In BBC America’s COPPER, which airs Sundays at 10 PM, Tom Weston-Jones plays police detective Kevin “Corky” Corcoran. In the series created by Tom Fontana and Will Rokos, it’s the mid-1860s, the Civil War is still raging and Corcoran, an Irish-born former Union soldier, works in the dangerous Five Points neighborhood of New York City, relying for help in his investigations on two fellow veterans, wealthy Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid) and African-American medical doctor Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh).
Weston-Jones, an Englishman who grew up in Dubai and graduated from the University of London with a degree in theatre and drama, relocated to Toronto (which stands in for Five Points) to do COPPER. He’s in Los Angeles to promote the show at an event held by BBC America for the Television Critics Association. For one night only, the Café La Boheme Restaurant inWest Hollywood has been transformed into the brothel where Corcoran’s lover Eva (Franka Potente) is the madam, complete with can-can-ing dancing girls and a live bluegrass band.
Weston-Jones considerately ignores the considerable background noise as he answers some questions about his COPPER gig, starting by saying, “It helped to have people around us who were just so up for working hard at it.”
AX: Obviously, Corcoran has quite a few secrets. Did you know what all of them were when you started filming?
TOM WESTON-JONES: I actually know very little about where the story’s going. It’s funny – in doing the show, there were certain things I knew I had to know, and certain things that I eventually realized that I didn’t. When we started, we had the first three scripts and I had no idea what was going to happen at the end. But that’s what I loved about it – because in the writing, you can really tell, no one has a predetermined destiny, no one really knows where they’re going to end up or knows what they want, really. I get a real sense from the scripts that they’re just people trying to survive and make the best of a bad situation and do whatever the hell they can to just live a happy life, or sometimes not. So it’s quite nice having a veil over you and not really knowing what’s going to affect your character later, because you’re just kind of naked to it.
AX: Can you talk a little about the difference in the relationship between Corcoran and Kyle Schmid’s character Morehouse and between Corcoran and Ato Essandoh’s Dr. Freeman?
WESTON-JONES: Sure. I remember someone asking me a while ago, “So why are you guys such good friends?” I went, “Well, they’re not really friends as such.” I put it as “companions through turmoil.” They’ve gone through something in the Civil War which is incredibly [intense] – they’re bonded through turmoil, really, and they know how to use each other. They see the potential in each other. Corcoran, for instance, uses the two of them to make sure that the powder keg is kept down onNew York and he uses Freeman to solve these cases and he knows that Morehouse has a huge amount of power and influence. I think there’s definitely more of a warmness with Robert Morehouse and Kevin Corcoran. Ato and I, we get on so well [off-screen] but with Freeman, it’s a little bit more complicated, just purely because racial tensions were so high then. There was also a big pressure in terms of keeping up appearances and making sure people didn’t really assess that you loved African-Americans, because that could have a big backlash in society, which is obviously ridiculous, but in those days, it was a very important thing to maintain distance and all that kind of thing.
I think what’s really good is that everyone has a sense of humor on the set. I think you need that when you’re doing something which is so heavy with tension and drama. One thing I love about the script is that actually through suffering, humans often find humor, that’s their first point of call, to make a joke out of it. That’s exactly what we do with it. Ato does amazingly well, and what I love about Freeman is, he’s not a tragic character, he’s always fighting for the right thing. I think he is probably one of the most morally correct characters in the whole show. So I love his character.
AX: Is the moral rectitude of Freeman what attracts Corcoran to him?
WESTON-JONES: Yeah, definitely. I think that’s a big part of their hold on each other. I know in the first episode, there are certain points where Freeman’s wife is incredibly afraid of white people, she’s got a lot of fear. And Matthew Freeman has to calm her down and convince her that Corcoran is a friend, and he uses the word “friend” I think as a device to calm her down, but I do genuinely think they have quite a bond. A very strange bond.
AX: Corcoran also seems to get around a bit romantically …
AX: Do you enjoy those scenes, or are they sort of awkward?
WESTON-JONES: I think those kinds of scenes for me can be really hard. It just all depends on the person you’re doing them with. I’m a big fan of maintaining boundaries, because acting is all smoke and mirrors a lot of the time. Obviously, I do immersive acting as well. That kind of thing, you’ve got to take everything with a pinch of salt and try and just get through it, I think. That’s what the key is. It all depends on who you’re doing the scene with. And luckily, Franka is very chilled-out and very cool about stuff. And we both have [real-life] partners as well, so there’s a line that we don’t cross.
AX: What was the most interesting thing about doing COPPER for you?
WESTON-JONES: I think one of the most interesting things was probably working with [show runner/co-creator] Tom [Fontana] and [executive producer] Barry Levinson and just learning – because I’m very new to this game as well, I’m still finding my feet a little bit and getting used to everything. The scale of it was what kind of daunted me at first. But with Tom, he’s got a great way of calming you down and giving you freedom to play, and that’s what I think all actors want, is to be is comfortable and relaxed. They’re not worried too much about what it’s going to come out like at the end, you just try and be free and play with the people in front of you. So that’s one thing that I really took from it, is to always try to maintain a sense of, “Everything’s going to be okay.”
It can be a little bit scary when you’re going into something when you feel like the outsider, because I’ve been to New York quite a few times and I love the city, but still, I’m English, I’m not from America. I’m also not Irish – I’m Welsh and English, actually, so I have a bit of the Celtic blood in me. But, yeah, I found it nothing but a challenge, and I like challenges. I like having to rise up to it. Tom is a stickler for detail, which makes you work harder to get all the facts down and get everything straight in your head. And at that point, he also likes it that you just free yourself up and what’s good about Tom is, he will do everything he can to maintain historical accuracy, but if that steps on the feet of drama, if that makes the scene less exciting, entertaining, visceral, whatever, he’ll just make sure that the audience’s interest is at heart and they’ll always be entertained by what’s happening.
AX: Do you have any other projects coming up that we should know about?
WESTON-JONES: I’ve got WORLD WITHOUT END, which is a miniseries [set in the Dark Ages, set to run on Reelz Channel], which I’m really looking forward to. I’ve been going to ADR sessions. I’m quite excited about it. It’s very different to the character that I play in COPPER. So it’s going to be a very big juxtaposition between the two.
AX: Anything else you’d like to say about COPPER right now?
WESTON-JONES: Oh, just watch it [laughs]. Just watch the show. It’s the fun-est thing I’ve ever worked on and I hope everybody sees that.
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Article: Exclusive Interview with COPPER star Ton Weston-Jones