PHILADELPHIA — On NBC’s radically reprogrammed fairy tale, Grimm, the character of Monroe is a walking contradiction: a civilized monster, a predator pursuing a vegan diet. He’s the enlightened descendant of a long line of Blutbaden (what used to be called Big Bad Wolves), creatures that for centuries stalked the dark Germanic forests.
“I am a new generation,” says Silas Weir Mitchell, the actor who plays him, “trying to live a healthy life in the human realm and disavow my rapacious ancestry.”
There are a number of reasons (talent among them) Mitchell is so convincing as the reformed ripper.
“Silas has the same idiosyncratic nature and interests the character does,” says David Greenwalt, Grimm’s co-executive producer. “He is Monroe.”
It also helps that Mitchell has been preparing for the role since he was 7.
“The first play I did was Hansel and Gretel at the Tarleton School,” he says, referring to the pre-elementary academy in Berwyn, Pa. “I played Hansel and I loved it. When you’re a kid and adults tell you you’re good at something, you tend to keep doing it.”
Mitchell, 44, also knows a thing or two about inherited bloodlines. He was born Silas Weir Mitchell Neilson at Lankenau Hospital in Wynnewood, Pa. He dropped the patronymic when he began pursuing acting as a career, both because it was cumbersome (“Four? Come on. Enough with the names,” he says) and as a tribute to his great-grandfather, now his namesake.
Silas Weir Mitchell (1829-1914) was a grandee in Philadelphia’s Gilded Age, a renowned physician, poet, and author of novels usually set in Philadelphia, such as the historical “Hug Wynne, Free Quaker.
His groundbreaking work in neurology is cited as an influence on Sigmund Freud. And Mitchell, often credited as S. Weir Mitchell, discovered the medical phenomenon of the “phantom limb” based on his experiences as a surgeon in the Civil War. (Five of his novels were set during the War Between the States.)
After graduating from boarding school in New Hampshire and Brown University in Rhode Island, the modern-day Mitchell spent a year in New York, “doing some terrible theater in basements.”
He settled on the unusual course of studying drama at graduate-school level at the University of California at San Diego. “I didn’t think I was an actor with matinee looks who would get a lot of work in his early 20s,” he says, “so you might as well take the time and hone your craft.”
The result has been a long, busy run as one of TV’s most distinguished character actors on shows like Silk Stalkings, 24, and Burn Notice.
Mitchell really made his mark with a pair of memorable recurring roles: Charlie “Haywire” Patoshik on Prison Break, and the wild-eyed Donny on My Name is Earl.
All that experience is evident in his performance on Grimm, which airs at 9 p.m. on Fridays.
“Silas is a very smart actor, and he goes very deep into his character,” says Jim Kouf, the show’s other executive producer. “Whenever he questions a line of dialogue, it’s very perceptive.”
For Mitchell, it’s all part of his ultimate goal: to transport viewers — even in a vehicle as outlandish as Grimm.
“I enjoy watching people who can create and inhabit a world so fully that you go with them. Like Claire Danes. Man, she is just amazing,” he says.
“There’s no formula for that. But you know it when you have it. I want my reality to be so real to me that you willingly forget your reality and come with me.”