A Sitdown With The Cast Of “Copper”–A Tale Of New York City’s Gritty, Vibrant Past

08.18.12 David Lumb and Aymann Ismail

The first episode of Copper opens with a character’s eye peering through the slats of a barn door. His eye—borrowed by the camera’s point-of-view—sees a shopowner toss a bucket of food into the dirt gutter, which is immediately set upon by a handful of the starving. He looks away and up toward a bank. Moments later, a bomb goes off in the bank, robbers flee the scene, and the character swaps signals with his man on the street, who turns in pursuit. The game is on.

This might be the theme of Copper–not that the main character, Irish cop Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones), has set out to clean up such unjust poverty as a crusading angel in 1864 New York City, but that he doesn’t look away while the city exercises ignorance. Corcoran is many things, we learn in the first episode: former teenage boxer, devoted husband to a missing wife, Civil War veteran, dedicated policeman, and mourning father. He gets drunk. He lusts for the madame of a brothel. He kills, he beats, he brawls his way to answers. Such a life has given him entry to many worlds–and he keeps looking, even as he’s told to turn aside by his police superiors and rich, powerful socialites.

But Copper is as much about the purely American protagonist—a straightforward man with a haunting past and a dirty job to do—as it is the city he lives in, a dirty and crowded nascent metropolis in which justice is challenged by racial politics and classist leverage. This is New York City, not yet the greatest city on Earth, and the show’s primary setting, Five Points, is a dirty, desperate place. Five Points does not exist today; its approximate location is the southern fifth of Columbus Park on the corner of Worth Street and Baxter. What was a sty of immigrants wedged into lower Manhattan–half a million people below 14th street–opened up with the emergence of the first subway in 1904, and the formerly immobile residents moved elsewhere. The legend of Five Points, however, has lived on in the records and outlandish stories about the grunge and prostitution and violence that infested the first industrialized immigrant melting pot in America.

Showrunner Tom Fontana, creator of Oz, writer and producer on St. Elsewhere, Homicide: Life On The Streets, and Borgia, has created a cast that threads through a New York City freshly scarred by the 1863 Draft Riots. That event established two things for certain, says Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College, Daniel Czitrom: one, that the Irish immigrants were so irate at Congress’ new wartime draft that they were willing to turn their anxiety over African-American job competition into a horrific week of lynchings; and two, that the New York Police Department, half comprised of Irishmen, was a professional force with a proven fidelity to the city, not to their fellow Irish immigrants. It’s here that we find Corcoran stalking the streets from grungy, dangerous Five Points to upscale Fifth Avenue—and Czitrom has been working since before cameras rolled to ensure the streets Corcoran walks are accurate.

Czitrom was brought on Copper by co-creator Will Rokos as Historical Advisor in Fall 2011 with a chip on his shoulder. His extensive research on New York City’s history made him a knowledgeable candidate for the position, along with his list of credits for speaking on numerous PBS documentaries, but he came to Copper with a special bone to pick with the sensationalized portrayals of Five Points. New Yorkers in the 1830s and 40s jumped on the fear bandwagon as journalists published scare stories about the dirty, crime-ridden districts of lower Manhattan that had served as launchpads for incoming immigrants: Five Points became internationally infamous as a perceived cesspool of uncivil foreigners. Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York,” itself based on journalist Herbert Asbury’s “The Gangs of New York” written in 1928, suffers this sensationalism: “Everyone’s either a pimp, a prostitute, or a gang member” in Scorsese’s movie, Czitrom says. “It’s pulp history.”

But Scorsese’s lofty saga of familial revenge is more operatic than the gritty character progression in Copper. Though the characters themselves have conflict—Corcoran struggles with getting stonewalled by his career-oriented superiors, Sgt. Byrnes and Capt. Sullivan, while free African-American Sara Freeman (Tessa Thompson) fears for her husband Matthew’s (Ato Essandoh) safety within Corcoran’s white/Irish maelstrom that lynched her brothers, and prostitutes Eva (Franka Potente) and Molly (Tanya Fischer) struggle to exert control and power while practicing their servicing trade—the characters are all beset by institutions of the era. Though all three come from separate tranches of society, immigrant Corcoran, free African-American Freeman, and wealthy Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid) are bound by the fraternity of Civil War service, but they return to New York masking their friendship due to social lines drawn in the sand. For Freeman, this association with white men and Irish Corcoran in particular could mean death from anxious Irishmen, which is why Corcoran’s relationship with Freeman is always pained with the knowledge that Freeman’s surgical genius and pioneering forensic analysis will go unnoticed.

Freeman’s silence is mirrored in wealthy wife Elizabeth Haverford (Anastasia Griffith), who knows her husband, a donor to the local black orphanage, frequents a brothel. Women aren’t supposed to enjoy sex at that time, Czitrom says, and the idea that men are the inherently sexual beings meant that they needed a place to get out their lust–brothels were perceived as a functional social convention. A lot of wives knew, but didn’t acknowledge it, and so the livelihoods of madame Eva Heissen and her girl Molly Stuart were provided for. Commercial sex was big business: madame is one of the few professional options available to German immigrant Eva, owner of the brothel Eva’s Paradise. Control over those lusts, though, was as unregulated as the law’s intentional ignorance of prostitution in general, and the first episode of Copper finds Corcoran entrusting prepubescent Annie Riley (Kiara Glasco) to Eva and her girls to avoid a vengeful socialite from hunting Annie down for his lusts. Like his upper-class connection with war buddy Robert Morehouse, Corcoran must use his contacts to move between worlds and do his job ensuring justice.

This is not the New York of mass police presence and subways and (mostly) hygienic sanitation: it’s the New York of immigrant clash and racial inexchange. Thanks to production designer John Blackie, who crafted the sets down to the last cobbled road (just porous enough to produce the correct puddles), costume designer Delphine White, who hand stitched the wardrobe solely from fabrics available at the time, to Art Director Tony Ianni, and back to Czitrom’s extensive fact-checking, the show is as close to 1860s NYC as you can get. Which is only justice to the vision Will Rokos had of the show when he pitched it to AMC around 2006, a year before Mad Men started airing. The show’s talent and production, including Academy Award-winning executive producer Barry Levinson and previous AMC producer Christina Wayne, are evidence enough of BBC America’s massive inaugural pitch into creative content—it hopes that Copper is just the American show to mix meritocratic ambition with ethnic strife and rise above its identity as the US portal to Doctor Who, The Hour, Luther, and other BBC programming. That it features a cast including two British citizens (one born in France), one Irish citizen, a Canadian, and a second generation immigrant from Ghana simultaneously proves BBC’s ambition for an international cast and the show’s aim to portray an America struggling to include its diverse (and often violently conflicting) peoples, most of whom are, as Czitrom says, just trying to raise kids and survive.