Not too many people lose their job as a vampire hunter-turned-vampire and quickly land on their feet as a guy investigating a murderous cult, but for Utahn Matt Davis, it’s all in a day’s work.
A day’s acting work, that is, as he transitions from “The Vampire Diaries” to the new series “Cult,” in which he plays the lead role.
“I called my agents [and] let them know that I needed to find another job,” said the Wood Cross High grad, who knew that his “Vampire Diaries” character, Alaric, was about to be written off the show. They sent him several scripts, including “Cult,” which he judged “was clearly the best one of the bunch. It really spoke to me on a lot of dimensions.”
“Cult” is a show within a show. There’s a fictional series about a murderous cult; the real show is about investigative reporter Jeff Sefton (Davis), whose brother insists the show intends to harm him — and then he disappears.
Jeff finds himself caught up in the dark underworld of a fictional TV show that seems to be populated by real killers.
It’s a rather confusing premise, no less complicated than the logistics of Davis finishing his “Vampire” gig while filming the “Cult” pilot. “I was shooting the final scenes of Alaric dying one week, flew to Vancouver to shoot ‘Cult,’ and came back to shoot Alaric dying again for the finale,” he said. “But it just sort of all fell together at the last minute. And I’m very blessed that it did.”
Davis, 34, caught the acting bug when he was at the University of Utah in 1996-97. After his freshman year, he transferred to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, did a few plays, landed a role in a horror film (“Urban Legends: Final Cut” in 2000) and was off. Davis remains, perhaps, best known for playing Reese Witherspoon’s jerky boyfriend in “Legally Blonde” a dozen years ago. He’s had multiple movie and TV roles since, but he didn’t plan on becoming a fixture in fantasy genre shows about vampires and serial killers.
Acting careers don’t work like that. It’s not so much that you have a plan, but that you reach out and grab opportunities as they come along.
“Coming from a small town in Utah, I don’t think anyone necessarily understands it,” Davis said. “It’s hard to translate. But everyone’s been supportive and allows it to just be what it is. It’s very interesting being an actor because you have very little control over the storytelling process. You have to make what’s given to you work. Everyone’s under the gun and the clock is ticking.”
When it comes to “Cult,” critics are sort of scratching their heads. After watching the pilot in January, a room full of journalists at the Television Critics Association press tour repeatedly expressed confusion about what they had seen. Davis laughed and admitted: “I had my own questions I wanted answered. And sometimes they were and sometimes they weren’t.”
Davis’ character is sort of the everyman who can’t quite believe what’s happening, which “is something we’re really hoping that will transfer to the audience,” said executive producer Rockne S. O’Bannon.
Added executive producer Josh Schwartz: “We do think he’s perfect for this show. He’s got sort of a relatable star quality.”
Davis was in the awkward position of promoting the show without giving too much away. He couldn’t say much. And he said the initial confusion sparked by the pilot is “as much a function of getting a show with such a high concept up on its feet and trying to dial it in as anything,” he said. “I would be happy for a second season just to take the lessons that we learned and then hit the ground running. Because I feel like we’re in the process of dialing in that coherency.”
Whatever the fate of “Cult,” Davis now has added a significant line on his résumé, that of the lead role in a TV series.
It feels very different from being a member of the cast, he said. “And I actually like it very much. It’s different in that you take on a leadership role with the crew and the producers. You’re not just focused on your role, there’s a managerial aspect. I’ve learned so much from this experience.”
Davis would be grateful if “Cult” gets a second season, but he’s certain he could apply lessons he’s learned if it doesn’t.
“I feel like I’m just getting started,” he said. “Like I spent the last 13 years f---ing off and now I’m getting more and more focused. And the more focused I become, the more opportunities are presenting themselves.”
The series premieres Tuesday, Feb. 19, at 8 p.m. on The CW/Channel 30.