Jerome Flynn makes a dramatic entrance in “Ripper Street,” BBC America’s new Victorian cop drama — barechested and bloody and in the middle of an underground boxing match, from which he takes a brief pause to remove a tooth that has gotten lodged in his knuckles following a punch. This trend toward playing a go-to ruffian is a new one for Flynn, who’s been acting in the U.K. for years, but who’s best known to U.S. audiences for his role as the sardonic sellsword Bronn in HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” a character almost as popular as the fan favorite for whom he works, Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister. Created by Richard Warlow (“Waking the Dead”) “Ripper Street,” which premieres tomorrow, January 19 at 9pm, is a period procedural that has Flynn playing Sergeant Bennet Drake, right-hand man to more refined Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen), as the two solve murders with the help of an American surgeon (Adam Rothenberg) in a London still living in fear of Jack the Ripper. Indiewire spoke with Flynn about the show, the era and his unexpected side career as a pop star.
So have you always played such tough guys?
Not quite tough in the same way. In the last ten years, my face is showing the toll of the life lived in a way that has made me more castable as the dudes. I often played nice guys when I was younger, and it’s nice to be able to explore the darker side.
Has this opened new avenues for you as an actor?
When you’re in something like “Game of Thrones” and get the chance to play a part like Bronn, with that cast and with Peter Dinklage, it’s wonderful. That’s what got me “Ripper Street.” The writer saw it and was thinking of me when he was writing, so it definitely opened avenues. It’s been a nice little midlife present. It gave me a career back.
I was drifting away from wanting to go down to London for auditions, and was making a life for myself on the coast, renovating a farm. It’s had a huge affect on my life in that it’s put me back there. I had, early on in my career, quite a lot of exposure, and it was a bit too much in many respects. It’s brought me back into the scene in a way that’s much better than it was the first time. Things seems to be changed, and I can’t be mistaken for a pop idol anymore.
Tell me about more about Sergeant Drake — we only get a few details about his background in the opening episodes.
For that area of London, Whitechapel and the East End, I think he’s quite a typical product of the conditions there and what life was like. I’m reckoning he lost his parents when he was young, ended up being fostered and on the streets a lot, probably in a gang or two himself. Then the army took him in and saved him. That’s one of the most useful things about the army, I think, is that it can really help people to form, maybe give them the family they never had and the support.
When he’s fighting in Egypt, he gets even more scarred. He survives it, but he sees a lot of horror along the way. so he’s bringing that with him and carrying those demons. He’s got a reputation for completely going into another level in battle — it’s the way he survives, by going into this very primal, animal nature. That’s a very violent side of the man, which is how he expresses himself — it’s his job. But there’s this longing to step out of his past and into a suit, to become a gentleman and find a wife.
The second episode of the series shows the authority and the competence of the police being challenged by the community, which isn’t something I’d seen before in dealing with the time period.
I think there wasn’t such a big leap those days from being in the army to being in the early police force. A lot of the early police force had just come out of the army — they had to be able to fight. Vigilantism in those days was a lot more common, because they were only just learning how to police the cities. They couldn’t. It was still out of control. They’d often take the law into their own hands.
“Ripper Street” is an unusual combination of historical drama and procedural — was that appealing to you?
Often, it’s quite daunting or off-putting, the idea of getting involved in anything procedural — for me, as an actor — of getting wrapped up in that and having to play out the procedure every week. The fact that it’s in the 1890s and at that particular time, in the wake of the Ripper, with that rippling underneath the rich tapestry of life in London, that’s what’s attractive about it. To play a prodedure against that rich tapestry, that makes it a very different proposition.
What role would you say Jack the Ripper has in informing the mood of “Ripper Street”?
He’s this constant white elephant in the room. I heard a quote today from George Bernard Shaw that Jack the Ripper did more for social reform than any government movement, that, according to our historians and writers, he actually had such a huge effect in terms of the horror that he put onto the streets, that it actually kicked something in terms of the way people lived, the conditions, the class divide. We keep on saying “Jack” and “he,” but that’s one of the great things abou the Ripper, its a mystery, which is part of the fascination and the fear. If you can see evil and face it, it often doesn’t look so evil, but the Ripper never got caught.
Now, I know that you also had a successful singing career, can you tell me about that?
I don’t talk about it that much. It wasn’t considered very cool. I was an actor in a hit show called “Soldier Soldier.” With my buddy there, we sang “Unchained Melody” in our characters as soldiers at a wedding, quite badly, but we had a nice dynamic and our characters were popular. We had 17 million viewers at that time, which will never happen again in British television because of the channels that we’ve got now. A hell of a lot of the population was watching us singing one of the most popular and greatest love songs ever written.
Simon Cowell got wind of it, and he at that time worked at A&R, so he was in touch with the retailers, who said “A lot of people are ringing up and asking for the record.” He put two and two together and — good thing or bad, I’m not sure, but we made him his first million and launched him in many respects. I think he says that himself. So I’m sorry, everybody. No, I’m also very fond of him. That’s how it happened — we were two actors going about our business and then we had three of the biggest selling singles of the ’90s and three number ones in a row. It was like being on a Disney ride, very surreal for a couple of years. We were keeping the Beatles and Michael Jackson off the top spot and not loved by everybody for that. but it was quite fun, and we just about got out in time.
So we shouldn’t expect a new single from you soon?