we ask is, can you succeed in this day and age, just by following your highest sense of right? When people with money have so much power, do we as normal people still have power? I’m hoping what people take away is that chance to exercise that fear, and come away with a sense of it truly being looked at without a point of view. We’re not trying to say we think business is bad. There’s no political agenda. We’re genuinely asking a question of each of our characters and asking them what price do you have to pay to stand up for what you believe in.

How did directing this compare to, say, the pilot of “Grey’s Anatomy”?

The pilot of “Grey’s” was just a hoot because it was Shonda Rhimes’ first project. She was new to the TV world. We all got to dive into that trend and make her script the best we could. But this is my dream come true. This is what I’ve been consciously and unconsciously heading for my whole career. Create my own show. Co-write it. Direct it. And then produce it. It’s sort of like having children. Suddenly you’re vulnerable to the world in a way you weren’t before.

How do you feel when you look back on “thirtysomething”?

It was only four seasons. It was this brief golden moment. We knew it at the time. If it was “twentysomething” we would have missed it. The fact that it was “thirtysomething” we were old enough to get a little perspective on it, and go wow, this is unique.

Could it succeed today?

In this day and age, there seems to be a need for edge and volume, and that show was really about life, this meditation on normal life in your 30s. No one is schizophrenic. No one is secretly a spy. People are just living normal lives, getting married and having children. I’m not sure people would really go for that. This golden age of television has come in waves; now it’s come back with a bang. I do miss Ed Zwick and Marshall Hershovitz’s voice in this landscape.I keep bugging them to do something again. Because they’ve got a really unique take on life that’s really satisfying.

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