The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Matthew Macfadyen (“Ripper Street”)

Although BBC America received considerable acclaim from their original series, “Copper,” a period piece about New York City police officers circa the 1860s, it should come as no surprise that their stock and trade still tends to be series set in the UK. Don’t worry, though: they’re still sticking with the whole period-piece thing for their latest endeavor, “Ripper Street,” which is set in Whitechapel, in London’s East End, n 1889, a mere six months after the infamous Jack the Ripper murders. The series stars Matthew Macfadyen, a familiar face to Angophiles for his work in numerous TV and film appearances, and Bullz-Eye had a chance to chat with him just before the “Ripper Street” panel at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour, where we asked him about his new gig, several of his old ones, and how he got into acting in the first place.

Bullz-Eye: You, sir, are no stranger to period pieces.

Matthew Macfadyen: I’ve done a few, yeah. [Laughs.]

BE: What was it about “Ripper Street” that stood out for you in particular? Certainly it’s a bit darker than some of your past fare.

MM: Yeah, I thought it was dark. But I just thought the writing was brilliant. I really did. I didn’t expect to…I wasn’t planning on doing another series, but then it came along and I couldn’t stop reading it, which is sort of the acid test for me. So that was it, really.

BE: When you took the role, how much of Det. Sgt. Edmund Reid was on the page, and how much were you able to bring to the part?

MM: It was all on the page. I mean, it’s there. It’s so beautifully sketched out, and there’s so much going on underneath him. He’s got this terrible thing with his family, his daughter, so…there’s a lot. It’s interesting. And I think the writer, Richard (Warlow), doesn’t immediately build the characters, but you know there’s a back story, and it sort of comes out in dribbles. It evolves.

BE: It’s interesting when you actually watch the series because, if you only saw the title, as many people will do, your instinct is to say, “Oh, no, it’s another Jack the Ripper story…”

MM: Yeah. “It’s another one.” That’s what I did, actually. [Laughs.]

BE: How surprised were you when you discovered that, in fact, it wasn’t really about Jack the Ripper, per se?

MM: Yeah, I think that, apart from anything else, it works really well as a dramatic device, because it just confuses everything with a terrible kind of dread, so every murder that happens, you think, “It’s him!” And, after all, he’s still out there. So it’s just in the atmosphere. It’s in the air.

BE: As far as the clothing, is there anything particularly unique about your attire that stands out as more comfortable or less comfortable than past period pieces?

MM: No, it’s quite nice. It’s quite nice wearing a suit. The starched collar is a bit tiresome after awhile. But, no, it’s great. My hat…I’m particularly fond of my hat. Especially fond of it. [Laughs.]  I went to a stop called Locke’s in London and bought it for the part. And they let me keep it!

BE: You said you hadn’t necessarily been planning on doing television again…

MM: Well, series TV, anyway.

BE: Series TV. I stand corrected. But prior to this, you’d certainly done your fair share, with the most high-profile in the States probably being “MI-5” (known as “Spooks” in the UK). Did you enjoy the challenges of doing a spy drama?

MM: Oh, it was great. Fantastic, really. I loved it. It was really, really good. But a long time ago. God, that was, what, eight, nine, ten years ago? Wow…

BE: As noted, you started in theater, but what led to you catch the acting bug in the first place? Do you come from an acting family?

MM: Not really. My mother trained as a drama teacher, and my grandfather was an engineer, but he directed amateur plays and loved it. That was his hobby. His passion, if you will. But I did plays at school and I loved it. And then I managed to get into drama school, and that was that.

BE: Was there a particular moment when you decided, “I’m going to make this a career,” rather than just treating it as a hobby?

MM: No, it was a slow burn, kind of, “This is going to be impossible,” then, “Can I do it?” But that was what I wanted to do. I didn’t really seriously consider anything else. I thought if I didn’t get into drama school the first time, then I’d wait and try again the next year. Because I was still very young when I went.

BE: I’ve asked some this people and been told, “I hate to say that I’ve made it even now, because I don’t want to jinx myself,” but was there a moment when you realized definitively, “Well, I’ve done it: I’m a full-time actor”?

MM: No, there was never any kind of “eureka!” moment. When I left drama school, I did three world tours with the theater, so I was just sort of…doing it. It’s lovely, and I love it. I don’t know what else I’d do. I mean, I really don’t know what else I’d do! [Laughs.] I don’t have any other strings for my bow! Thankfully, I’m doing okay…

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BE: How was it for you to transition from theater into television, as far as the projects that weren’t literary adaptations?

MM: Oh, it was fine. Yeah, the first TV I did, I didn’t know what was going on, because we didn’t really have much TV training at drama school, really. So everybody…I mean, now it’s changed and they do, but you sort of learned on the job. My first job, actually, was a “Wuthering Heights” adaptation for BBC, and I sort of had to come through a gate. My first-ever scene, I had to come through this gate and sort of walk up, grunt at somebody, and…that was it. And they said, “Check the gate!” But, you know, what they meant was when they check the film in the camera. But for weeks and weeks I couldn’t pluck up the courage what on earth they meant, because I thought they meant the actual wooden gate! [Laughs.] So, yeah, that was terrible. But then you sort of get used to it.

BE: Is there still the mindset as far as TV being a step down from the theater, or does it not exist as much nowadays?

MM: Nah, I don’t think… [Hesitates.] Well, I don’t buy into it, anyway. What’s lovely about being an actor – for me, anyway – is to be able to segueway into TV and film and theater and…do everything, really. I mean, I don’t understand people who feel snobbish about…you can feel snobbish about the quality of the writing or what you’re doing, but not the medium.

BE: Many actors will say that they do films so that they can afford to do theater.

MM: Well, yes, there is that. [Laughs.] Yeah, you sort of accumulate children and mortgages and things like that, and you think, “Can I afford to do a play? No.” It’s sad, but…yeah. But it’s wonderful when you can.

BE: Is there any elder statesman of acting, as it were, who you learned a great deal from?

MM: Um…well, you know, you kind of absorb stuff without knowing it from lots of actors. And I’ve worked with some lovely actors. Michael Gambon, I loved working with him. I’ve worked with him a few times.

BE: Do any specific lessons leap to mind?

MM: No, it was really just a case of generally absorbing. If there were specific lessons, they’d be difficult to pinpoint. Generally I just learned how to conduct myself.

BE: As far as some of your other past projects, I’m curious how you came to appear in “Grindhouse.”

MM: Oh, that. [Laughs.] I haven’t seen the film, actually. But it was just a one-off. My agent rang and said…well, it was just to help out and do the trailer (for “Don’t”).

BE: Had you been a Quentin Tarantino / Robert Rodriguez fan?

MM: Oh, well, that was actually neither of them who directed that. It was Edgar Wright of “Shaun of the Dead.” He was asked to do it, so a bunch of us came and did it, so that’s how that happened.

BE: You also appeared in a “Mr. Bean” short.

MM: Yeah, for Comic Relief.

BE: Was that a similar case to “Grindhouse”?

MM: Yeah, they just rang me, and I went down to do it. It was great.

BE: How was Rowan Atkinson to work with? He has a reputation for being one of the most serious comedians you’ll ever meet.

MM: Oh, he was lovely. Serious, yes, but a very nice man, indeed.

BE: To touch on another of those earlier period pieces, how was the experience of working on “Pillars of the Earth”?

MM: I liked that a lot, actually, because it was nice people on it. Nice actors. We had a hoot. Drank too much. And we were hungry for…well, for what felt like three years. We went right through the seasons, went from boiling hot to freezing cold. But it was really good. Good fun. The worst thing was my haircut. I just had this idiot’s haircut. [Laughs.] Nothing sexy about that, I can tell you.

BE: Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?

MM: That’s a good question. Let me think. [Long pause.] I did a film in New Zealand which I loved called “In My Father’s Den,” but it wasn’t…I mean, no, there’s nothing where I’ve thought, “Oh, that shouldn’t done better.” Nothing I’ve felt undone by.

BE: No, I was just thinking more along the lines of something you wish more eyes had seen.

MM: [Another long pause.] No, there isn’t, really. And there’s very few jobs I look back and think, “Could’ve done without that one.” [Laughs.] It’s a funny business being an actor, ‘cause you really have no plan, y’know? You can kind of decide not to do certain things, and I worry…well, I don’t worry, but I don’t want to do the same kind of part again and again…partly because it’s boring!

BE: You’ve done a pretty solid job of mixing it up. I mean, you’ve obviously done a fair amount of literary adaptations, as I kind of hinted at earlier, but…

MM: Yeah. But even that wasn’t by design. It just kind of fell out that way. I think I might like do a car-chase movie once in awhile. [Laughs.] Something without any boots or britches or swords.

BE: Very early on, you did a modern-day romantic comedy: “Maybe Baby.”

MM: Yes! With dyed blond hair. [Laughs.] The terrible thing was that I thought I was really good in that. I remember going to the screen and thinking…I just sort of felt this rising horror.

BE: “My God. I’ve misjudged my performance terribly.”

MM: [Bursts out laughing.] Yeah, yeah! I thought I was really good. The hubris of the young actor…

BE: How was Hugh Laurie to work with?

MM: Oh, yeah, he was lovely. He was great. He’s hilarious, Hugh. He’s, uh, quite withering as well. He can be kind of scary. And then he played an MI-6 agent in “MI-5” called Jools Siviter. He had a bullwhip. He was very funny. He would hide top-secret documents down his pants. [Laughs.] He was great.

BE: Speaking of modern-day comedies, you were also in “Death at a Funeral.”

MM: Yes. And it was bliss. [Laughs.] I know it’s not everyone’s favorite film, but, God, it was so fun to do. And so funny to read. It was just lovely. Great fun. I haven’t seen the Neil LaBute version.

BE: It’s not bad. For what it is.

MM: [Laughs.] High praise.

BE: Do you have a preference of comedy versus drama?

MM: I enjoy mixing it up. I love doing both. Comedy’s great for kind of blowing the cobwebs away. It makes you feel a bit looser.

BE: After the darkness of “Ripper Street,” maybe you should seek out a slapstick comedy as your next project, if only to lighten things up a bit.

MM: Yes. I think that might be in order, because if it goes again for another season, it’ll be another six months of doom, gloom, and bodies on autopsy-room tables. After that, I think I could do with a laugh. [Laughs.]