WHEN HOLLYWOOD WAS LOOKING FOR THE PERFECT ACTOR TO PLAY AN Ivy League doctor with a secret past on the new CBS high-tech medical drama Pure Genius, it’s easy to imagine they got to Ward Horton’s audition tape, hit pause and said, “There he is. Call his agent. Stat.”
Horton looks like (and actually was) a Brooks Brothers model. He’s got the requisite chiseled cheekbones, high wattage smile, preppy good hair and a former basketball shooting guard’s frame (which he was) that makes his TV doctor’s white lab coat hang like custom suiting.
And while we’re indulging in some swooning: In person, he also exudes a warm sincerity and thoughtful intellect that makes his new television character’s life as a seminarian turned healer seem credible in a spiritually McDreamy sort of way.
The actor, who had been hoping for a steady television role for more than a decade, isn’t sure if he was the first or only choice for the part of Pure Genius’ Dr. Scott Strauss, but he says getting the role in the show about a Silicon Valley hospital staffed by a team of medical risk takers was probably his least nerve-racking casting call ever.
After sending an audition tape, the actor interviewed for the role, talking to producers, including series creator Jason Katims, via Skype. “It was a completely different experience I’ve had trying for parts,” he says, sitting in his study at his restored antique farmhouse in Fairfield’s Greenfield Hill. He’s here on a weekend break from filming on the Pure Genius Hollywood set. “Usually, you walk in for a casting call and it’s four or five other people who look just like you. You read. You screen test. And maybe, if you’re lucky, they send you notes and you test again.”
With Pure Genius the process felt more fated for Horton, whose acting career has been gaining momentum some fifteen years after he jumped off the more predictable path in asset management to pursue a shelved dream of performing. “When I went after this crazy idea, I told myself I would keep at it only if it got better,” he says of the transformation. “Every year has been better than the last, and that’s what’s kept me invested.”
After paying his dues modeling and earning credits in a succession of supporting roles, Horton’s star is turning. He’s done Law & Order franchise guest spots, soaps and lots of one-episode arcs in sitcoms and drama. He also had a small role as a broker alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in the Wolf of Wall Street.
In 2014 he got a break when he was cast as medical student John Form in the horror flick Annabelle, a cult classic about a terrifyingly demonic doll. It earned $256 million globally. Playing alongside a cast that included Alfre Woodard and Annabelle Wallis elevated his profile. Horton says that if he’s recognized picking up coffee or pastry downtown (The Pantry and Isabelle et Vincent French bakery are favorite local haunts), it’s often by teens and college students who are diehard Annabelle fans. “I had no idea a movie like that could have an audience like that,” he says with a laugh. “Certainly, it helped pave the way for where I am now. But nothing about this has been overnight success.”
Indeed, Horton’s path to prime time has been a more circuitous one. The native of Morristown, New Jersey, spent most of his childhood on a North Carolina farm; his family moved to the idyllic place when he was eight years old. Fishing, baseball and basketball, as well as acting in school plays at his alma mater, Durham Academy, were all part of a youth he describes as well-rounded.
Shortly after arriving on campus at Wake Forest University, Horton was cast in a Neil Simon play. “I tried out never thinking I would get the part,” he says. The demanding role meant six days a week of rehearsals and performances. “It was a great experience for an actor, but all around me I saw people enjoying the traditional college experience, which was new for me too. I felt like I was missing out. Theater, at that point in my life, was just too consuming and one dimensional.”
He cast his acting aspirations aside, studied business, played intramural basketball (the sport is still a passion) and immersed himself in the campus social scene. He met his architect/designer wife, Alexa, during a party sophomore year. They have been together ever since and are the parents of two elementary school-age children.
By his mid-twenties the newlywed Horton was thriving professionally in asset management when the 9/11 terror attacks hit. “I think for a lot of people it became a period of great soul searching and introspection,” he says. For him, taking stock meant admitting to himself, with some heartfelt prodding from his wife, that his lucrative work felt soulless. “It was financially rewarding, but I didn’t want that. I needed to be more creative.” He began acting in regional theater in the Raleigh, North Carolina, area.
“When he went back to acting, he was so determined,” Alexa recalls. “He would work at the office all day and go to the theater at night. It was exhausting, but he was incredibly driven, which was how I knew he was doing the right thing.” Eventually, the couple moved to New York where Horton parlayed his good looks and tall, lean frame into modeling; an occupation flexible enough to allow the actor to jump at every casting call that came his way.
When Pure Genius called, Horton saw the opportunity for more than a steady gig and prime-time credits. He was drawn by the involvement of Katims, whose body of work includes the critically acclaimed Parenthood and Friday Night Lights. The producer is known for his ability to develop strong, believable characters who resonate with audiences.
Horton’s character, Dr. Scott Strauss, is introduced to the Pure Genius audience as a rakishly charming surgeon who also has a habit of falling to his knees in prayer in the hospital garden. “He’s a mystery man and I liked that,” says Horton. “You’ll learn early on there was a period in his life when he was completely off the grid for years and everyone wants to get to the bottom of it. It turns out he was in the seminary studying to be a priest. It’s a twist that informs his whole perspective on things, and I was excited about exploring that. Scott is also fluent in Mandarin, which adds to his mystique. I’ve never spoken a word of the language in my life, so learning it has been rewarding but quite challenging.”
Horton was also intrigued that Pure Genius added a futuristic spin to presenting a medical drama, yet plot lines, he notes, are not as far-fetched as they might seem. So when its doctors have patients swallow tiny cameras to study their cancerous tumors or implant spiders in mangled limbs to spin new cartilage, “it’s actually not made up medical concepts,” he explains. “These are cutting-edge things being researched; the future of medicine, treatments we may have ourselves someday soon.” The actors trained for the show with the medical team at L.A.’s Cedars-Sinai Hospital to create an aura of authenticity on set, and they work with real surgical nurses in operating room scenes.
Another fringe benefit has been the way producers have made it possible for Horton to maintain the construct of his carefully drawn work/life boundaries. “I am someone who has always worked very hard to separate the two,” he says. “My priorities have always been family first, acting second, modeling third.” He deliberately avoids the Hollywood scene in favor of a more laid-back life with his family in Fairfield. When he was hired for Pure Genius, “we talked, from the outset, about how I needed this to work and the [producers] were incredibly supportive,” says Horton. “We have a rule that we are never apart for more than two weeks…I prefer to come home because I’m most comfortable here.”
The Hortons discovered Fairfield when renting a summer home in Westport and began house hunting. “We loved the city, but when the kids came along, I realized, having the childhood I had, I just didn’t know how to raise city kids,” says Horton. “I think cities can be a great experience culturally, but city kids grow up so fast. I wanted to slow their childhoods down a bit. We’ve managed to do that here.”
The family has lived for close to a decade in a vintage farmhouse with an adjacent barn that sits on a stunning piece of property made special by a man-made pond and a lush, open field surrounded by an expanse of trees. “We love that we have so much space, yet are close to the beach and the city when we want it,” he says. The house and barn have great bones for Alexa to dig into design projects.
While the place offers privacy, Horton is committed to being part of the community too. Whether it’s watching his son play lacrosse, saltwater fly-fishing with friends on Long Island Sound or joining a game in his men’s basketball league, Horton says he cherishes the roots the family has created here.
If Pure Genius finds its audience, Horton suspects he’ll appreciate what Fairfield offers even more. “I like what we’re doing so much, it will be hard for me if we don’t continue,” he says. “Whatever happens, I don’t see us leaving. This will always be home.”
Despite his enthusiasm for the project, Horton was acutely aware that Pure Genius must reach its numbers. “It will be too bad if it doesn’t because it’s such a strong concept with such a great team behind it,” he says. “In terms of the cast and how we’ve jelled, I truly haven’t had an experience like it.” While CBS hasn’t ordered more episodes for this season, a second season decision will come in May.
Whatever happens, Horton is optimistic about his career. Later this year, he expects an independent film he made several months ago to make the rounds on the film festival circuit. He isn’t playing a blue-blood doctor or a broker. “I got to be a total, complete psycho, like really a bad, just crazy guy,” he says with a grin. “I’ve never done anything like that and, I have to admit, I loved it.” Which reminds him about the promise he made to himself about acting: “I’m in it as long as it keeps getting better. And it is.”