Durham Academy grad gets long-awaited break on CBS’ ‘Pure Genius’

Ward Horton as Dr. Scott Strauss of the CBS drama “Pure Genuis.” Horton, who grew up in Hillsborough, is a cast member of the new CBS medical drama that showcases the future of digital health. He graduated from Durham Academy in 1994.
Ward Horton as Dr. Scott Strauss of the CBS drama “Pure Genuis.” Horton, who grew up in Hillsborough, is a cast member of the new CBS medical drama that showcases the future of digital health. He graduated from Durham Academy in 1994. CBS

Ward Horton remembers sitting with his wife, Alexa, at the old Magnolia Grill in Durham to talk about his career.

It was a turning point. He wasn’t happy working in asset management and he missed his theater days at Durham Academy, where he was a student from third grade through his 1994 graduation.

Horton, who majored in business at Wake Forest University, knew his job was steady. But after 9/11, his feelings of discontent only amplified.

“Now is the time to pursue what you want to do,” his wife told him. The longer he waited, the more difficult it might be, they agreed.

So he started making moves to launch an acting career, years after he had said goodbye to the stage. After work in Chapel Hill, he would drive to play rehearsals in Raleigh. He eventually moved to the New York City area to find an acting coach and make student films. He acted in anything to build his resume, even if it was just a line or two in a TV show.

Horton, now 40, is finally seeing his efforts pay off. Two years ago, he starred in the horror film “Annabelle,” a spinoff of the successful “The Conjuring.” “Annabelle,” with its $6.5 million budget, grossed more than $256 million at the global box office. It also helped boost Horton’s profile.

This week comes his most steady and most potentially rewarding gig yet – a starring role on the new CBS medical drama, “Pure Genius,” which premieres at 10 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 27. He is part of an ensemble and plays Dr. Scott Strauss, who is described as an “intense neurologist with an Ivy League pedigree.” Horton says his character has some mystery behind him, which will be revealed as the series progresses.

“For the last 10 years, most of the time I’ve been an unemployed actor,” said Horton, who grew up in Hillsborough and whose family still lives in the Triangle. “This is the first job I’ve had that’s sustainable. That’s exciting to me.”

Farm to city

Horton was born in Morristown, N.J., and moved to Hillsborough when he was 8 years old and grew up on a family farm. While farming wasn’t his parents’ full-time job, his father had 100 head of cattle and his mother raised about 18 horses. Horton learned to ride, too.

He attended Durham Academy, which he describes as an “unbelievable” period that left him with lifelong friends. His school nights were divided between plays, basketball and baseball, and summers were for Duke basketball camp and Durham Arts Council plays. He rattles off a list of influential teachers and coaches, and says he’s still a diehard Duke fan.

When he got to Wake Forest, he immediately auditioned for a Neil Simon play. He didn’t expect to get the role, but he did. He was soon spending his freshmen year rehearsing six days a week and felt like he was missing out on a more typical first-year experience.

“This is my first time away from home,” he said. “Am I going to get the college experience? Am I going to be an actor the rest of my life? My practical side said, ‘No.’ 

That was his last play as he turned his focus to business. And then 9/11 happened, and the conversation with his wife.

Since then, he has had roles on primetime shows like “Law & Order” as well as the soap opera “One Life to Live.” He relished having a “fly on the wall” role in the Oscar-nominated “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the 2013 Martin Scorsese film starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

“I would sit between shots with DiCaprio, (Matthew) McConaughey, Scorsese and me,” he said. “Not saying a word, trying not to have them kick me out. You get to absorb all that.”

Horton and his wife live with their two children in Connecticut. He flies to Los Angeles to film “Pure Genius” and often spends his days off flying home. Family is his No. 1 priority, he said, but he’s grateful for what’s to come.

“It’s been a long, long process,” he said in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “Every year is better than the last. If I’ve grown, then I’m OK. Then I’m on the path.”

Cutting edge

“Pure Genius” definitely gives Horton a chance to grow, between learning the medical jargon to what it takes to launch a major network series.

The show shines a spotlight on the emerging field of medicine that uses innovative technology and procedures to help patients. It’s set at an unconventional hospital owned by a billionaire tech genius, played by Augustus Prew. Film star Dermot Mulroney plays an old-school surgeon recruited to work at the hospital and to ground the billionaire’s lofty visions for fixing everyone with technology.

The research is inspired by a digital health group at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in California. While the show’s special effects may give the appearance that the medicine is somewhere in the future, Horton says it’s happening now or will be soon.

“We’re pushing the limits a little bit,” he said. “People are talking about it.”

He said the ethical issues raised by the show sets it apart from other medical dramas. Plus, the show’s executive producer is Jason Katims, who was also behind “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood,” two critically acclaimed shows recognized for their well-drawn characters and ability to touch viewers’ emotions.

“He brings in serialized, developed storylines that keep people coming back,” said Horton, adding that Katims’ involvement was a major draw for him.

Horton and his fellow cast members, with whom he already has developed close bonds, were preparing to film the show’s ninth episode at the time of this interview. Horton is optimistic “Pure Genius” will connect with viewers. His experience so far reaffirms his commitment to doing interesting work with good people.

That’s what he learned early on in the Triangle. After he decided to give acting a go, he auditioned for a production with Theatre in the Park. While the role went to someone with more experience, Horton still remembers how theater founder Ira David Wood III took him aside and made him the understudy for the role.

“He gave me the encouragement that I could really do this,” he said. “I’ll never forget that.”

Jessica Banov: 919-460-2605, @JessicaBanov

When to watch

“Pure Genius” airs at 10 p.m. Thursdays on CBS.