Edoardo Ballerini (left) as Frank Goodnight in Ripper Street's "A Man of My Company"
From good guys to bad guys, from the legendary silent film star Rudolph Valentino to junkie Corky Caporale in The Sopranos, stage and screen actor Edoardo Ballerini has had the opportunity to get under the skin of individuals both real world and fictional. Using his good looks, distinctive voice and, of course, acting talent, he always puts a new spin on every performance, and in the process manages to make each of his characters as different as possible from one another.
One of the actor’s latest gigs is a guest starring role in "A Man of My Company," the penultimate first season episode of the hit BBC America TV series Ripper Street (airing Saturday, March 2 at 9:00 p.m. EST/PST). While Ballerini was more than comfortable walking in this particular character’s shoes, it was not the role that he initially auditioned for.
“I originally read for the Captain Homer Jackson role that Adam Rothenberg plays,” recalls Ballerini. “I auditioned in New York through my London agent, but ultimately Adam booked the job. A number of months went by and then I got a call telling me that there was another part in the show that they [the show’s producers] wanted me to look at.
“So I read the character breakdown and thought it was terrific. When I subsequently got onto the set, the producers told me that after they watched my audition for Homer Jackson, they thought, ‘Well, he’s not right for this role, but there’s a part near the end of season one and we want him for that.’ So they actually had me in mind for this other role for months, which was nice to know.”
A period piece, Ripper Street is set right after Jack the Ripper’s bloody reign of terror gripped London’s Whitechapel district. The men assigned to H Division—the local police precinct—are responsible for maintaining law and order in what is the toughest area in the city’s East End. Haunting them is the fear that The Ripper could return, which makes Inspector Edmund Reid’s (Matthew Macfayden) job and that of his men all the more difficult and dangerous.
In the aforementioned "A Man of My Company," Frank Goodnight (Ballerini), a former “business” associate of Homer Jackson, arrives in the city and stirs up trouble for the ex-Pinkerton detective and U.S. Army surgeon who has been employed by Inspector Reid for his knowledge of early forensics.
“I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot of the story, but I think it’s fair to say that Frank is also like Jackson, a Pinkerton agent, and ends up being very involved with Jackson’s whole back story that’s been hinted at,” says Ballerini. “As you know, Jackson is on the run from this sort of shady past that hasn’t really been explained. When Frank shows up towards the end of the season, you start to understand what that shady past was, so it comes full circle.
“The thing with Frank is that he’s not a nice guy,” says the actor with a chuckle. “In fact, he’s a downright mean son of a bitch with a huge chip on his shoulder. I personally like playing bad guys, but the challenge is that you have to make them likable. I mean, if you play a bad guy and the audience hates you the moment that they see you, you’re kind of lost because then they’re just rooting for your demise. If, however, they like you in some weird way, then you’ve hooked them, right? That creates a nice seesaw between the good guys and the bad guys, and it becomes a question of, who’s going to win? That’s what makes the dramatic tension.
“Because there wasn’t necessarily anything likable about Frank on the written page, what I tried to do was use the [scripted] back story in which he felt he had been wronged. I wanted to convince the viewer that what my character was doing was justified so that they’d sympathize with him a little bit.”
When it comes to the actual filming of his Ripper Street episode, Ballerini has nothing but good things to say. “I had one of the best experiences of my professional life on this show,” he enthuses. “The cast, the crew, the director, the producers, the writer, everyone was just so wonderful, and we shot in Dublin, Ireland, a city that I wanted to see my whole life, so that was a real treat for me.
“The show is shot in what’s called the Clancy Barracks, which are these old Irish army barracks that have been converted into production facilities. They built an outdoor set, which you see in the show, along with some interior sets, so it was like a smaller version of a Hollywood backlot in that it’s not nearly on the same scale, but it works very effectively for this series.
“At first, I didn’t know quite what to expect. I thought because we were shooting in Dublin, that we would go on-location to some alleyway that was meant to look like it was from 1889 London. In fact, most of the sets were, again, specifically built. I remember one day was a particular thrill for me because we filmed in the middle of Trinity College. It’s such a beautiful, magnificent place, and we had these horse-drawn carriages coming through and 200 costumed background players. They roped off the place, and there was a live audience, many of whom were tourists, watching us film in the middle of the quad. It was amazing.
“There was also this very funny moment when I had to make an entrance into one of the scenes. I’m standing there waiting for my cue while watching everyone at work and thinking, ‘Wow, this looks just like one of those BBC period dramas.’ All of a sudden I was like, wait, that’s my cue. I’ve got to get in there.’ Without meaning to, I became caught up in the moment. It was such a surreal experience. I had never worked for the BBC before or ever worked abroad, and now there I was in the midst of all these fantastic British actors, and thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I’m actually in one of these shows now.’”
Besides Ripper Street, Ballerini has appeared in a few other period pieces including HBO's Boardwalk Empire as well as the Gilded Lilys TV pilot and the independent short film Good Night Valentino. What does the actor enjoy the most about working in this particular genre?
“I think there’s a physicality that I have that lends itself to period pieces,” he muses. “I kind of have a look from a slightly different era, and during the casting process, I think people see that and feel that it will lend itself well to their project.
“I personally enjoy the research part of it and getting to know the different time periods. It’s funny, prior to Ripper Street I’d done Gilded Lilys and a couple of years before that I’d done Boardwalk Empire, so I started to really understand the clothing of these times. When I got to the Ripper Street set, I enjoyed talking with the costume designer about the different ways they cut things, the various waistcoats as well as the buttons, etc. So I love the learning aspect of those types of roles.”
From 19th century London to sci-fi, one of Ballerini’s upcoming performances is very much removed from Ripper Street. “There’s a little independent film that I starred in and helped produce called Omphalos,” says the actor. “It’s in post-production at the moment and we’re hoping to have it out there on the festival circuit next fall.
“It was directed by a brilliant young director, Gabriel Judet-Weinshel, who I think is going to surprise a lot of people with his unique visual and storytelling styles. We also had a number of wonderful actors join us including Austin Pendleton and Emmanuelle Chriqui. The film is a time travel piece in which I play five or six versions of the same man. I’ve seen the latest edit of the movie and I can honestly say that it’s a strong film, so I’m very excited about this project.”
Please note, all Ripper Street photos copyright of Tiger Aspect/BBC and Boardwalk Empire photo copyright of HBO.