The Star, 15 April 2010

APRIL 2010

‘V’ star Gretsch says priest role is tricky amid ongoing church scandal

There was a time when playing a priest on TV was a heavenly assignment. You’d be portraying a kindly caregiver, like Merlin Olsen on “Father Murphy,” or a voice of reason amidst the chaos, like William Christopher’s Father Mulcahy on “MASH.” At worse, one might be seen as a bit of a con man and pony player as in the Irish sitcom “Father Ted.”

These days, after weeks of headlines dealing with decades of abuse within the Catholic Church, drawing the priest role on TV can be pure hell.

Which is why Joel Gretsch is happy to be playing a noble if complex man of the cloth in the sci-fi drama “V” (airing Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC and A).

Gretsch is no stranger to sci-fi (or events such as Comic-Con) after feature roles in “The 4400” and the Steven Spielberg miniseries “Taken.” He says Father Jack Landry is the kind of priest he remembers when he was growing up in a small town in Minnesota.

The 46-year-old remembers attending leadership camps, “and was always around priests playing softball and going to mass and, you know, legitimate things about what it’s like to be a priest,” he told a small group of international reporters recently in Los Angeles.

He still sees the priesthood as “a very interesting, wonderful, noble thing to do and it’s a complex thing to do.”

That’s certainly the case for Father Jack on “V.” The series, a remake of an early ’80s effort, is about an advanced alien species who invade earth, hovering over 29 cities around the world in gigantic space ships. They seem to come in peace but, as the series unfolds, it becomes clear that their motives are far more sinister. Morena Baccarin plays Anna, the beautiful and charismatic leader of the extra-terrestrial “Visitors,” while FBI counter-terrorism agent Erica Evans (Elizabeth Mitchell, also seen on “Lost”) is among those who suspect these charming visitors have a hidden agenda.

Gretsch’s Father Jack is a former U.S. Army chaplain and is one of the first to discover these visitors may not be the benevolent saviours they make themselves out to be.

The arrival of these alien visitors from another world at first leads Landry to a crisis of faith.

“He’s a studied guy,” Gretsch says of his character. “To become a priest, you are reading a lot of literature, and you have to understand what was written in the past about God and your relationship to God.”

When the aliens show up and start offering cures for many human ailments, it shakes Landry’s understanding of a higher power and his own place in the universe.

“How do you equate that with God?” Gretsch asks. “They come here with all the technology to help people and people are looking to them as saviours. It’s very upsetting for my character.”

Other, more earthly temptations are challenging Landry’s vows, including his attraction to agent Evans.

“Jack’s a man, but he is a priest,” says Gretsch. “He is a man of faith, and he’s rooted in that. But the intimacy is there, and that’s nice.”

Mitchell agrees.

“The draw is there,” she says. “It makes for a very complex, real relationship.”

Still, don’t expect any of the bed hopping that befell lusty Father Ralph in “The Thorn Birds.”

Says Mitchell, “Obviously, these are two good people fighting that (attraction).”

Gretsch says he has “a really difficult time talking about being a priest.” He finds it challenging because, “it pushes a lot of buttons.”

He realizes that many viewers, especially those who have read the recent headlines, are going to bring their own feelings to the role and that’s fair, he says.

“I can only draw off of what I had in my life and how I was raised and my relationship. So it’s a wonderful, complex role for me to do, and it’s a difficult thing to talk about.”

He’s much happier to talk about his Olympic moment at the recent Vancouver Winter Games.

“V,” like several prime time U.S. programs (including “Supernatural,” Smallville,” “Human Target” and “Fringe”) is based in Vancouver, so it was a challenge to shoot around the Olympic events for the 16 days that the Games took over the city.

The intrusion was no hassle for Gretsch, who scored the ultimate Canadian fantasy – tickets to the Canada-USA Gold Medal hockey final.

Following the international “V” press conference, Gretsch showed off his perfect view of the game, captured on video on his iPhone. The centre ice level clip captured the crowd cheering prior to the opening face off.

Gretsch panned around to show who he was sitting next to – Captain James T. Kirk himself, William Shatner!

The pairing was no accident. Shatner took part in the Games’closing ceremonies a few hours later. He asked Gretsch to join him at the big game. And why not? Gretsch, who is married to Melanie Shatner, is Shatner’s son-in-law.

Sometimes it pays to be good.

Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.

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