TORONTO – The hero in the new action series “Arrow” is officially known as the Green Arrow but you’d be forgiven for failing to discern the hue of his dark hood as he unleashes cold fury upon the bad guys who cross his path.
This show is dark â€” literally and figuratively, admits star Stephen Amell.
The ominous shadows, dilapidated warehouses and darkened back alleys where this bow-and-arrow vigilante lurks are all meant to underscore a gritty, sober take on the DC Comics character.
“We want to do a comic book show that’s sort of grounded in reality,” Amell explains at a promotional stop in Toronto earlier this year.
“Sort of like the Chris Nolan universe in ‘Batman’ where if I get hit with a bullet I can die. I don’t have super powers and nobody in our show has super powers, as yet, and I think that the plan is that nobody will. So (it’s) dark, yes, but it’s dark because it’s real.”
Amell stars as spoiled billionaire Oliver Queen, a former playboy who survives a boating accident that kills his mogul father only to be stranded on a remote island for five years.
The show begins with Oliver’s rescue and long-awaited return to a mother and sister who believed him long dead, but it’s soon clear he is no longer the carefree son and brother they once knew.
Haunted by his father’s final words, Oliver embarks on a mission to right the wrongs that plague his hometown of Starling City and he starts by taking out the high-powered enemies of his father â€” while disguised as a deadly alter ego.
The Toronto-bred Amell says the show will be more than just spectacular stunts and adrenalin-pumping fight scenes.
“If you talk to the writers, it wasn’t the super-hero stuff that was important for them in the pilot,” says Amell, whose road to leading man status included parts on “NCIS: Los Angeles,” “New Girl,” “Heartland” and “Private Practice.”
“It was the family dinner scene and it was the interaction between Oliver and (ex-girlfriend) Laurel and it was making people believe in those relationships. Because if you’re not invested in that, the other stuff doesn’t matter.”
This isn’t the first time the Green Arrow has hit the small screen â€” Justin Hartley took aim at the role for the Superman-focused “Smallville.” Amell says his Oliver is a very different guy, noting that “every new comic book show is a chance to establish a new DC universe.”
The 31-year-old says his preparation involved a variety of workouts in order to be a believable action star.
“I was excited for the physicality involved in this role because I remember reading an interview with Brad Pitt when he did ‘Troy’ and he was like, ‘I’m in my late 30s now… everything still works, I want to see how far I can push my body.'”
Amell underwent basic fight training, took archery lessons, studied parkour and mastered the punishing “salmon ladder” â€” a strenuous variation on the pull-up made famous on “American Ninja Warrior.”
He gushes over the chance to put his own spin on the dark hero, noting that he spent years struggling to make a name for himself as an actor in Toronto and Los Angeles.
Despite his clean-cut good looks and everyman appeal, the six-foot-one Amell says he spent years hopping from job to job without gaining much traction, steadily losing his direction and drive until he “hit rock bottom.”
“I wasn’t acting for the right reasons,” he says.
“You can’t chase money when you’re acting, you can’t chase fame when you’re acting. You have to chase the work when you’re acting because it’s an unpredictable tether between acting success and financial success…. I had jobs in Toronto and things would go OK but one job would never lead to another. And part of me at the time thought that this was the Canadian industry and more of me now thinks that this was me just not doing as good a job as I could.”
In December 2009, Amell committed himself to pursuing a career, not just a job. He says he got rid of everything he owned, moved to Los Angeles “and that was it.”
“I was there for the right reasons and I saw the response immediately. I went through pilot season without getting cast but I screen tested three times.”
The exposure soon led to parts on “CSI Miami,” “NCIS: Los Angeles” and “Vampire Diaries.”
“I just wanted to work. And still, that’s what I want to do,” he says.
“Last year, my goal for myself personally was to be on set or be involved in a production on some way, shape or form for 100 days. And I ended the year at like 94 or something like that. So the goal is still just to work because every day that you spend on set you get better.”
Amell credits his break on “Arrow” to director David Nutter, who he says became an ardent ally when he auditioned.
“David Nutter had seen me in ‘Vampire Diaries’ playing a total sociopathic werewolf and then he saw me in ‘Hung’ playing a very kind of goofy male prostitute,” says Amell, who adds that he was the first to audition for Oliver.
“Before the studio screen test on Friday he sat me down and he said, ‘Listen. I found Tom Welling in ‘Smallville’ (about) 12 years ago…. He was my guy for that and you are my guy for this.”
From there, Amell says the process moved quickly â€” he auditioned on a Wednesday, had a screen test on the Friday, had a network test that Monday and was cast on Tuesday.
“I will forever be indebted to (Nutter) for just putting me at ease and making me want to do good work for him,” he says.
“Arrow” debuts on CTV Two on Wednesday.