JEREMY Sheffield has proved to be one of the most popular actors to come out of Holby City, and much to the joy of the show’s fans, the actor returned to the series earlier this year as hunky doctor Alex Adams.
Holby has done for Sheffield what ER did for George Clooney. As the resident handsome doctor, Sheffield has acquired an army of female fans and is well on his way to becoming a household name.
But with so much more choice now open to him as an actor, it was with some reluctance that he returned to the show that first thrust him into the public’s gaze. In his time off he tried different roles, each one distinctive from the last and, more importantly to Sheffield, each one far removed from Holby’s Alex.
"It was quite hard to come back because I did so many other things in the break," he says. "In some ways it’s nice to come back because Alex was given a promotion and he arrived in a helicopter, which was quite cool.
"But it is a bit weird and the reason for wanting to do other things is that I’d played Alex for two years. Though he’s a great character with great storylines, it’s still the same character."
While he was taking a break from helping the hospitalised sick and injured, Sheffield took the time to exercise his acting muscles. He played one of the many love interests of Liza Tarbuck’s Linda Green; a "sleazy, racist, bare-knuckle fighter" in BBC Three’s surreal comedy Grease Monkeys; and a man who has a breakdown and loses his memory in one of the BBC’s recent Afternoon Plays.
As well as these low-profile parts, Sheffield completed his first major role in a BBC drama beyond Holby. In Hearts Of Gold, which starts tonight, he plays yet another dashing doctor (the third on his CV), but this time one practising in 1930s South Wales.
Hearts Of Gold is a tragic Romeo and Juliet-style story of love against the odds. It tells the tale of feisty working-class nurse Bethan, played by Kate Jarman, who falls in love with Sheffield’s dapper doctor.
As Doctor Andrew John, Sheffield abandons the modern medical practices he’s been used to in Holby City for a pre-NHS era in which matron ruled the roost and nurses weren’t allowed to be married.
"Andrew comes from an educated conservative background but doesn’t fit the mould," says Sheffield. "His struggle, like Bethan’s, is between what is predestined - what’s expected of him by his social class and his family - and what his open mind and liberal thinking make him actually feel." So will Sheffield be avoiding doctor roles in the future? "I’ve no problem with what I’m castable as," he laughs. "I’m a middle-class Englishman so I’ll be cast as middle-class Englishmen. They’re usually intelligent men who can be complex so it’s fine."
Although Hearts Of Gold is Sheffield’s first major role after his success in the prime-time hospital drama, the 37-year-old actor wasn’t aware of its gravity until he began filming. Before then it was just another role among the others he’d been doing.
"I suddenly became aware of it once we started," he says. "We were in rehearsals and I looked around at all the cast and none of them were well-known. Even Kate Jarman isn’t that well-known, she doesn’t do a show like Holby, so I realised that a lot of this would be on my shoulders.
"I hadn’t felt that sort of pressure before. It’s not on me completely, but I did feel a big responsibility to do a good job. It was weird. Good pressure, but pressure."
Born and raised in Essex, Sheffield’s first experience of the world of showbiz was as a ballet dancer. He took it up when he was five, becoming intrigued after seeing his neighbour Victoria perform. At ten he was offered a place at the Royal Ballet School and went on to spend nine years with the Royal Ballet in Covent Garden.
Then he "fell out of love with it." He says it felt more like being in the Army than practising an art form, so eight years ago he switched to acting. But he didn’t find it easy to get into.
"It’s notoriously difficult to move from dance into acting," he says. "People would say things like: ‘Oh, he has no brains and he’s completely shallow’. Those are prejudices I had to overcome."
He didn’t do too badly though, nabbing big roles in Lynda La Plante’s The Governor (his first doctor role) and Channel 4’s Merlin alongside Helena Bonham Carter.
But it was Holby City that really put Sheffield on the map, and when he got the part of Alex he decided to disappoint his female fans by being honest about his sexuality.
But while he’s the first openly gay actor to get leading man status on British television, it’s not something he thinks should be discussed as a big achievement.
"It’s not something I’m particularly proud of," he says. "It just is what it is. It’s out there, but it’s not something I talk about a huge amount. To me it’s not a big deal so I don’t know why it should be for anybody else. By talking about it, it makes it a big deal."
Though Sheffield is now a success in his native Britain, his career could have been very different had the producers of Holby City not called. When he got the job he was in America chasing work in Los Angeles.
"I was there for a year before I got Holby," he says. "I’d done a lot of commercials so I had enough money to spend some time there without working and just audition. I upped my chances of working because there’s way more work there than there is here."
The bright lights of Hollywood are still attractive to Sheffield. He’s uncertain about his future with Holby City, as he’s itching to try out new things and those things could be in America.
"I actually just had a meeting with a manager who works in Los Angeles and looks after some quite big people," he says. "I don’t know what will happen with that. It’s certainly on the cards.
"Working there is definitely something I’m interested in. I don’t like Los Angeles particularly, but that’s where there’s a lot of work. I have no problems with trying my luck there."
• Hearts Of Gold, BBC1, tomight, 8.15pm and tomorrow, 8pm.