In BBC America’s Ripper Street, it’s 19th century London, six months after the last Jack the Ripper killing in the East End’s Whitechapel. Inspector Edmund Reid, head of H Division, is tasked with the unenviable job of investigating murders and crimes in a post-Ripper world.
Ripper Street snuck up on Matthew Macfadyen (Pride and Prejudice, MI-5, Anna Karenina), who takes the lead in the mystery drama as Reid, a detective he describes as “very free-thinking and forward-thinking,” “very muscular” in the way he speaks. “He was a very moral man. At the time, it was a different kind of morality,” he said.
After having a lull (“months and months of nothing, as often is the way with actors”), Macfadyen had a flurry of scripts come to him at the same time. “Ripper Street, I thought, was the best one I got,” he recalled to The Hollywood Reporter, admitting that he wasn’t actively searching for a TV role. “I just loved it and that was that.” (THR‘s chief TV critic Tim Goodman said “Ripper Street is riveting right from the start.”)
For Macfadyen, everything was on the page. The challenges in crafting a full performance were much simpler than research or immersing oneself into another era. “I tried generally not f—ing up,” he said with a laugh.
Research was not an integral part to Macfadyen slipping into the character of Reid, and it wasn’t because he thought he had the character down pat. In fact, he had a unique take on why. “No, not anymore than I know who I am,” Macfadyen said when asked if he knew Reid. “When you’re playing a character, you don’t need to know everything about them because I don’t know everything about myself. You just do what the character does and it’s all in the script.”
But Macfadyen did familiarize himself with the time period in which Ripper Street takes place. “I found myself gazing at photos of that time period and those guys and London,” Macfadyen said.
The most interesting thing to him about 19th century London was that “things were happening,” or at least it seemed that way. “Communications were on the brink of going [and there were] huge advances in communications and transport,” he said. “I imagine it must have been an exciting time to be around.”
Though Ripper Street is set in a different time, there is a modern undertone, which Macfadyen said was another reason why he was attracted to the project. “Apart from everything else, it’s a cop procedural, CSI: Whitechapel,” Macfadyen joked. “You’ve got this exciting, thriller-ish narrative in a Victorian London where you can’t jump in a car and type on a computer.”
Macfadyen also reminisced about reuniting with Pride and Prejudice‘s Joe Wright and Keira Knightley after eight years in Anna Karenina. “We rehearsed in the same room as we did for Pride and Prejudice,” he shared. “It was lovely — and I had this huge, f—ing mustache, like a walrus. It was completely different.”
Ripper Street premieres in the U.S. 9 p.m. Jan. 19 on BBC America.