Like a Surgeon

updated 10/13/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/13/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Prepping for his role as a hotshot plastic surgeon on FX's Nip/Tuck, Julian McMahon watched the real thing. "I sat in on a butt implant, a breast implant, a nose job and a reconstructive ankle surgery," says the Australian-born actor, 35. Nonetheless, he still gets queasy at the sight of needles. When a recent bout of the flu left him so nauseated he couldn't leave his trailer on the set, a doctor arrived, pulled out a hypodermic and told him to drop trou. "I started hyperventilating," says McMahon. "I'm very squeamish."

Onscreen, at least, his bedside manner is cucumber cool. After a string of minor roles (a detective on Profiler, a demon on Charmed), McMahon has finally landed a starmaking part as Dr. Christian Troy, Nip/Tuck's ethically challenged playboy surgeon. The show, which debuted in July, is already basic cable's top-rated, thanks no doubt to liberal helpings of viscera (see box). But it's also impossible to turn away from McMahon's scalpel-sharp portrayal of Dr. Troy, a sort of one-man doctor without borders. In addition to criminal activity (such as larding a druglord's corpse with ham and feeding it to alligators), Troy sleeps around, often with patients. "It's kind of becoming a running gag," says McMahon, who speaks with just a hint of his Aussie accent. "How many people can I have sex with in one episode? There was one day I did four or five. It was like a turntable—'Next!'"

In reality, the actor's a bit of a goof, say colleagues. "He's very loud—a big joker," says Joely Richardson, who plays the wife of Dr. Sean McNamara, Troy's good-hearted but namby-pamby medical partner and longtime friend. According to series creator Ryan Murphy, "Julian is like a nerdy 12-year-old. He's always in his trailer playing video games. Julian's not a ladies' man at all."

Uh, really? McMahon is currently unattached, but for almost three years (1999-2002) he was married to former Baywatch babe Brooke Burns, with whom he shares custody of a daughter, Madison, 3. (The 25-year-old Burns, now host of NBC's Dog Eat Dog, has most recently been linked with Bruce Willis.) He later spent time dating his Charmed costar Shannen Doherty. ("I saw a photograph of her recently," he says, sounding strangely like a cosmetic surgeon, "and she looked fantastic.") And back in his native Australia, his 1994 marriage to actress-pop star Dannii Minogue (Kylie's kid sister), now 31, was a news event of near-Bennifer proportions.

In those days the Sydney native was best known as the son of Australian prime minister Sir William McMahon, who died of cancer in 1988 at age 80, and his wife, Lady Sonia. McMahon, who has two sisters still in Sydney, was 2 when he went to live in the Lodge, Australia's White House in the capital, Canberra, during his father's 20-month administration. In the years after, he didn't grow up to be much of a political asset to the old man. "I was a very rebellious, strong-willed, out-of-control kid," says McMahon. "I was like this friggin' whirlwind. I'm sure I put my parents through hell."

He really ruffled their feathers when he decided his looks were more suited to celebrity than college and dropped out of school to become a model. As he once told PEOPLE, "I made a lot of money and met a lot of chicks. I thought, 'This is the way to go.'" He branched into acting in Australian soaps and did well. Increasingly confident, he moved to the States when he was 22, only to find that "no one gave a damn who I was. And I had an accent—the grocery guy didn't even know what I was saying." While working to lose the accent with a vocal coach, he found a steady gig on yet another soap (Another World, from 1992 to '94). Now, a full decade later, starring in a buzzmaking hit, he has the family's full endorsement. "My mother," he says, "loves the show."

Even with Nip/Tuck renewed for another season, McMahon isn't living large—or too large. "Maybe because he had such a privileged childhood," says Ryan Murphy, "he doesn't want the caviar. He wants the hot dog." Actually, he wouldn't mind some good sushi, although he hasn't had much success preparing it in the kitchen of the three-bedroom L.A. home he shares with two German shepherd-black Lab mixes. "I'm passionate about food," he says. "Last year I bought all these cookbooks and did a different country every month for a few months." But the big reason for staying in is little Madison. "You just start making choices based on the fact that you want to be with your kid," he says. "I got an azalea that she planted about four months ago, and I make her water it every time she comes over. She's so proud of it."

Speaking of choices: Would he ever consider plastic surgery? "I'm an advocate of individuality," says McMahon, who says the 35-year-old face he presents to the world is still the original. "I don't care what size you are, what height, what color—I love individuality. It's what makes us extraordinary."

Still, "I would never say never to anything." Except maybe Botox—there's that needle thing.

Alexis Chiu and Frank Swertlow in Los Angeles

From Our Partners