Rufus Sewell

Rufus Sewell stars in "Zen: Vendetta," premiering on "Masterpiece Mystery!" Sunday on PBS (check local listings).

Say "Zen," and you may think of rocks, raked sand and temple bells. But if you tune into the first of three "Zen" episodes on Sunday, July 17, on PBS' "Masterpiece Mystery!" it's more like wine, pasta and death knells.

Shot in and around Rome (where the story is set) and based on the popular series of mystery novels by the late British-born author Michael Dibdin, "Zen" stars British actor Rufus Sewell ("The Pillars of the Earth," "Middlemarch") as contemporary Italian detective Aurelio Zen.

Set against the backdrop of the casual chaos that is Italian politics, the first episode, "Vendetta," finds Zen ordered by his boss to confirm the original findings in a closed case, while a justice official with ulterior motives commands him to reach a different conclusion.

Meanwhile, the divorced Zen is the target of a vengeful psychopathic killer and deals with his feelings for a married co-worker (Caterina Murino).

Known for historical roles of one sort or another, Sewell found playing a modern European a nice change of pace.

"Normally," he says, "all I'm required to do is sit on a horse and look annoyed, so it's more than usual." While Zen does wear nice suits and drive an Alfa Romeo -- and lives with his mother -- Sewell didn't want him to be a "mammoni," one of a growing trend of single Italian men who live with their mothers while enjoying a posh bachelor life.

"The Alfa Romeo is not a sports car," Sewell says. "It's a little hatchback. It was very important that he didn't have something like … a midlife-crisis kind of car.

"It was really, really important to me that he wasn't a man in a Porsche at a stoplight. That's not who I'm playing. I was very involved in the choice of the car. It's an Alfa Romeo, with a bash in the side, paper cups, little bit of a mess. He's had it for a while. He's not someone with a flash car. That's very important.

"If you're going to get out of the car wearing a suit, that's already something. To undercut that, you've got to have a slightly bashed hatchback car and not a Porsche. If I was watching, (the Porsche) would be the moment where I go, 'Oh, f... off,' and change the channel."

Sewell also doesn't try to affect an Italian accent, although the Italian cast members do speak English with their own accent.

As to whether he was a part of that decision, Sewell says, "Of course. That's the first thing I mentioned when I brought it up with Andy Harries (chief executive of production company Left Bank Pictures).

"I met him, said two things, 'Can it be funny?' and 'What the hell are we going to do about the accents?' Because we cannot" -- Sewell switches into a bad Italian accent -- "speak-a like-a this-a. It's just ridiculous.

"So the decision was made then and there. That's what I said, 'We're all going to speak as we speak.' I think it works, personally."

Zen does get to run and gun a bit, but he's no John McClane from "Die Hard."

"If he ends up doing a stunt," Sewell says, "it's only because he falls. He'll do something, but it will hurt. I was very keen on keeping him not too cool for school. He's always described in the scripts as wearing sunglasses, but I could only really countenance wearing them for the first second of a scene.

"As soon as I'm talking with someone with shades on, I just dismiss them as a jerk, or think they just want to protect something about themselves."

After all, when Sewell first looked at the script -- and in spite of the character's surname -- he didn't really think of Zen as being cool.

"The real pleasure of it for me," he says, "is the fact that he's always in a bad situation. He's always one step behind. He's not, for me, a winner.

"In the end, he's not a bad guy. But the idea of him as some kind of crusading moralist is to misunderstand him. He's perfectly capable of being slippery and underhanded, on his own terms. That's what makes him, as far as I'm concerned, human."

After a career in which he was more likely to wield a sword than a pistol, Sewell was happy to be armed, even if, in the first hour, Zen puts his own mother in temporary peril.

"I've been starved of a gun in my career," he says. "It's a thrill -- not to almost shoot my mother -- but to have a gunfight, and to have a holster after all this time. It was quite exciting.

"There was not as much as I'd have liked, not a lot of gunplay, but who knows? There could be a future turn."