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CCU grad's acting dream realized

Always the baseball fan, eager for the new season to batter up, Michael Kelly has hit a stand-up double to start 2011.

The Coastal Carolina University graduate co-stars with Forest Whitaker in a new CBS series, "Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior," and with Matt Damon in the movie "The Adjustment Bureau." They premiered on Feb. 16 and March 4, respectively.

In the past two weeks, Kelly returned home to Manhattan from Los Angeles, where he spent about six months filming the 13 episodes for the "Suspect Behavior" series, a midseason replacement show. Last month, he also took part in a guest role for NBC's "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."

Talking by telephone, Kelly said each episode of a drama "certainly takes more than an hour" to film.

"The typical one-hour television program is shot over the course of eight business days," he said, estimating an average daily shoot at 12 to 14 hours.

Kelly said the original "Criminal Minds" series has been on six years and that CBS has done great with spinning shows off a series. He cited "NCIS" branching from "JAG" as an example, and "NCIS: Los Angeles" adding to the offspring.

Originally, Kelly read for the lead role in "Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior," but he said a week after Whitaker was brought in, an opportunity arose to try out for the John "Profit" Sims character.

Kelly remembered his manager telling him about the show director's high impressions from seeing other works.

"I said, All right, what the heck? I'll go do it,'" Kelly said.

He said that reading entailed playing "a street-thug gangster."

"You channel your innermost gangster," Kelly said. "I played him really hard."

'Back-door pilot'

"Suspect Behavior" was as a "back-door pilot," Kelly said, in that it debuted in the flagship show where he and the new cast members were guest stars.

Then, in the first few weeks of the spinoff, Kelly's portrayal developed. Working in an appearance of his Atlanta Braves cap in every episode represents a way of customizing the role, and in real life, saluting the city where he grew up cheering for his favorite baseball team.

"Over the course of the season, we really found the character," he said, counting the six months to film the inaugural run.

If CBS brings back the show for a full season, Kelly said 22 episodes would occupy nine to 10 months of work in Los Angeles.

"It's a long commitment to make a season of television," he said, happy this month to spend quality time with his family. He and wife Karyn, a personal trainer, have a daughter, Franke, who will soon turn 2.

Turning to movies, Kelly said acting in "The Adjustment Bureau," playing Damon's best friend, Charlie Traynor, thrilled him, starting with the script.

"I read it, and thought, 'Oh, my God. I want to be in this movie.'"

Knowing the movie director lived in New York, Kelly said he was so driven to win a part last year that he did double duty in preparing.

"I wanted it so badly, I prepared for two characters," Kelly said. "I figured two shots are better than one."

The way the movie producers built his part pleased him because they welcomed his input.

"Very rarely do they pull you in another room and they talk about the characters," Kelly said.

The movie's conclusion took some tweaking, though, after its testing with audiences.

"The ending just didn't quite work," Kelly said. "But Universal Pictures believed in it enough, so we went back and reshot the whole ending and got it right."

Kelly said landing any role takes devotion and willpower, and his efforts have resulted in a resume that includes the Clint Eastwood-directed "Changeling" from 2008, and six episodes of "The Sopranos."

Two out of 100

"You audition for parts 100 times a year," he said, "and you get two jobs, if you're lucky."

He said in preparing for a part, "it's like reading ashortened novel," at a minimum.

"I really tip my hat to Coastal Carolina and the education I got there," Kelly said. "Sandi Shackelford's theater class is where it all started. ... I fell into theater in college, something I never thought about."

Kelly said with aspirations for law school in the early 1990s, he was urged in his junior year by an adviser to diverge from the core classes with some electives, such as a theater class. Two weeks into that, he paired up with a classmate to prepare and recite a scene.

After fulfilling that assignment, Kelly said Shackelford pulled him aside, requesting a meeting after class.

"I thought, 'I can't think of anything that would have gotten me in trouble,'" Kelly recalled.

He said he was asked, "How long have you been acting?" When he replied he had never done it before, the instructor said, "Let's talk."

"I got so into it, that by the end of the semester, I had decided to make it my major," Kelly said.

A cross-country runner in high school, Kelly said, "I was good, but not amazing," yet scholarship opportunities with smaller schools such as Coastal were afoot. He said he and his father made the trip from Atlanta to Conway, and seeing the campus and the Grand Strand made an instant sale.

"My dad said, 'I think you're going to Coastal,'" Kelly said. "It just felt right. And I think it's funny how life works sometime. Who knew I'd ever be an actor?"

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