Alan Van Sprang as King's Detective Sergeant Derek Spears
Most of us have said or done something at some point in our lives that we wish we could take back or at the very least do a bit differently. For Toronto city police detective Derek Spears, a brief professional misstep cost him his position as head of the Major Crimes Task Force. Although still a member of the team, Spears is replaced as its lead officer by Detective Staff Sergeant Jessica King.
Not surprisingly, their initial interaction is prickly, but there is a job that needs to be done and Spears knows he cannot allow his ego to get in the way of performing his duties. Veteran stage and screen actor Alan Van Sprang, who plays Derek Spears in the Canadian-made police procedural TV drama King, took that fictional angst and ran with it when creating his character.
“In season one of King, Derek comes across as somewhat of a hothead,” notes Van Sprang. “He has a bit of a meltdown on television, and because of that he’s put on a hiatus of sorts or a suspension from being top dog in the division. He’s then upset with King [Amy Price-Francis] for taking over the big desk.
“So throughout the first season there’s a great deal of envy as well as anger with Derek. Despite that and at the root of it all, I think he has a big heart and loves his job. Derek’s also a family man and is committed to his family, but you’re not quite sure where it lies insofar as is he still married, does he have a wife, did he have a wife, and how about kids?
“Over time, he works through all that frustration, and in the process, my character starts to recognize that King has talent. In the end, she really makes him a better cop. So inevitably, as he’s growing professionally and as a police officer, he’s also growing as a human being around her. King is making Derek a better man through being a better police officer, and he discovers during that growth that they’re working better as a team.
“You’re never quite sure, either, if the two of them are going to get together or not. I don’t want to say too much about it because there is an element of surprise within Derek’s and King’s relationship, but he definitely develops professionally as well as personally, or at least that’s what I tried to create onscreen.”
Although his handsome features were hidden behind prosthetics when he played the leader of an alien race trying to take over Earth in Earth: Final Conflict, TV viewers are sure to recognize Van Sprang from other series he has worked on such as Traders, Soul Food, Monk, Paradise Falls, Degrassi: The Next Generation, The Tudors, Rookie Blue and The L.A. Complex as well as a number of made-for-TV movies. On the big screen, the actor’s credits include Dangerous Intentions, Narc, Saw III and Immortals. It was, in fact, a meeting with an old friend, Greg Spottiswood (King co-creator/executive producer), along with King casting director Marsha Chesley and the show’s other co-creator/executive producer Bernie Zuckerman, that set the wheels in motion for Van Sprang to book the role of Derek Spears.
“I met with those guys, read a scene or two for them, it went well, I thanked them and left,” he recalls. “That same day or the following day I was offered a two or three episode arc on another series called Camelot. When Marsha found out I was up for this other show, which was filming in Ireland, she called my agent and said, ‘Alan is up for this part in King.’ At the time we thought it might be a couple of episodes or recurring, and perhaps I could do both, but Marsha said, ‘No, it’s the lead male role and they’re really interested in Alan.’
“So I went back in the audition room with Greg and read for him again. We worked on trying to expand the range of the character and had a lot of back and forth dialogue about that. Again, things went well, but they couldn’t make a decision at that point because they still needed network approval. In the end, I chose to pass on Camelot and wait it out for King. Because it was Greg’s project and I knew him so well and was interested in the role, it seemed silly for me not to, especially for a show that was already guaranteed for one season and might have some longevity. Fortunately, the network approval came though and everything worked out.”
In the King series opener "Lori Gilbert," Toronto’s Major Crimes Task Force, led by Detective Sergeant Derek Spears, is investigating the disappearance of a little girl. When the detective loses his temper on-camera with an overzealous news reporter, his superior officer is forced to remove him as team leader and put Detective Staff Sergeant Jessica King in charge of the case.
Like Spears, she had also been knocked down the rungs on the professional ladder for doing what she believed was the right thing, and this was King’s chance to “redeem” herself. Having very different ideas on how to proceed with this case, it takes her and Spears a little while to get used to working with one another. Behind the camera, however, everyone quickly got into the groove of making King.
“When I originally moved to Toronto, Greg, Amy and I all lived in the same building,” says Van Sprang, “so when everyone sat down for the first read-through of the script, we all kind of knew one another. It was still nerve-wracking and all that, but prior to getting on set we spoke with some people about police work and how to go about doing procedural drama. So we knew what we wanted with the series, it was just making it come to life that was the biggest challenge.
“What I found most remarkable was that the minute Amy and I got together, we had a personal banter and a personal as well as professional chemistry. It’s really tough to find someone who you can just throw ideas off of, who you have a really good time with and are able fly through the work with once the cameras start rolling. You sort of forget about the fact that this is the first time you’re filming together and focus on creating something new.
“With King, we had to create a relationship where Jessica is taking over Derek’s job and he has to be upset with her. She’s the new boss, but he’s got his own team and its commitment is to him. I think through the personal rapport that Amy and I created beforehand and the fun we had on set, we didn’t stray too far from our characters’ dynamic. Sure, I had to pretend that I was angry or pissed off with her, but there was always sort of an underlying lightness there. That’s where the real chemistry lies, in that you never know if King and Derek are going to kill each other or go out on a date,” he jokes.
“So I’ll never forget the first or second day of shooting and that the dialogue Greg had come up with for us was rolling off our tongues quite easily. We didn’t have to wander too far from the written word in order to make it seem like we were genuinely dialoguing personally as well as professionally. It was an amazing dynamic, not just with the actors but the crew and creative team as well. Everyone blended together, and it was a remarkable, magical first season. It was one of the best I’d ever experienced just in terms of everyone getting along, wanting to be at work and having a really good time.”
Throughout King’s two seasons, Detectives King and Spears along with their team investigate a myriad of cases, from the murder of a university biochemistry professor ("Ahmed Khan"), to the beating of an anti-racist activist ("Scout Winter") and even a corpse-dumping ground ("Aurora O’Donnell"). Such variety of stories allowed Van Sprang to reveal different facets of his character and further stretch himself as a performer.
“There’s a first season episode that shows Spears as being like a father figure and his relationship with young people,” says the actor. “It involves a teenage girl who no one can really talk to because she’s upset and rebelling against her family as well as life and school. Derek seems to be the only person who can connect with her, because he doesn’t take a lot of crap, but he doesn’t take people for granted, either.
“So he’s not talking down to or patronizing her in any way. I think she recognizes that, and throughout that episode I was able to show a softer side of Spears. That gave me a much greater range acting-wise and really opened up my character more.
“One of my favorite episodes in the second season is where Derek goes undercover. He’s doing some personal training in mixed martial arts [MMA], and something is going on at the gym where he works out, so he ends up having to compete in a couple of MMA fights against one of the tough guys at the gym. We had to do a lot of choreography for that one, and I spent a few weeks doing the amazing and huge mixed martial arts, UFC [Ultimate Fighting Championship]-like fights. It kept me in shape and I had a blast, too.
“This part on King kind of fell into my lap, and luckily I was able to truly embrace it and have a good time with it,” enthuses Van Sprang. “As the episodes go along and once you start ‘owning’ your character, then the easier you think it becomes. In fact, it actually gets more challenging because you’re getting deeper and deeper into the character, and with Derek Spears, I don’t know, I was just very fortunate to have received the part and worked with everyone on the show.”
“Reign is about a young Mary Queen of Scots [Adelaide Kane] and her transition from Scotland to France,” explains Van Sprang. “I play Henry II, the King of France in the 16th century, and part of the story follows the sort of love triangle between Mary and my character’s two sons, Francis [Tony Regbo] and Sebastian [Torrance Combs]. There are several ladies in waiting that accompany Mary, so we also get to see the relationships that they have with the other young men in the castle.
“We shot the pilot in Ireland, and it was the exact same crew that I had worked with a few years ago on The Tudors, so that was pretty amazing as well as a lot of fun.
“Funny enough, in The Listener I play a Don King/UFC/MMA-type of guy. Something happens with one of the fighters, drugs are involved and my character is one of the prime suspects, so they’re investigating him and some of the shady goings-on in that UFC-type world.
“A couple of weeks ago I also played Michael Shanks’ [Stargate SG-1] best friend in an episode of his show Saving Hope. I hadn’t seen Michael in 20 years, so it was great getting to work with him for a week-and-a-half.”
King is currently airing in the States on REELZ, Friday nights at 10:00 p.m. EST/ 9:00 p.m. PST. Please note, all photos above copyright of REELZ/Showcase.