In Copper, the new BBC America drama starting on Sunday, August 19 we follow Detective Kevin Corcoran, a rugged Irish immigrant cop, as he patrols the notorious New York Five Points neighborhood, standing up for justice in a neighborhood where it’s seldom seen. Cahir O'Doherty talks to the show’s Irish star Kevin Ryan about the hard-hitting new drama set in the 19th century.
Intrigue, political corruption, mystery and murder fill the screen in BBC America’s new big budget crime drama Copper, set in New York’s notorious Five Points slum where Irish immigrants were once forced to make a living in any way they could.
Into this explosive mix comes Detective Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones) and his close friend and adviser Detective Francis Maguire (Kevin Ryan), the man who knows the Irish criminal underworld like the back of his hand.
The show opens in the 1860s in the aftermath of the Civil War. It’s BBC America’s first scripted series to be produced here. To date the BBC have only green lighted and broadcast shows set in the U.K., so it’s a measure of the company’s faith in Copper that it has been given the go-ahead.
Early America, with all of its ethnic strife and daily battles for supremacy or foothold on the ladder to power, is a landscape ripe for drama, and Copper genuinely delivers with engaging plotlines and fine performances from the accomplished international cast.
To reflect the diversity of characters, the actors in the show all hail from a variety of ethnic backgrounds -- principal Weston-Jones is British, Ryan is Irish, and Franka Potente (best known for The Bourne Identity) is German.
Originally from Dublin, Ryan, 28, started filming Copper in Toronto at the end of January on massive purpose built sets that recreate the Five Points in all their gaudy glory.
Playing Detective Maguire is the biggest break of Ryan’s career to date and it allows him to do something onscreen he thought he never would -- talk in his own Irish accent.
“I was acting in a TV show in Ireland called Raw when one of the actors was auditioning for Copper,” Ryan tells the Irish Voice. He had never heard of the project, but soon enough he was in New York auditioning for one of the lead roles himself.
Ryan’s busy schedule left him with no time to rehearse the part, so he found himself going over his scene on the subway to the audition.
“I was dressed up like a cross between Lionel Ritchie meets Bono meets Captain Jack Sparrow,” he laughs. “I don’t know New York’s subway so they gave me someone to help me get to the audition quickly, and he turned out to be an African American guy. I asked him on this absolutely packed subway car if he could help read the scene with me and he said yes.
“Then I opened the script and the first line was, “Now look here, n---er.” The second scene was even worse. I was surrounded by people and I was suddenly saying, ‘I apologize. I did not write this!’”
Thankfully Ryan got to his audition without causing a riot. The scenes went well and he kept getting call backs until he finally met with show runner Tom Fontana in Los Angles. A day later he heard he had the part.
Playing Maguire is an ideal springboard to introduce Ryan to American audiences, as luck would have it.
“Copper is a strong representation of Ireland in that it covers the Famine, the Civil War and their history in the Five Points and the city. Being the only true Irish person in the show is very humbling,” he admits.
Ryan’s Detective Maguire was a boxer who lost the sight of his left eye in the ring.
“My character wasn’t allowed to fight in the Civil War. During a fight I suffer a dead eye. Later in the war, of course, they’re willing to take anyone they can.”
At first glance the Irish American police storyline may seem like an odd choice for the BBC, but its genius is that it plays to every one of the BBC’s strengths – accomplished acting, tight scripts, a deep familiarity with the immigrant experience and the toll on individuals caught up in larger historical forces. This is drama on a huge scale, and that’s something the BBC has a history of getting right.
“This show ultimately isn't about New York, it's about anyplace anybody lives,” Fontana (writer/producer of Oz, Homicide: Life on the Streets, St. Elsewhere) the show’s co-creator told the press recently. “What greater example of division was there than the Civil War?”
In an era before DNA evidence and all the other modern technologies were invented, cops had to rely on their knowledge of the underworld and on their own smarts to catch criminals. That makes Copper a major departure from all the other police procedurals vying for your attention on television at the moment.
Part of the fun of the new show is that you’re in there discovering the newly emerging New York City right alongside Corcoran and Maguire.
“My character isn’t racist as much as ignorant and that’s how I play it,” says Ryan. “It takes him a while to warm up to Detective Corcoran. Over time my guard goes down and I let him in.”
The sets for the show are phenomenal, Ryan enthuses. “I’m a history buff and I love period detail, and I was blown away by the scale of the sets on Copper. They have rebuilt the entire Five Points,” he says.
“You can walk into any store on one of our streets and just open a drawer and it will be filled with working props. Can you imagine that? When you have that level of detail you actually don’t have to use your imagination, it’s all there on the set.
“Over the course of time the streets even started to smell a bit thanks to all the horses now. It became closer to real life, and that just helps the show.”
Oscar winning director Barry Levinson has taken the reins, and the advance buzz on the show is off the charts. BBC America has been enjoying massive hits in the U.S. with cult dramas like Doctor Who and Sherlock, but this is the first time they have bankrolled a series on this scale and it’s proof they expect it to be a hit.
“For me the irony of all this is that I have spent the last three years in Hollywood working with world famous acting coaches to get my American accent down, and my first breakout role is playing an Irishman in my own voice. You can’t make this stuff up and I’m grateful for it!” says Ryan.
“I’m also glad to be working with a cast and crew this accomplished. I would say that the biggest thrill for me is watching an untold part of the Irish story come to life on the screen like this.”
Copper premieres on BBC America on Sunday, August 19, at 10 p.m.
Here's the trailer for 'Copper':