LOS ANGELES — At an audition for the new ABC series “Eyes,” creator John McNamara got a jolt when Garcelle Beauvais-Nilon whipped off a free-flowing wig to reveal her own hair pulled back in a bun.
McNamara hadn’t even realized she was wearing the wig. “It was just right for the part,” he said. “The character’s a chameleon … she has to surprise you.”
Not surprisingly, Beauvais-Nilon got the role of Nora Gage, a private investigator at a high-end detective firm functioning on the fringes of the law.
The actress played assistant district attorney Valerie Hayward from 2001-2004 on “NYPD Blue,” and was highly recommended to McNamara by series creator Steven Bochco.
Sharply suited with hair drawn back, Hayward manifested stylish efficiency. Gage, when she’s not in disguise, also wears her hair pulled back and is described in ABC publicity notes as “ruthlessly efficient.”
Beauvais-Nilon is amused that she seems to “get these tough chick roles, telling the boys what to do.”
They’re against type. “I’m the most non-confrontational person … this is me,” she says, dressed in a vivid orange skirt and white T-shirt, her long, dark hair flowing free.
“Eyes,” which also stars Tim Daly as morally ambivalent boss Harlan Judd, debuts tonight.
The challenging time slot is opposite two powerful procedurals — NBC’s “Law & Order” and CBS’s “CSI: NY.”
“It’s only fair, it’s exactly what I deserve,” McNamara says of his time slot. “I’ve got to put my money where my mouth is. I’ve been shooting off my mouth for two years that Americans are ready for a detective procedural that’s fun.”
McNamara thinks crime shows have gotten too serious and are becoming parodies of themselves, so he designed a character-driven series that echoes the tongue-in-cheek style of old crime-solving hits like “Maverick,” “Magnum, P.I.” and “The Rockford Files.”
He also believes his show fits the style of ABC’s current successful series, including “Lost” and “Alias,” which have an idiosyncratic take on established genres.
“We want the show to be a satisfying mystery every week … on the other hand we obviously do not take ourselves that seriously,” he says. “It has a lot more to do with ‘Desperate Housewives’ than it does with ‘CSI.”‘
Beauvais-Nilon says the show’s fresh writing and her character’s chameleon nature proved appealing. So did the fact that “Eyes” is shot in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband and teenage son.
Born in Haiti, Beauvais-Nilon, 38, moved to Massachusetts when she was 7, after her mother came to America to attend nursing school “to provide opportunities” for her seven children.
“I thought mom had lost her mind. First we were in a country where it’s freezing in winter … and I didn’t know how to speak any English, so I couldn’t go to school right away.”
Later the family moved to Miami. She began taking dance lessons, and by her mid-teens family and friends were encouraging her to be a model.
She drove to Fort Lauderdale to try her luck at an agency’s open call. She was stopped at a red light putting on some lip gloss when “a hand comes into the car and startles me. It’s a woman with a card in her hand. She goes, ‘Are you a model?’ I go, ‘Well, I’d like to be.”‘
The woman turned out to be from the agency she was going to. “It was just like an intervention, or whatever you like to call it,” Beauvais-Nilon laughs. “Being from Haiti, we are like superstitious, so I took it as a sign, and that’s how I got started.”
She believes her modeling experience made her “more comfortable in front of the cameras,” but acknowledges that when she segued into acting, it took “a while to win casting directors over, to let them know I was serious about my craft.”