By Chuck Barney
Contra Costa Times
Lance Gross is on the phone from what he calls the "polar vortex" of Chicago, where he just finished shooting a scene for the new turbocharged NBC drama "Crisis." But don't ask him to tell you anything about what the scene entailed. That's classified information.
"It's pretty much top-secret stuff," Gross insists, sounding very much like the secret agent he plays. "This is a show that is packed with surprises, and we want to preserve them. There are so many twists and turns, and you never know where it's going to take you."
Boasting a cast led by Gillian Anderson and Dermot Mulroney, "Crisis" is a high-concept series about a national emergency that erupts after kidnappers ambush a busload of high school students on a field trip. And these aren't your ordinary high schoolers. They're the children of some of Washington, D.C.'s biggest CEOs and political power players. One is even the son of the president.
Gross is Secret Service agent Marcus Finley, who has just been promoted to the high-stakes duty of protecting the commander in chief's kid. Now, he and FBI agent Susie Dunn (Rachael Taylor) are among those trying to figure out how to snuff out this diabolical plot.
"This is the most important day of his life, but he's out of his element and he feels like he messed up big time," Gross says of his character. "He's desperate to right that wrong."
Based on Sunday's pilot episode, "Crisis" has the potential to be one of the spring season's most addictive network offerings. It's intense and suspenseful, and, as Gross says, full of surprises. Entertainment Weekly ranked it No. 3 -- behind two cable shows -- on its list of "Top Nine Must-See Debuts."
For Gross, 32, "Crisis" brings a chance to play a very different kind of character. His growing screen resume is mainly dotted with romantic comedy and sitcom roles, including "Tyler Perry's House of Payne," the TBS show that earned him four NAACP Image Awards for best supporting actor. Now, he gets to be an action hero.
"I've dreamed about playing this kind of character for a long time," he says. "I've always been intrigued by Secret Service agents. So I'm having a lot of fun being a man's man, toting around a gun, wearing the dark suit, beating people up and getting beat up."
Gross grew up in East Oakland, Calif., and attended St. Paschal Baylon School, where he became known for his track-and-field talents. When he reached high school, his parents took an early retirement, sold their home in the Oakland hills and moved to Las Vegas.
Gross was mortified to be leaving behind his friends and the life he knew. So he made a deal with his parents: Every other weekend, he would be allowed to return to the Bay Area and stay with his older sister.
"You know, at that age, moving away felt like it was the end of the world," Gross recalls.
In high school, Gross continued to run track -- specializing in the 400 meters and long jump -- and was good enough to earn an athletic scholarship to Howard University in Washington, D.C. But once there, he took an introduction to acting class. It proved to be a life-changing experience.
"It was my favorite class. I just fell in love with acting and decided to pursue it full speed ahead," he says. "It was the greatest decision I ever made."