PASADENA, Calif. — North Belle Vernon native Gino Anthony Pesi has been acting in Hollywood for 15 years, but tonight’s second-season premiere of NBC’s “Shades of Blue” (10 p.m., WPXI) marks his first time as a series regular on a prime-time show.

Not that he hasn’t kept busy since graduating from Charleroi High School in 1999. His credits at IMDB.com reveal a slew of guest star and recurring roles, including on “The Vampire Diaries” and TNT’s “Dallas” reboot. His film credits include “42” and “Battle: Los Angeles.”

Mr. Pesi made an impression on producers and “Shades of Blue” star Jennifer Lopez in the show’s first season when he was introduced as assistant district attorney James Nava, a love interest for Ms. Lopez’s compromised cop, Harlee Santos.

“He’s a fantastic actor,” Ms. Lopez said. “He came in the room [to audition for] another role and we thought he screamed for Nava, which we weren’t even auditioning for at the time.”

That switch in roles came as a surprise to Mr. Pesi.

“I didn’t see myself as a leading man or love interest of anyone,” he said during a January interview at the Television Critics Association winter press tour. “I was surprised and wondered, ‘What are they expecting, and am I going live up to that expectation?’”

Sports or acting?

Mr. Pesi said he’s wanted to act or play sports professionally since age 6. In his senior year of high school he quit baseball to do the school play, Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.” He spent three years at Point Park University studying performing arts before leaving school prior to graduation to move to Los Angeles.

It took about seven years working in the industry before his sole income was from acting, he said. “That’s pretty good, actually. I had a dream I’d move out here and start working in three months and that happens for some people, and then you have people who have been doing this for 20 years and then get their big break.”

He said he broke down in tears of happiness when he got his first movie role. Moving up to a series regular in season two of “Shades of Blue” fostered a different reaction.

“I finally felt like I could exhale,” he said. “The way I describe this industry is it’s like going the distance with a heavyweight boxer and getting the living [expletive] beat out of you and then at the end they offer you a massage and you’re just supposed to say, ‘Thank you.’ But I’m glad I didn’t have success when I was in the early 20s or maybe even mid-20s because you don’t know if you’d handle it the same way.”

When he’s not working, Mr. Pesi tries to come home to Western Pennsylvania, although he’s not a fan of air travel (he’s driven across the country 10 times). He likes to visit The Pretzel Shop on East Carson Street and drives up from the Mon Valley to go to the East Liberty Whole Foods. If it’s baseball season, he tries to take in a Pirates game at PNC Park, and he keeps up with other Pittsburgh sports teams — with one exception.

“Growing up I was a die-hard Steelers fan, but I haven’t watched a game in two years,” he said. “Remember when they hired Michael Vick? It got to a point where I was like, since when have we been that kind of franchise? … I don’t want to root for an organization if they’re gonna continue to put these types of individuals on the field.

“Do people deserve second chances? Sure, but I think I knew too much about the details of what he did and maybe I’m just too big of a dog lover. To be honest with you, after a while I didn’t miss watching the games.”

Season two of ‘Blue’

In season two of “Shades of Blue,” Mr. Pesi’s character might find his halo a bit sullied.

“Nava represents for Harlee that life that she could have if she could get out of the mess that she’s in and that she’s kind of created for herself,” Ms Lopez said. “He’s the dream, and he keeps coming back to help her. Instead of him kind of rescuing her, she somehow sucks him into her world unintentionally. He just gets caught up in the mess of what happens this season in a really bad way.”

That may not sit well with Mr. Pesi’s “biggest fan” — his mother, Regina Abel of Belle Vernon.

“She’s so proud of me it’s embarrassing sometimes,” he said. “I think she likes this role. It’s nice to see her son playing somebody who’s not a killer or the bad guy.

“It’s harder for me because I have to do less in this. Essentially, I have to just be. That is more challenging than when I’m caught up in a role where I can immerse myself in a totally conflicted character that’s full of intensity. … This is a more challenging role for me to play but for her, I’m sure she likes it.”

TV writer Rob Owen: [email protected] or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.