A hunk hones his acting chops

Posted: September 25, 2007

Sorry, ladies, Shemar Moore won't go shirtless.

At least not when he plays super-serious FBI sleuth Derek Morgan on Criminal Minds.

It's a matter of acting cred.

"As soon as I take my shirt off, they're going to say, 'He takes his shirt off because that's the only reason people will watch him,' " Moore explained during a recent visit to Philadelphia.

And while he's proud of his six-pack and the rest of the arsenal that made him a GQ model, Moore wants you to know that he's an actor, not a walking sculpture - an actor with ambitions to become a movie star.

Moore sees Criminal Minds, the hit drama about FBI profilers that returns for its third season tomorrow night at 9 on CBS3, as a valuable step in a career that began as a soap opera hunk.

After cavorting through The Young and the Restless for eight years as the seductively charming Malcolm Winters, the role of no-nonsense, seldom-smiling G-man Morgan has challenged Moore to sharpen his craft and show Hollywood he can act.

"I come from a soap, that's what I'm most known for," he says, "so now I'm changing the conversation people are having about me. Being on Criminal Minds is opening doors that were once shut to me."

Moore, 37, is trying to do something that few actors have done: build a serious acting career on the slippery foundation of soap.

Then again, he's spent much of his life doing what few others have.

Born in Oakland, Calif., the son of a white mother and a black father, Moore spent six years of his childhood in a kind of exile after his parents split up.

His mother, Marilyn Wilson-Moore, a teacher, didn't think the United States in the 1970s was a good place to raise a biracial child, so she took Shemar to Denmark (not the Netherlands, as many Web sites report), then Bahrain, where the money for a teacher of English and math was better. "My first language as a child was Danish," Moore says.

Back in the States, Moore went to high school in Palo Alto, Calif., then won a baseball scholarship (thanks to a 93 m.p.h. fastball) to Santa Clara University.

Alas, a career on the mound was not to be. He's a right-hander, and righties with 90-m.p.h. fastballs are not so rare. "If I were a lefthander, I'd be pro," he says.

After graduation, it was off to New York for modeling. An appearance in a GQ ad got him an invitation to audition for The Young and the Restless.

It was a risk, Moore recalls, because at 24 he had no professional acting experience.

"But I was smart enough to know what I didn't know, and I knew that I was very green, so I said, 'All right, well why not try? Let's get some help.' "

Moore hired an acting coach, who 14 years later is still his principal acting coach, and went to work for Y&R.

And work he did, winning a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series in 2000 and earning several other Daytime Emmy nominations.

He says he got a graduate course in acting from Mandy Patinkin, who left Criminal Minds abruptly before the season began. "I'm going to miss him just because I liked the man as a person, and I thought he was very good," Moore says.

And he plans to learn from Patinkin's succesor, Joe Mantegna. "I'm a big sponge, so I'll learn anything off Joe Mantegna or even the young [actors]," he says.

Still, there's no business like show business for irony, so it should surprise no one that the spectacular looks that helped Moore get into acting also threatened to limit him.

"When you look at him, you think that's all there is because there's so much to look at, but the way he looks is nothing compared to the way he is as a person," says Kirsten Vangsness, who plays computer geek Penelope Garcia on Criminal Minds.

Vangsness also values Moore as a colleague. "I can always do a scene better when he's there," she says. "He's absolutely connected to you as an actor."

The bosses like Moore, too. Ed Bernero, the executive producer of Criminal Minds, gives him high marks for his acting ability.

Bernero became executive producer of Criminal Minds after Moore had been cast in the Morgan role and didn't know what to expect from the studly soap star. Performers in soap and prime time "use different muscles," he explains in a phone interview. "There's so much dialogue in soap opera that the actors seem to be just reciting, not really acting."

But Bernero was pleased when he saw Moore work for the first time. He recalls thinking, "This guy's a real actor."

Bernero is in full sympathy with Moore's film-star ambitions. "I'm going to try to help him make that happen," Bernero says.

While Moore's acting career has gone smoothly, the celebrity life that goes with it has hit a few bumps.

He's no Brit or Lindsay, but some nude beach photos of Moore caused a stir on the Internet and a traffic stop in L.A. got attention in the gossip columns because Moore was originally charged with driving under the influence. ("All alcohol-related charges were dropped," he says. "I was busted for speeding because I like fast cars.") There was also a confrontation a few days ago with video paparazzi from celeb Web site TMZ.com that was posted online.

So, how does he feel about being a celebrity? "I can say it in one sentence: Be careful what you wish for."

When he's not working these days, Moore, who lives in Encino, Calif., spends a lot of time on a bicycle. "I do 30-60 miles a day, preparing for a 100-mile bike ride" to raise funds for multiple sclerosis research. His mother, now 64 and living in San Francisco, has been diagnosed with MS.

"I do all kinds of athletics," he says. "I hike, I'm an outdoorsy guy, I box, and do physical exercise. I bake cookies from time to time. I can't cook to save my life. I love music, love to go dancing, travel."

And he'll keep working to prove he's more than a body.

"Nobody would ever have thought that I would become the actor I've become," he says. "I took a chance, I jumped."

He's ready to jump even higher.

Contact staff writer Michael D. Schaffer at 215-854-2537 or mschaffer@phillynews.com.

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