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British invasion ready to hit prime-time TV

LONDON -- A bevy of British actors, most sporting American accents, are being yanked across the pond and into US prime time this fall.

"Everybody's going!" exclaims Sophia Myles as she waited, bags packed, for her work visa to arrive.

The British beauty's movie credits include Isolde in the historical romance "Tristan & Isolde" and the upcoming sci-fi action film "Outlander." But now she's reporter Beth Turner in "Moonlight," the vampire-themed crime series, premiering on CBS Sept. 28.

Kevin McKidd wasn't "going to do it" when first offered the role of time-traveling American journalist Dan Vassar in "Journeyman," debuting on NBC Sept. 24. But Liam Neeson, with whom he worked on the movie "Kingdom of Heaven," took him aside and suggested he "rethink."

He did, and now the Scottish actor, familiar to HBO viewers as Lucius Vorenus in the historical drama "Rome," has moved his family to Los Angeles. "Luckily, I have a brave wife who knows the game. It's a gamble, but then this life always is," he says.

"It's a big commitment to say 'Yes' to something that could be for potentially five years," says Damian Lewis, whose TV credits include HBO's "Band of Brothers."

But the Londoner has made that commitment, signing on as Charlie Crews, an LA cop freed after years of wrongful imprisonment in the NBC series "Life," debuting Sept. 26.

Also premiering that night is NBC's remake of the sci-fi series "Bionic Woman," starring British actress Michelle Ryan. She's little known in the United States, but famous at home after appearing in more than 300 episodes of the popular BBC soap "EastEnders."

Lancashire-born Anna Friel plays Charlotte "Chuck" Charles in ABC's raising-the-dead crime series "Pushing Daisies," premiering Oct. 3.

Zuleikha Robinson, born and schooled in England, is New York police detective Eva Marquez in "New Amsterdam," Fox's midseason crime series with an immortal theme.

Lena Headey, born in Bermuda but raised in Yorkshire, is the title star of ABC's midseason series "The Sarah Connor Chronicles," the further exploits of the heroine in "The Terminator" film franchise.

Also planned for midseason is CBS' free-love drama "Swingtown," in which Jack Davenport (Commodore James Norrington in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies) plays one of the husbands, Bruce Miller.

"They don't really care where you are from as long as you do the job," says Julian Ovenden, who after working in England in popular series like "Foyle's War," took on the challenge of coming to America a few years ago to audition during Hollywood's frenzied pilot season.

He found it "tough," but eventually landed on the short-lived WB series "Related." Now he's smoothing his American accent to play love-interest Eric Burden in ABC's sexy career-girl series "Cashmere Mafia," premiering Nov. 27.

Ed Westwick, 20, came to Los Angeles earlier this year for "my first crack at pilot season." Now he's Chuck, one of the teenagers in the prep-school drama "Gossip Girl," premiering Sept. 19 on the CW, which is always eager for fresh young talent.

Teenage musician Calvin Goldspink was picked for the CW's "Life Is Wild," premiering Oct 7. But he won't need a dialogue coach, as he's playing a Brit named Oliver in the youth-oriented family drama.

British actors say they're attracted to American prime time for several reasons.

"There's not really a film industry in England, and the quality of TV in America is so high," says Myles, noting the tradeoff for having to spend time away from family and friends.

"UK TV is being dumbed down a lot," says Lewis, adding that when you do a US network show "you are part of an enormous studio system and have that feeling of being in a much larger community than in England."

Ovenden puts it another way: "TV in America has more ambition."

But why is US television inviting the British over in the first place? Theories abound.

Some insiders suggest it might have to do with the success of Hugh Laurie, once best known as the utterly English Bertie Wooster but now Emmy-nominated for portraying the acerbic American medic in the highly rated Fox series "House."

Or maybe British talent is "just cheaper," teases Headey, who recently settled into a not-so-cheap new home in the Hollywood Hills.

Or it could be the appeal of the British style of acting, theorizes Westwick, who recalls one Hollywood casting director telling him that "American actors think about their face and their voice, but don't use their bodies enough."

McKidd notes the British invasion is probably just "coincidence, as everybody's story about how they got here is very different."

Myles got a letter "on proper Warner Brothers stationery" inviting her to take the "Moonlight" role after the studio decided to recast the pilot.

Ryan sent in an audition tape. "I really didn't expect to get it," she says, "though I knew my accent was good."

Robinson snagged the "New Amsterdam" role with a live audition. "The world is getting smaller and producers really cast a wider net," she says.

David Eick, executive producer of "Bionic Woman," says the proliferation of British stars this season isn't about "UK actors over American" but more likely due to a move away from the trend of casting big name TV stars or established movie stars new to TV.

"It's tilting back in the other direction, he says, "to the realization that TV is a star-making medium, and fresh faces and new blood can break through."

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