Eric Mabius

Eric Mabius stars in "Outcasts," premiering Saturday on BBC America.

For most American viewers, Eric Mabius is best known as Daniel Meade, the feckless magazine publisher he played for four years on ABC's "Ugly Betty." The actor is literally a world away from the fictional offices of Mode magazine, however, in "Outcasts," a powerful new sci-fi series premiering Saturday, June 18, on BBC America.

Set in the near future on a distant planet a courageous band of humans is trying to colonize, the series from Ben Richards ("MI-5") foresees a grim future for Earth, which, as the story opens, has become virtually uninhabitable due to pollution, climate change, critical shortages of food and water, and nuclear war.

In a move to ensure a future for humanity, Earth's best and the brightest have been dispatched to the planet Carpathia, which is blessed with Earth-like atmosphere and living conditions. Tragically, not that many of the pioneers make it in one piece to the planet's surface, where President Richard Tate (Liam Cunningham) and his core team are trying to lay the foundation for a new civilization in Forthaven, their home base.

Building a new civilization, however, is a complicated proposition, and Tate soon finds his own philosophies challenged at every turn by the arrival of Julius Berger (Mabius), a slippery character who was one of the people placed in charge of selecting who would be given seats on the limited number of rocket transports to Carpathia.

The only American in the otherwise all-British cast, Mabius signed up for the role within days of filming the finale of "Ugly Betty," an occasion that left him sad and depressed.

"I thought, 'What better way to slough off the past few years than by taking on a character such as this in such a vastly different environment?' " Mabius explains. "What most appealed to me about this character is that villains are rarely villains in their own mind, and that couldn't be more the case than it is with Julius. He's trying to be all things to all people at different times, but he definitely is unyielding in his search to get things right, as it were.

"We pick up the story as the last shuttle in the past five years has arrived, and he has some very definite ideas about how things should have gone on when they took on Carpathia, but as the season goes on there is such weight and momentum that picks up that by the final episode it is absolutely electric. It's very clear that he isn't the nicest guy in the world, but the stakes couldn't be bigger. This is for all intents and purposes humanity's last stand."

As with many big-scale dramas, the first episode, which features powerful work from cast member Jamie Bamber ("Battlestar Galactica"), throws a lot of characters and exposition at the viewer, even as the pacing seems a little bumpy, but Mabius is confident that audience members who stick with it will soon find themselves hooked.

"Some people complained that this show was a little slow to get off the ground, but that's only because there is this gravitas that builds, and by the time you get partway through the series, the scope of what Julius is undertaking only then becomes apparent," Mabius says. "It's like being sucked into quicksand. You're stuck before you realize, and then you are completely enveloped."

The actor says he loves playing characters who are hard to nail down, simply because that's how most people are in real life.

"They are (fun to explore), because as audiences mature over time, we don't still have a classic hero/anti-hero setup, because I think the cultural identity is changing," he says. "I don't think we know anyone who is all good or all bad, and if they seem to be, they are just hiding the other side of themselves. That's what I find so appealing about Julius and some of the other characters I play. Even when I was playing Daniel, I would get so much perspective from people's comments. They would come up to me and say, 'You're my favorite character on "Ugly Betty," ' or 'You're that jerk on "Ugly Betty." ' It all depended on how they perceived that character."

Like his "Outcasts" character, Mabius found himself in a strikingly different world while filming this series in South Africa.

"I didn't know what to expect at all and in the end I had one of the most wonderful trips of my life," he says. "I brought my wife and my two young boys. We made quite a few friends. We lived in an enchanted part of the western Cape. We shot South Africa for this brave new world, and we had every landscape necessary at our disposal. I've never seen such disparity -- sand dunes one second and then the most lush fields and mountains and ocean and rock formations that look completely otherworldly. It was fantastic in every respect.

"It was nice to be the only American around for a change. The end of 'Ugly Betty' was upsetting in many ways to all of us, so starting afresh on what was a little bit of my own new frontier was great. I missed my 'Betty' family incredibly, but going to such a beautiful country really helped me. It didn't hurt that it was during World Cup as well!"