Celeb Spotlight: Tyler Christopher

06/17/2005 at 06:00 AM EDT

Celeb Spotlight: Tyler Christopher
Jen Lowery/LFI
Age: 32
Hometown: Delaware, Ohio
Current gig: Playing conflicted half-white, half-Native American Jacob Wheeler Jr. in the miniseries Into the West

Before the TNT hit Into the West, Tyler Christopher was probably best known as Eva Longoria's ex-husband. The actor, 32, and the Desperate Housewives star were married for two years before divorcing in 2004. "I'll just say it wasn't amicable," he says.

But the Steven Spielberg-produced miniseries, about settlers and Native Americans in the 1800s, has put the spotlight back on his craft. Christopher, who also appears on General Hospital, plays Jacob Wheeler Jr., the son of a white man and a Lakota woman who becomes a scout and translator for Gen. George Custer. "It's one of those roles that, as an actor, you just sit and hope for," he says.

The role resonated on a personal level as well: Christopher is part Choctaw (on his mother's side) and Seneca (on his father's), and has been exploring his Native American roots for the past eight years. "I've been involved with this Kiowa family – a woman named Susan Seal really embraced me into the culture and taught me everything I know," he says. "I have since semi-submersed myself into the culture."

Growing up in Delaware, Ohio, Christopher was more focused on sports. The youngest of four kids to mom Jimi, a college secretary, and dad Jim, an engineer, he played baseball in high school and, after heading to Ohio Wesleyan University in 1991, competed on the varsity level. "I was certain I was going to do something in sports," he says, but by his sophomore year, "I had hit my peak and it wasn't enough" to go pro.

Instead he made his own move into the west, inspired by a cousin pursuing acting in L.A. "I'm very competitive," he says, and auditions "had that sort of challenge." Just 18 months after arriving in California, in 1996, he scored the role of Nikolas Cassadine on General Hospital. But after three years (and a Daytime Emmy nod), he left to pursue primetime projects, joining the cast of The Pretender in 2001 and guest-starring on Charmed and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

In 2003, he came back to GH. "Being on daytime TV has its benefits," he says. "You can still have a life and you know you have a check coming every week. That's what drew me back." Another benefit: Christopher has been dating his costar – and onscreen love interest – Natalia Livingston for seven months. "We take the work seriously, but not ourselves," he says.

And though Christopher, who's busy remodeling his four-bedroom home in Studio City, Calif., didn't get to meet Steven Spielberg during the course of filming Into the West, he's holding out hope. "He hasn't given me his home number yet," he says, then jokes: "I have his cell, though."

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