Like many a British thespian, Matthew Macfadyen has reliably bounced back and forth between the big screen and television, whether wooing Elizabeth Bennett in “Pride & Prejudice” or battling international intrigue in “MI-5.”
Fresh off a well-received supporting turn as Oblonsky in Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina” this winter, Macfadyen is back on TV on Saturday (January 19) night fighting crime in Victorian England in BBC America’s “Ripper Street.”
During the Television Critics Association press tour this month, I sat down with MacFadyen to talk about his role as Detective Inspector Edmund Reid on “Ripper Street,” which was created by Richard Warlow and co-stars Jerome Flynn and Adam Rothenberg. We also talked a bit about Wright’s highly theatrical Tolstoy adaptation, as well as his creative process.
HitFix: I know you said on the panel that it was the script that attracted you, but what was the kernel that piqued your interest?
Matthew Macfadyen: It’s the whole thing, I think. I wasn’t a kernel. It was the writing, the character, the idea of doing a series sorta appealed and it took me by surprise, because it wasn’t my plan to do another series. I wasn’t looking for a series to do and it just sorta ticked a lot of boxes and it was… yeah.
HitFix: How much was it that you didn’t want to do a series and you were surprised to find one that appealed to you and how much was it just that you weren’t specifically looking to do another series?
Matthew Macfadyen: I just read it like this [he mimes flipping through the pages swiftly] and thought, “This is fabulous.” That’s the acid test, whether you want to read it and want to be in it.
HitFix: It seems like there are these rules that America actors often seem to stick to, like “I don’t want to do television, I want to do…” And British actors seem not to feel bound by that same restrictions. And that always seen a little odd.
Matthew Macfadyen: Yeah. I feel like an actor. I’m not a movie actor or a theater actor. I’d like to work in all three mediums.
HitFix: But when you have a pile of scripts, does your eye go to what medium an individual project is destined for?
Matthew Macfadyen: No. A little bit. You sorta factor it in. It’s a combination of practicalities and the script and also how much it’s going to stretch you or how different it is to the thing you’ve done most recently. Those kinds of things.
HitFix: So tell me about how the character here, about how Reid stretched you from the thing you did previously?
Matthew Macfadyen: Well, what was the last thing I did? I’d played this buffoon in a movie before that, so it was a very different kind of character. He’s quite a solid detective part. I just wanted to be part of the show.
HitFix: Is this a time period that you have an interest in? Or does that factor into your decision?
Matthew Macfadyen: Sure. Yeah. More and more I found it fascinating and I looked at a lot of… I spent hours looking at photographs before we started shooting and during the shoot, which I found endlessly fascinating. You’re sorta looking to see how different it is, because I know the streets, I know the area where we were shooting, so it’s fascinating life. They had these big pictures of London life in the period. So… ummm… Yeah. It’s all interesting stuff.
HitFix: Where were you doing this research?
Matthew Macfadyen: At home on my computer.
HitFix: Just Googling…
Matthew Macfadyen: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.
HitFix: How does that kind of research inform you when you’re actually putting together the character, what you can learn from looking at pictures?
Matthew Macfadyen: I don’t know. I don’t know how my performance would have been any different had I not looked at the photographs, but it’s just interesting. You can’t play “research.” You can kind of have ideas, but it was just sort of interesting and allows your imagination to work, I suppose.
HitFix: If you can’t play “research,” then how do you decide before each role how much you’re going to put into it?
Matthew Macfadyen: I do exactly what I fancy. There’s no rules. That’s it. So sometimes I do none and sometimes I do an awful lot, depending on whether I fancy doing it. Whether you think, “Oh goodie!” Unless you have to do something like learn how to ride a tandem or a unicycle or something. Then you have to. You can’t kinda wing it. But otherwise?
HitFix: When you think back on your career, are there specific kinds of roles that you’ve been able to do without any research? Like for contemporary roles do you not need to do anything?
Matthew Macfadyen: I think it really does depend on each one. Some things, the script is so fabulous that you just think, “Well, it’s all there” and instantly your imagination is off and you know how to play that part and you kinda know instinctively how that person operates. And there are some parts where you think, “OK. I need to think a little bit more and investigate a little bit more.”
HitFix: In that case, how does the character here operate?
Matthew Macfadyen: I think he operates on the front foot, which I liked. I liked the idea that he wasn’t a seen-it-all, done-it-all cop. He’s interested and he’s intelligent. But he’s intelligent enough to know that he needs [Rothenberg’s] Jackson, for example, who really is brilliant. I think he’s fascinated by advances in technology and science and medicine. So we had this idea that in his time off, he would be in the British Museum listening to a lecture. He’s sorta interested and interesting and curious.
HitFix: On the panel, one of the things the creator said that I thought was very interesting was that this is a period piece in which all of the characters think that they’re modern and thing that they’re on the cutting edging. Is that always the case, do you think, with period pieces?
Matthew Macfadyen: But it couldn’t be otherwise.
HitFix: It ideally shouldn’t be otherwise.
Matthew Macfadyen: It oughtn’t to be otherwise.
HitFix: But you’ve done a lot of period pieces. Have you found yourself in anything where it seemed like they were less “modern” and more just “nostalgic” or mummified?
Matthew Macfadyen: Not really. No. Once you put the clothes on… No. Each age thinks they’re on the edge. It’s like, “Look at my carriage! Look at these boots! Look at my horse! Can I borrow your horse?”
HitFix: But that seems like good writing as much as anything. I’m sure in your time you’ve seen some bad writing. Or do you know well enough how to avoid that?
Matthew Macfadyen: You try to avoid those, yeah. Unless you’re about to default on your mortage and your children are starving.
HitFix: And this guy also has a somewhat tragic backstory which, at least in the first couple episodes, isn’t explained.
Matthew Macfadyen: Yeah. He has horrible scarring and he and his wife have a difficult… they have problems.
HitFix: I assume you had to know the exact details of those things before starting to play the pilot, even if it’s not going to get explored immediately, right?
Matthew Macfadyen: Yeah. You know that there’s something on and Richard sorta sketched it out, even though those scripts hadn’t yet been written when we started shooting. He sketched out a backstory.
HitFix: Do you think you could have played the character without knowing the specifics, knowing only what we learn in the first episode or two?
Matthew Macfadyen: I guess so, but then it would be harder. It’s very difficult when you’re doing a kinda episodic series like this, because you have to kinda defer to the writers and the producers because you don’t know what’s going on and that’s part of the fun of it. There’s moments in the shoot where the actors are very quiet in their trailers looking at the new scripts, which are hot off the press and you’re going, “F***! Oh God, I’ve got a bed scene with her! Or him…” or “I die? They’re killing me off?” That’s the fun of it. It’s great.
HitFix: On American TV, where they’re often doing 13 or 22 episodes, you often here of circumstances where the actors don’t know the answers to the questions…
Matthew Macfadyen: Yeah, that’s different.
HitFix: Could you work in that way? Would you want to?
Matthew Macfadyen: Yeah, because when you’re playing a scene, just you’re just playing the moment. You’re drinking the coffee and you’re not playing “My Dead Aunt.” You can’t. You’re just doing very simple things and there’s a collection of stuff.
HitFix: But when your character has a deep trauma or sadness like Reid has, how do you decide which beats you play that trauma or that sadness?
Matthew Macfadyen: Then you’re told and then you know. The director says, “You’ve got to put this across, because this is…” It’s very kind of nuts and bolts. Acting is very simple, which is why it’s hard sometimes.
HitFix: On the panel, you talked about the importance of your hat. Tell me about the hat.
Matthew Macfadyen: My hat! My hat is a bowler hat and the correct name for a bowler hat is a “cook,” spelled “coke,” C-O-K-E, apparently. I didn’t know that, but that was part of my research. There’s a fabulous shop in London called Lock’s, which is ancient, from the 1700s or something like that, and they’re hatmakers and I went in and I bought this hat. Before I started rehearsing… I don’t know. I just thought he wore a bowler hat and then those hats went out to the Wild West as well and also to Peru. So yeah. I got very attached to my hat. I think I kinda got nostalgic for the days when — the ’50s or the ’60s — when men wore hats all the time, Hamburgs and whatnot.
HitFix: And what does the hat do to get you into the character?
Matthew Macfadyen: I don’t know. It just gives an extra… You’ve kinda got this brim and there’s some quite kinda powerful about it.
HitFix: How frequently do you find that that happens to you, that a piece of costume or anything external helps you lock into a character.
Matthew Macfadyen: Often. And it’s lovely when you find the right pair of shoes and they feel good. And also you feel relaxed, because you feel like the person and you stop worrying about it…
HitFix: Is that any more or less important in a period production than in something contemporary?
Matthew Macfadyen: It’s more in a period production because it’s unfamiliar to you, initially. After a while, it becomes… I got very good at putting on starched collars and tie-pins and things like that.
HitFix: But none of these fashion adaptations actually filter their way into your day-to-day?
Matthew Macfadyen: They haven’t yet, no. They might do, but not.
HitFix: What about something like “Anna Karenina” with the mustache? How much was that something you could build a character around?
Matthew Macfadyen: That was 99 percent of my character was the mustache.
HitFix: Did you plan that that was going to be the case?
Matthew Macfadyen: Joe and I were talking. He said, “Will you grow a big beard?” And I said, “Yeah. Gladly.” So I had this big beard and then we thought maybe we’d make it into a mustache or maybe keep it as a beard and I didn’t know. And then on the day of shooting, I just went [he makes a shaving sound] and I was left with this enormous…
HitFix: If you put in the commitment to growing a giant beard, how did you know that shaving it down was the right thing to do?
Matthew Macfadyen: Yeah, well you just take a risk. It’s a risky business. But I think it was right. And they made my hair very curly. We decided he was very full of testosterone.
HitFix: That just seems like it was such a fun role to play…
Matthew Macfadyen: Yeah. Lovely. Lovely. Great fun.
HitFix: With Joe’s approach, that production ended up being such a unique and peculiar approach to the book. How immediately were you convinced that what Joe had in his head would work?
Matthew Macfadyen: I didn’t really need convincing. He explained it and I bought it and thought, “Fabulous, let’s do it.”
HitFix: It just seems like the kind of thing where hearing about it is one thing, but there’d be a moment on set where you’d realize it was working or coming together.
Matthew Macfadyen: As an actor, it’s not my responsibility to think, “Well, OK. Is this conceit working?” You’re doing your best, but it felt pretty good to me. We had sets and it was lovely. It was very exciting and you’re kind of thinking, “Well, whether it works or it doesn’t, why not?” It’s such a great, thrilling movie.
HitFix: What did the environment and the operating within and around the stage feel like to you as an actor?
Matthew Macfadyen: It felt terrifically liberating. It was in a theater and I come from a theatrical background, I suppose, so it was great. It felt very collaborative. We had scores of dancers and we were moving the furniture and it was fantastic.
HitFix: Did it feel more like theater than a movie? Or was it a third, totally different thing?
Matthew Macfadyen: It felt like a lovely combination of the two. It was kinda of nice. Yeah. It’s great. Good fun.
HitFix: Was there anything that was able to simulate the energy you get in theater from having an audience?
Matthew Macfadyen: Absolutely, because there were very big set pieces. One particular shot with me and Domhnall [Gleeson], we came down from my office, which was in the dress circle and then we came down and the camera whirled around three or four times and Domhnall went out into the foyer and then back and then they built a set and we changed all in one take. It was exciting, because the adrenaline was pumping, because it was a big deal to reset. It’s exciting.
HitFix: Does it spoil you when you work with somebody with Joe’s unique and intellectual vision?
Matthew Macfadyen: I think he just couldn’t face doing another conventional telling of a period drama… I don’t know. He was on location scouts and seeing some of the same places he’d shot in before… with Keira. So he was sorta thinking, “Oh f***.” So it felt very creative and fresh and exciting. He’s doing a couple of plays this year. He hasn’t done that before.
HitFix: Are you going to get to act in one?
Matthew Macfadyen: No, I’m not working with him in the theater, but he hasn’t directed a play before and he’s doing a play at the Donmar Warehouse in London and so… great.
HitFix: I know that in conversations with Joe, he has a very intellectual approach. Does he have that same kind of approach with actors?
Matthew Macfadyen: No, he’s not cerebral. He’s lovely. He’s got a lovely way of communicating with actors and makes you feel safe and feel very… He’s great. It was very nice coming back and working with him again after seven or eight years and doing such a polar opposite character.
HitFix: I don’t know where “Ripper Street” is headed in the first season. Is it going somewhere where a second season would be a viable possibility?
Matthew Macfadyen: I think so. Everyone wants to make it. I think it depends on the viewing figures and all of that sort of stuff. The second episode airs tomorrow night in the UK, so the producers are walking around looking panicky and hoping.
HitFix: And is this a character you can see yourself wanting to do, long-term?
Matthew Macfadyen: I’d love to, because it was very enjoyable to do and when a series is not enjoyable to do, it’s f***ing hell, because you’re stuck. You can’t get out. So you try and disentangle yourself. I would imagine. I’ve been lucky enough not to be in that situation. But I would imagine if you’re stuck in a series that you can’t get out of, it’s tricky. But this one lovely and Adam and Jerome and I… Even though it’s very hard working with people who are drunk all the time… We get on very well. [Do I need to clarify that he’s joking?]
HitFix: Why are they they the only ones who are drunk all the time?
Matthew Macfadyen: Well, this is it… Because I’m a professional and they’re f***ing amateurs! [Laughs loudly.] No, they’re lovely. They’re lovely.
HitFix: OK. You said that you often choose the next role based on whatever you’d just done before. So what does this set you up to look for to do next?
Matthew Macfadyen: I get frustrated with myself, because I wish I knew… I get asked, “What kind of parts do you want play now?” and I kinda need someone to go, “How about this?” But the next thing I’m doing is a comedy. I go to Georgia, ex-USSR Georgia. My wife went, “Oh, Georgia! Atlanta? Oh…” It’s a comedy about filmmaking and it’s good fun.
HitFix: TV? Movie?
Matthew Macfadyen: It’s a movie, an independent kinda movie. The director and writer is a guy called Ben Hopkins, who co-wrote it with Pawel Pawlikowski and… yeah. It’s very funny. I hope it’s funny. Good script. It’s funny on the page and that’s all you can go and just hope.
“Ripper Street” premieres on Saturday, January 19 at 9 p.m. on BBC America.