Mini series, big star

MILFORD – Chris Cassarino was a junior at Milford High School 13 years ago when the principal asked him to audition for "Little Shop of Horrors."

When Cassarino told him he couldn’t be in the school play because of football practice, Principal Brad Craven, who is also head of the school’s theater arts program, insisted.

"He said, ‘No, you’re going to do it,’?" Cassarino said in a recent phone interview.

So Cassarino auditioned, and landed the juicy part of "Little Shop’s" sadistic dentist.

Cassarino, now a professional actor, will soon appear in a miniseries that producers hope will be the heir to the phenomenally popular "Downton Abbey."

The new American-made series, called "Mercy Street," is set during the Civil War in Alexandria, Va., a Southern town occupied by Union forces.

Two of the central characters, Northern abolitionist Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Southern belle Emma Green (Hannah James), get caught up in the war’s conflict and intrigue.

Other members of the cast include "How I Met Your Mother" star Josh Radnor as a plantation-raised civilian surgeon and "Veep" veteran Gary Cole as Emma’s father, a Southern patriarch.

Most of the action revolves around Mansion House Hospital, where Mary and Emma have volunteered as nurses.

Cassarino plays John Wilkes Booth, the renowned actor turned Abraham Lincoln assassin.

He sees Booth as a "wonderfully complicated character who really did love his country … talented … a very loving guy who was completely misguided."

After high school, Cassarino didn’t go directly into acting, but instead attended the University of Massachusetts, where he completed his bachelor’s degree
in legal studies. He said that during his junior year, he realized law school wasn’t for him, and after he graduated, he moved to Dallas.

While working as a restaurant server, he met a screenwriter who recommend him for a role in a local indie film. Then Cassarino was introduced to the Meisner technique and trained for three years with Terry Martin, the creative artistic director of WaterTower Theatre in Addison, Texas, where last summer he starred in WaterTower’s revival of Arthur Miller’s "All My Sons."

The 32-year-old actor isn’t sorry he didn’t go directly into acting, because studying prelaw widened his perspective, as did a year in Spain under a college exchange program.

"I think I was under the belief that a career in the arts was foolish," he said. "Such a long shot … so far out there."

Now it doesn’t seem far-fetched, and Cassarino is attending New York University’s Tisch School of Arts’ Graduate Acting Program.

Craven said he remembers Cassarino well, and that he remembers encouraging him to audition for "Little Shop of Horrors." That year, Milford was in the football playoffs, but it worked out well and Cassarino was able to handle both – play rehearsal and football practices, he said.

As an actor, Craven said, Cassarino has that "untranslatable something" and a real passion for acting.

"Downton Abbey" is beginning its final season, and PBS will launch "Mercy Street" after the third episode airs Sunday, Jan. 17.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.