In fiction, Victorian London is synonymous with all things seedy: corrupt politicians lording over—or ignoring—an impoverished underworld of drug dens, prostitutes, murderers (both supernatural and natural), and sideshows. This is the London of Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Bucket, Sally Lockhart, and Deputy Inspector Edmund Reid, star of BBC America's drama Ripper Street. Now in its second season (and with a third confirmed), Ripper Street follows Reid and his two right-hand men—Game of Thrones' Jerome Flynn and American Adam Rothenberg—as they uncover the city's burgeoning heroin trade and the official who support it (Joseph Mawle). Played by Matthew Macfadyen, Reid's precinct patrols Whitechapel, most famous at the time as the borough of Jack the Ripper.
Macfadyen is certainly a familiar face; now, 39, the actor has appeared in high-profile British films such as Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice, Frost/Nixon, and Enigma. We spoke with Macfadyen, who is currently finishing a play in London, over the phone.
EMMA BROWN: I heard that you're in rehearsals. What are you rehearsing for?
MATTHEW MACFADYEN: I'm not rehearsing for anything. I'm doing a play in the West End [Perfect Nonsense]. I finish in six weeks. It's a sort of farce about Jeeves and Wooster, the P.G. Wodehouse characters. It's based on one of their books. It's good fun.
BROWN: Are you Jeeves or Wooster?
MACFADYEN: I'm Jeeves, among others. There's only three of us and there's eight parts or so, so we play lots of parts. There's a bit of cross-dressing going on.
BROWN: When you're doing a play, do you feel that you're better at the end of the run than you were at the beginning?
MACFADYEN: Probably inevitably. If the play's good and you've got a feeling for it and you're allowed to explore, inevitably it gets a bit richer and more layered. I'm coming towards the end of a run, and it's slightly different with a comedy—it's very technical, but the adrenaline that's there in the beginning is gone. It's a whole trick in itself to keep things fresh so you're not being deadened by the repetition. In a comedy you get lots of laughter back, so that's quite energizing. It's a weird one; we will have done 198 shows by the end.
BROWN: When's the last time you forgot your lines?
MACFADYEN: A couple weeks ago, but I recovered quickly.
BROWN: No one noticed?
MACFADYEN: I don't think so. I actually forgot my lines and laughed, because the guy I'm playing opposite made me laugh, Stephen Mangan. He's very funny. He's that guy from Episodes on Showtime. He made me laugh and I forgot my lines. Bastard.
BROWN: Did you know Stephen and the other actor before you signed on for the play?
MACFADYEN: Stephen I did know—he was a year above me at drama school. Mark Hadfield, who's the other actor, is wonderful. I knew of him, but I hadn't worked with him before.
BROWN: Have you ever performed a comedic play to a silent house?
MACFADYEN: No, usually they laugh. But it's funny when you're doing a comedy, because you're listening for the audience so much when you're onstage. Every audience has a completely different character from the night before. We played right through Christmas and, before Christmas, audiences were a little bit ill-tempered, a little grouchy. It was fascinating to see. We realized it was because they had half a mind on their Christmas presents and having to travel somewhere to go and see relatives. They weren't wholly there listening to the show. As soon as Christmas was done, the audiences went up a notch and sort of relaxed. It was very funny.
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