NEW YORK — Eric Balfour has the look of a needle. A needle — if it were human, curiously handsome and a promising young actor. Maybe even an on-the-brink star.
At 28, he is rail-thin and rangy, with a lean face and sharp chin. He seems to occupy two dimensions in the physical world. His performances are where the third dimension comes to light.
On NBC's new courthouse drama "Conviction," Balfour plays Brian Peluso, one of a team of Manhattan assistant district attorneys. He has a push-the-limits brashness — the sort of guy who reports to work hungover and disheveled, having left not only his latest conquest in her bed, but his D.A. badge there, too.
But he fights for his clients, his passion fueled by righteousness and six-packs of Red Bull.
As Peluso, Balfour is part of a robust ensemble that also includes Milena Govich, Anson Mount, J. August Richards, Jordan Bridges, Julianne Nicholson and Stephanie March, reprising her role as Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cabot, late of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" — whose Gotham world of Dick Wolf legal dramas "Conviction" will now cohabit. It premieres 10 p.m. EST Friday.
"I kinda feel like I'm starting out, really," says Balfour, an actor obviously psyched by his new project. "I've been at this for a while — kind of. But I've accomplished so little, thus far."
No false humility going on. Just cheerful restlessness from an actor whose heroes are the likes of Gary Oldman, Sean Penn and Johnny Depp.
But the truth is Balfour has appeared in a number of movies, including "Can't Hardly Wait" (1998), "What Women Want" (2000) and a remake of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (2003), as well as recent indie films "Lie with Me" and "Rx," the latter co-produced by him.
A wide range of roles, and ethnicities
As an actor he displays impressive chops, and a gift — despite his distinctive looks — for adapting to a wide range of characters and even ethnicities. This Los Angeles native calls himself "a mutt," a mix of French, Russian and American Indian. But he can pass beyond those borders, he says with a laugh. "Wherever I travel — Greece, Puerto Rico, Spain, Italy — they think I'm one of their own."
His cross-cultural bent is also reflected in his band, Fredalba, a sizzling blend of Latin, rap, rock and soul with Balfour the lead singer.
Music was his first love. While practicing with a band in 1991 when he was 14, he got invited to audition in the studio next door, where tryouts were under way for Disney Channel's singing-and-dancing "Kids Incorporated." It became his first acting job.
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More recently, Balfour was playing a CTU techie on "24," while, in another recurring role as the rebellious Gabe on the funeral-home drama "Six Feet Under," he was cavorting with his high-school honey in the back of her hearse.
Unfortunately, Balfour fared less well with shows he was part of from the get-go.
In 2003, he starred in ABC's action-mystery series "Veritas: The Quest," which was canceled after four airings. A WB drama called "Fearless" never got on the air at all.
In fall 2004 he was part of the ensemble of NBC's sassy cop drama "Hawaii," which lasted only a bit longer than his steamy UPN soap "Sex, Love & Secrets," which came and went last fall.
"People keep asking me, 'Why do you do shows that fail?' But they just don't understand," Balfour explains with a rueful smile. "I LIKE doing shows that fail."
Following in Clooney's footsteps
Like it or not, Balfour follows in a tradition made famous by George Clooney, who weathered years of busted pilots and failed series before "ER" came along. As with Clooney, it's easy to conclude that Balfour's shows have let him down, not the other way around.
Even so, the TV series shuffle can take its toll.
"You fall in love with the people you're working with, you fall in love with your character," he says. "It's heartbreaking when the show doesn't turn out to be what I imagined when I signed on."
After "Sex, Love & Secrets," which premiered late last September and was toast a month later, Balfour was ready for a change.
"I decided the only way I would do TV is if it were on a really good existing show, with great executive producers who really knew what they were doing, and where I didn't have to do a pilot." He laughs. "So I'm saying all this out into the universe. And not a week later I get a call: 'Dick Wolf wants you to come to New York and meet with him. The show is already picked up and scheduled. It's a sort of "Law & Order" spinoff.'"
Actually, "Conviction" was designed to be a younger, hipper cousin, not another sibling, of the well-established "Law & Order" trio.
"It's got the things that you love about ‘Law & Order' — the great procedural stuff," Balfour says. "And we're also going to show you how the cases affect the characters' personal lives."
He points to an uplifting verse by Emerson tattooed on his arm. What he's getting at: "All those shows that didn't work? It's OK. Once production on ‘Conviction' began, I told myself, ‘Yup, this is what I thought it would be.' And that felt really good."
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