By Curt Wagner, @ShowPatrol
6:53 PM CST, March 2, 2013
When Adam Rothenberg signed on to star in BBC America's hit crime drama "Ripper Street," he wasn't expecting to feel quite so special on set in Ireland.
"I was for once exotic, yeah," he said, laughing. "I never really thought of myself as having an accent and being different."
Set in London's rough East End in 1890, "Ripper Street" tells the story of H Division, the police precinct charged with keeping order in the aftermath of Jack the Ripper's reign of terror. Rothenberg plays American Homer Jackson, an ex-Army surgeon and ex-Pinkerton detective recruited by Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen) to help the police, including Reid's right-hand man, Sgt. Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn), to solve crimes. (Read my review here.)
Just as Jackson's the only American working with H Division, Rothenberg was the only American on set during filming.
"I don't want to say [it was] totally life imitating art because I'm not nearly as interesting as Homer," he told me during a phone call from Gramercy, N.Y., where he lives. "But, yeah, there was a lot of that ... and that really helped in the flavor of the show. I actually kind of learned what being an American was all about by being surrounded by people who weren't. And, of course, that's part of what the show explores."
How Jackson, the consummate outsider, fits in with his new British "friends" has been one of the series more interesting aspects. Reid asked, then cajoled and then threatened him to remain at the inspector's beck and call to perform autopsies and use the burgeoning science of forensics to help solve cases. A fan of any vice you can imagine, Jackson's also gambled, gotten drunk (many times), been beaten up and clashed with the more straight-laced Drake, as well as Long Susan Hart (Myanna Buring), with whom he shares a dark secret.
An incident in their past led Jackson and Long Susan to hide out in the Whitechapel neighborhood, where she runs a brothel in which he lives. That past came back to haunt them in the latest episode, "A Man of My Company." The couple--who turn out to be married--overcame the threat, but Jackson isn't out of the woods yet. In the Season 1 finale, called "What Use Our Work" and airing at 8 p.m. CT March 9, he's suspected of being Jack the Ripper and put under arrest. (Watch the trailer below.)
Jackson may have had a rough time of it this season, but that's exactly the stuff of a great role, said Rothenberg, who hopefully will be back next season now that the show has been renewed.
"It's like a dream part. Early forensics, gun-slinging, card-counting, whoring, you know?" he said. "It's got everything kind of rolled into one."
Rothenberg talked more about the role, how working in period costumes with facial hair and speaking creator Richard Warlow's dialogue helped create the character. He also talks about some of his pre-acting jobs.
Tell me how it feels to be the guy developing modern forensics.
[Laughs.] I can't pretend to have anywhere near the amount of brains that Homer Jackson has. But no, it's cool. ... I got really, really lucky.
If you had to pick actors of a certain age between 25 and probably 45 and have them just write a ridiculous list of qualities for the kind of role they'd want to play I think Homer Jackson pretty much wraps it up. I love the fact that he's an incredibly capable person with seemingly no ambition in life.
His qualities are great but they're even made more kind of poignant and more viable in contrast to the other two guys, which I think is one of the great things about the show. It's really a triad of characters, and I think so much of the drama and the interest of the show is actually watching those three almost archetypes aiding one another and rubbing up against one another.
I love the dynamic between the three and I was wondering if you could sort of describe how that developed. Was it just in the script and it just worked out?
Yeah, it was how it was written but for some reason the stars were aligned. I do think "chemistry" is such an overused cliche, especially in movies and TV and all that. But, yeah, the chemistry was there. I think that that chemistry just had to do with a lot of respect, a lot love. It was a real feeling of fraternity on the set and I think that that really helps. And it especially helps scenes and events in the story where the characters are in conflict, because it's very hard to sort of throw yourself into conflict as an actor with people or other actors that you're very uncomfortable with. So we were able to sort of kind of go anywhere we wanted knowing that it was all done with a feeling of support and excitement and respect for each other. So I think it's both. I think it was definitely inherent in the script but then there was just a really nice happenstance--we all happened to get along so well and complement one another.
Homer's the only American at H Division, just as you were when filming in Ireland.
Homer fits the story because he doesn't fit in. I think that he can be a nice kind of surrogate for an American audience looking at the sort of crazy and sort of rough-shot world of Whitechapel. Also you get a feeling of what the sort of romance and the sort of allure was of America back in the early days with Homer. He obviously represents so much of that ethnic, iconic American--I don't know how to say it--just the sort of newness and the sort of disregard for a lot of the way things used to be. The way they used to behave, you see him sort of rubbing up against that.
At times he just wants to have a good time and party. He seems a little bit indifferent about "helping." But he cannot refuse Reid. Does he deep down feel like he should do some good, or does he love the science so much, or is he just bored?
I think there are a lot of things at work. A, I think that Homer is secretly a pretty moral guy. But I think that he's very much in conflict with himself; I think he resents very much an idea of doing things that "should" be done. So I think that there's gotta be something making him secretly thankful to have someone strong arm him into doing the right thing.
But also I think that Reid is kind of almost like an artist without a patron. I think he's a very much patroning Jackson's arts. Jackson's obviously highly fascinated and highly skilled; he's got so many things but what he doesn't have is focus. And I think that's what Reid gives him. Reid gives him focus. He sort of channels his energy because when left unchecked we see where all that energy goes, you know, the drinking, the ladies and stuff like that.
Reid becomes almost like a conscience or sort of a moral compass, I think, that Jackson doesn't have but he suspects he should. And it's nice because here you have this guy sort of in charge telling him the right thing to do and in a way he's able to kind of retain, I think, in his own mind his outsider status of being forced to do it.
How did he and Reid end up working together in the first place? Did you guys discuss that at all?
We sort of had this fantasy that Jackson was arrested and drunkenly starting diagnosing people in the holding cell. Jackson got Reid's attention. He probably started showing off and it bit him in the ass.
What is his and Long Susan's secret? I mean, will it be revealed this season?
I can't tell you that! He's there for a good reason. Obviously Long Susan is very much involved. By the end of the season, there will be no more questions about where he comes from.
I love this era and how the show highlights that this time period was such an era kind of discovery and these guys are fascinated by this stuff. Has that been fun to rediscover that wonder?
It is nice. I usually don't have much fascination with science and technology. It's a given now. But it's nice to see that those were the children of highly, highly spirited and creative minds. Back then something very fashionable and exciting and sexy to do would be to study geology, study birds, biology--all the artistic and intellectual rigors. All this energy was being poured into the sciences then because it was new and it was exciting. There was a sense of discovery and mystery to it. And that was really nice and very un-cynical, if that makes any sense.
It was nice to see that photography was beyond exciting. It was a thing of great beauty and magic. I love that scene outside [in the pilot] after the [motion camera] explodes and you have Reid in almost like a trance over this idea. And I think that's beautiful. That's one of the things the show does so brilliantly.
And the same thing with Jackson's forensics and I'm hoping it comes across that this was before procedurals, because there was nothing procedural about what they were doing. They were making it up as they went along and getting very, very excited at the prospect.
I sort of have a little bit of clothing envy because some of the clothes you wear are so cool. Are the costumes helpful?
Yeah, for me it was almost 80 percent of the battle. It changes your walk. It just completely changes your relationship with your body. And I think even back then what you wore was almost a complete definition of who you were. I was reading that they didn't even have dry cleaning so when you went to have a suit cleaned the cleaner or the tailor would literally have to take apart all the seams, wash it by hand and then sew it back up. So that wasn't something that was always done. So it was almost everything. And the facial hair was [laughs] that was like the cherry on the cake. The minute I grew that mustache in, I was done.
The cadence and the language is very interesting. You're throwing a little bit of an accent in there, aren't you?
There's definitely something going on, but that's just kind of what my mouth started to do trying to say those words. The writing was so specific. Richard [Warlow] wrote such a specific style that I didn't really try to approach it by putting anything on. It was weird, I kind of pointedly didn't want to do an accent because you think of America in the 1800s and people immediately think they're all from Five Points, Manhattan, you know, talking with these sort of Brooklynese accents--or they're Southern.
I wondered just what something that wasn't that sounded. Something close to what we think of as an American accent, but it obviously needed to be something a lot more formal and a lot stronger. And I found that just trying to say the lines without trying to do anything definitely made me have to talk different.
My voice got a lot lower and slower and a lot clearer. And it's very hard to say do not instead of don't. You know, that does something to you as well.
I remember you from "The Ex-List."
Wow, that goes back.
You've guest starred and done a lot of theater. I was reading somewhere that before you were an actor you had some very interesting jobs.
Oh, boy. What did you read?
I read something about you were a garbage man at one point?
Yeah, I worked for the Department of Public Works in Northville, N.J., for a little bit. That was a long time ago. A proper garbage man probably would take issue with me calling myself a garbage man. I was kind of more like a hired guy, but I did ride on the back of it and I did throw bags of garbage in the back of the truck. But I wasn't a union guy, you know?
You also worked at Mademoiselle? Is that right?
Yeah, I was a fact checker for Mademoiselle magazine, which was really trippy. Really, really trippy. Well, you know what that's like. I'd have to read the stories and then I'd have to call to check up. There was one really weird experience. I was reading this like eye witness, first person account of teenage bulimia. I had to call the poor girl and verify all the facts to make sure it was right. It was weird because, it's like with my voice coming through the phone and I was like, "So I have here that you...," it was just a very weird fit.
So were either one of those your worst job ever or did you have something even worse?
I'd have to say my worst job ever would have been retail. Fact checker and garbage man were great. My worst jobs had to do with sort of run-of-the-mill working in my uncle's clothing store in West New York. I just found that unbearable.
Want more? Discuss this article and others on Show Patrol's Facebook page.
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC