LOS ANGELES - Playing cocky charmers is a breeze for Blair Underwood.
But playing alpha male Alex, the ultra-aggressive patient on HBO's taut saga of psychotherapy, "In Treatment," is a welcome challenge for the 43-year-old actor.
"What's unique about `In Treatment' is that you have a chance to be as raw and transparent and as intimate as possible on-screen," Underwood said recently during a chat at a favorite coffeehouse in suburban Studio City.
What's also unique about "In Treatment" is its nightly format, airing Monday through Friday at 9:30 p.m. EST. Each night, psychotherapist Paul Weston, played by Gabriel Byrne, sees one of five regular patients who return on the same night each week.
Appearing on Tuesday-night installments of the series, Underwood's Alex is a grounded Navy fighter pilot who has sought counseling after he bombed and killed innocent civilians in Iraq, then suffered a heart attack.
The clever Alex has played persistent head games with his long-suffering therapist, and their egos finally collide in their explosive fifth session airing Tuesday night.
"It's the juiciest stuff with Alex," Underwood said of his character's intensifying story arc over the coming weeks.
"When you first see Alex, you see all his posturing and confidence," Underwood said.
It's an attitude viewers may recall from Underwood's early days as brash young lawyer Jonathan Rollins on the acclaimed NBC series "L.A. Law."
"But `In Treatment' is all about therapy," Underwood said. "Alex will be exposed. He'll be stripped to the core. ... And Gabriel is such a terrific actor that there's always a lot for me to play off of."
As Paul, Byrne typically sits and listens impassively to his patients, betraying his interest with subtle shifts of face or body.
"There are no fancy camera moves, just two people sitting there looking at each other," said executive producer Rodrigo Garcia of the show's stripped-down style.
"We wanted to shoot `In Treatment' even more simply than the average TV drama," Garcia said.
Garcia cast Underwood as Alex after seeing him in the feature film "Madea's Family Reunion."
"I'd watched Blair for a long time on television — on everything from `L.A. Law' to `Sex and the City' — and he'd largely played likable characters," Garcia said. "But in `Madea's Family Reunion,' Blair played an angry, dangerous, abusive character. He really was very frightening."
Sitting on a shady patio of the coffeehouse, chatting quietly, Underwood seems anything but scary.
As it happens, he wears the sort of leather jacket that Alex favors. And, like Alex, Underwood loves coffee. There's another connection: Underwood's military background. His father was an Army colonel.
"The mind set of a soldier and of duty and loyalty to the corps, to your country — I get it," Underwood said. "I grew up all over the place, primarily on military bases. You do have to assimilate. In many ways you play a role, even if the role is playing yourself."
Also like Alex — who demands excellence in everything — Underwood is driven.
He has a substantial list of TV credits, including a recent recurring role as Julia Louis-Dreyfus' boyfriend on CBS' "The New Adventures of Old Christine," plus stage plays and feature films.
He has directed music videos, recorded the voice of Jesus for an audio Bible and produced a TV documentary on lottery winners for The Learning Channel. His novel "Casanegra: A Tennyson Hardwick Novel," written with Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes, was published last summer.
Underwood also directed the upcoming movie "The Bridge to Nowhere," starring Ving Rhames, now in post-production.
"My drive is about creating opportunities to tell stories," he said.
"Often the stories fall into the realm of African-American history, or characters that aren't usually explored on the big screen or on television."
Those characters include inscrutable billionaire Simon Elder, Underwood's character on ABC's "Dirty Sexy Money."
"What I love most about Simon Elder is his ambiguity," Underwood said.
On the steamy adult soap opera, Simon has a murky agenda involving manipulation of the powerful Darling family, headed by enigmatic patriarch Tripp Darling, played by Donald Sutherland.
Simon's family once worked for the Darlings. And Simon was born in Russia.
"He's a character that viewers aren't used to seeing, but he's rooted in reality," Underwood said. "To play a character who's very worldly, who looks like me, that's what I'm drawn to."
HBO is owned by Time Warner Inc. ABC is owned by The Walt Disney Co. CBS is a division of CBS Corp. NBC is owned by General Electric Co.
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