Society's modern mask of civility is thin, according to Tom Weston-Jones.
"Something you forget is that people don't always really get on," said Weston-Jones, star of the new drama series Copper, which makes its Canadian debut Sunday, Aug. 26 on Showcase.
The Toronto-shot Copper, which also is airing in the United States on BBC America, is set in New York's Five Points neighbourhood in the turbulent 1860s.
"It makes me realize how brief life is, I suppose, and how putting cultures so close together, and jigsawing them and squeezing them to fit, can be incredibly explosive at times," said Weston-Jones, when asked if his Copper experience has led him to ponder the struggles of that supposedly bygone era.
"In modern day we live in a place where everyone seems to be quite civil, and differences actually are seen as a very beautiful thing rather than a conflicting thing," added Weston-Jones, who was born in England and grew up in Dubai. "But when you throw in poverty and different elements in there, people really show their true colours."
And what are those true colours?
"Survival and one-upsmanship," Weston-Jones said.
In Copper, Weston-Jones plays Kevin Corcoran, a Civil War veteran who has returned to New York. A police patrolman before the war, he has been promoted to detective largely because of a friendship he made on the battlefield with the wealthy but wayward Robert Morehouse, played by Kyle Schmid.
"The moral struggle with Corcoran stems from his wife and daughter," Weston-Jones said. "He was fighting in the Civil War when he found out his wife had disappeared and his daughter was dead. He doesn't know how she died, whether she was killed or it was an accident. It's an obsession for him.
"But I never want Corcoran to seem like he's defeated, or that the things he has experienced have beaten him down. I always want it to seem like he's in action, trying to continually move forward. He's relentless.
"He's very likable in the sense that he does stand up for the weak. But I don't want to say anything that makes him sound like a hero. I think Corcoran just hates bullies."
Besides Weston-Jones and Schmid, Copper also stars Anastasia Griffith as upper-class rebel Elizabeth Haverford and Ato Essandoh as a rare-for-the-era African American doctor named Matthew Freeman, among others.
"This is exactly where I want to be right now," said Weston-Jones, stressing that Copper is the exact type of meaty project he has been seeking.
"It's a very truthful piece. It's very honest. I've always wanted to do pieces that have an integral sense of realism, and aren't just there for titillation.
"There's nothing in the show that is there only for the purpose of having explosions and sex and drugs and violence, but it's all there as part of this incredibly complicated story. It's very watchable, and heartbreaking, and visceral."
That's what happens when you tap into the universal truth that, no matter which era you're in, "people don't always really get on."