Fall TV preview: 'My Own Worst Enemy' -- Christian Slater stars as a spy with a split personality

By Dan Snierson
Updated September 05, 2008 at 04:00 AM EDT

New Drama
Starts October 13, 10-11PM, NBC

Christian Slater is in the toilet again. Actually, he’s being yanked out of it. For the 12th time this morning. Two Russian-speaking thugs drag — him cuffed, soaked, freaked — over to a chair and dangle a lit cigarette millimeters from his eye while he pleads, ”No, no! Oh, God, no!” In walks the evil boss. Worse yet, his name is Uzi.

We’re inside an abandoned East L.A. hospital that’s doubling as a Russian tenement for NBC’s new spy drama My Own Worst Enemy. The paint is peeling, the floor is decaying, and the interrogation is just beginning. Of whom is the question. You see, Slater stars as a man given a split personality, which renders him part superspy (Edward), part family guy (Henry). Uzi thinks he’s quizzing Edward, but right now Edward is actually Henry, and Henry is definitely frightened. ”I don’t know why I’m here!” he stammers to Uzi. ”I don’t know what you want! I…I don’t know any Edward! My name’s Henry Spivey! I’m an American citizen! You’re making a terrible mistake!”

Take after take, Slater plays a convincing case of scared s—less. And at the end of almost every one, while crew members scurry about, the actor sits in his chair, sopping wet, observing the commotion, a cock-eyebrowed grin monopolizing his face. Years ago, when he ruled films like Heathers and True Romance, that smile barely concealed something brash and anarchic. Right now, it appears to be saying something else: Really happy to be here.

Here is a new beginning. Here is a double take. Here is also perhaps the fall’s most adventurous (and, yes, mentally taxing) new series. A quick summary: Edward is a fluent-in-13-languages operative who can snap your neck in a snap. Henry is a strategic management consultant who excels at…well, Excel. These two are nothing alike — except that they’re the same guy. How is this possible? Because a secret government organization named the Janus Collective has ”manifested a divergent identity dormant in the sealed-off portion of the medial temporal lobe, creating a split personality.” (Sounds perfectly plausible to us!) Henry isn’t supposed to know about Edward, but thanks to a glitch in the program, he’s waking up in strange countries in the middle of Edward’s missions. Now Henry and Edward must work with each other to ensure survival. ”They have to learn how to deal with the consequences of one another’s actions, but don’t always know what those actions are,” says series creator Jason Smilovic.

Smilovic first wrote the Enemy pilot in 2002, but distraction after distraction (Karen Sisco, Lucky Number Slevin, Kidnapped, Bionic Woman) followed until last fall, when he tweaked the script and sold the series to NBC. The network’s entertainment co-chairman, Ben Silverman, immediately sniffed Bourne Identity potential and set his sights on Slater for the lead role(s), sensing what he calls ”a similar moment to when Kiefer Sutherland did 24. It wasn’t us coming to Christian to say, ‘We want you to mute all of your incredible energy, vitality, and mischievousness, and have you play a doctor sitting inside a Chicago ER.’ It was, ‘We want you to do everything you’ve done so well across all your films. There’s the opportunity to be wicked, to be an action hero, to be an emotional character.”’

Although Slater had guested on Alias, The West Wing, and My Name Is Earl, he didn’t crave a full-time TV gig. Still, the 39-year-old actor was at a crossroads: He enjoyed a reign in the late ’80s/early ’90s as a hip, next-Nicholson film star, but as the years wore on, he seemed to wind up in more police blotters and tabloids — drugs, DUIs, fights, etc— than buzzworthy projects. ”So much stuff plays into it: ego, arrogance, immaturity, lack of experience,” says the rehabbed Slater of his wild past. ”You couple that with some success and money, and you can fall into a lot of the traps of thinking that you are the projected image that you’re playing on screen. That can lead you down a lot of confusing paths.” While his recent path had been one of ”laying low, doing my own thing,” he was intrigued by Smilovic’s idea. ”There’s just not a human being on the planet that at one point or another hasn’t been their own worst enemy, and this really takes it to a phenomenal extreme,” says Slater. ”There was just no way to say no to it or I would’ve been insane.” Not passing on a potential career kick start? Wise move, Mr. Slater.

With his Henry/Edward on board, Smilovic recruited more Enemy combatants, including Yes, Dear‘s Mike O’Malley to play Henry’s wiseass work buddy, Tom, and Tom’s alter ego, Raymond, a Janus operative whom Tom doesn’t know about. (Jokes O’Malley about finding his inner badass: ”My goals for the year are to do three days of power walking at the Beverly Center, stab someone in the neck on camera, and avoid all insert shots, like the Happy Days episode where Mr. C was supposedly a great card dealer, but the shot of his unbelievable shuffling clearly was not Mr. C’s hands.”) Alfre Woodard (Desperate Housewives) signed on as Mavis, Edward’s enigmatic boss at Janus, who’s keeping the program malfunction from her boss Alistair (James Cromwell), and Saffron Burrows (Boston Legal) will play Norah, Henry’s therapist who’s helping him cope with his new identity crisis.

Quite a bit to process, no? ”At times it’s a mindf— for me,” says Smilovic of creating a trust-no-one spy world inhabited by bifurcated personalities. ”And at times it’s my chance to try to mindf— other people.” Of course, labyrinthine shows like Alias and Twin Peaks can quickly tire or turn off many viewers. If Enemy can crack the code of appealing to mythology-obsessed geeks and casual TV watchers who simply want compelling emotional drama, Silverman believes that the series ”can absolutely be a huge piece of the puzzle” to help the struggling Peacock return to Nielsen glory. ”There are a lot of people watching at the studio and at the network, but I think that translates into a massive amount of support,” says Smilovic. (Last month he ceded showrunning duties to Alias‘ John Eisendrath, though he will continue to shape Enemy‘s direction with Eisendrath. In another switch, the role of Henry’s unsuspecting wife, Angie — originally filled by Yara Martinez — was recast with Twin Peaks‘ Mädhen Amick.)

If Slater is overwhelmed by Operation Take TV by Storm, he’s not showing it in interviews: He fires off Whee, this is fun! declarations like AK-47 bullets. And on the set, this kenpo karate green belt is apparently game for any challenge. Chuckles exec producer/director David Semel: ”We’re knocking the s— out of him, and I think he’s exhausted and I yell ‘Cut!’ and I’m like, ‘Christian, are you all right?’ and he’s like [matter-of-factly], ‘Yeah. This is great. What do you want to do now?”’ Slater feels content that he’s already accomplished at least one mission: ”For years I was trepidatious about doing something on TV, and to have gotten over that nonsense feels rewarding,” he says. ”In that regard, having done it, having shown up every day, having not behaved like an infant and an a — hole on the set makes it a phenomenal success to me.” Now he just needs to lure the rest of America into Enemy territory.