Taylor Made: Interview with Copper's Dylan Taylor

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BBC America

Dylan Taylor as Detective Andrew O'Brien in Copper

Back in 2009, Canadian-born actor Dylan Taylor followed in the footsteps of many real-life heroes and took one small step for man, and one giant leap for mankind as Steve Wassenfelder, a theoretical physicist and member of an international team of astronauts who set out to explore Earth’s solar system in the short-lived sci-fi drama Defying Gravity. Fast forward to today. Taylor’s current TV series regular gig in the hit BBC America drama Copper is far more terrestrial as well as gritty and violent, but equally engaging. He plays Detective Andrew O’Brien, one of the police officers charged with helping uphold law and order in the New York City of 1864. The audition process was a long one with this particular role, but in the end well worth it for the actor.

“A small casting session for Copper was held in Toronto, which is where I’m from and where I live half the year,” says Taylor. “It was with a casting director named Stephanie Gorin, who I know quite well. Originally I read for the part of Francis Maguire, and although I didn’t feel like I was a fit for that particular character, this was a TV show I really wanted to be a part of. So I just did my own take on the Maguire role in the hopes that it would make an impression. The [audition] tapes were being sent to New York for Alexis Fogel, who was the main casting agent, and Tom Fontana [series executive producer/writer] to watch. I had been a huge fan of Oz [created/executive produced by Fontana] and Homicide: Life on the Street [also executive produced by Fontana] and Tom Fontana was one of my ‘bucket list’ people to work for.

“You kind of get your hopes up for things, and my hopes were definitely up for this. I put myself on tape, sent it off, and a month later I hadn’t heard anything, so I assumed that the project had moved on. I was getting ready to go down to Los Angeles for a week, when I got a phone call telling me that Alexis and Tom were coming to Toronto and wanted to see me, but this time for the role of Andrew O’Brien. So I met with them, and the scene they had me do for the character was a very short one. That’s always kind of tricky for an actor because you’ve got to make some big [acting] choices and, again, somehow make an impression as well.

“I did the scene and they said, ‘That was great. Do you have any questions?’ I really didn’t, so they thanked me and I started to leave the room. Then I realized I might never have a chance to meet Tom Fontana again, because I had no inclination one way or the other if I’d gotten the part, so I stopped at the door and started talking to him about Oz. I asked a few questions and then left.  Another month went by and I didn’t hear anything. Then in December [2011], I found out that they were changing the O’Brien character and making him tougher and meaner. They didn’t know if I’d be right for the part, so they wanted me to do another audition tape. So I actually filmed one in my living room and sent it off. This past January 2, I finally received the official booking for the job. It was three months, two auditions and a self-made [audition] tape later, but after that everything happened very fast and suddenly I found myself on-set.”

In Copper’s two-hour pilot, which aired as the show’s first two episodes, "Surviving Death" and "Husbands and Fathers," Detective Kevin “Corky” Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones) investigates the murder of a little girl in New York’s notorious immigrant neighborhood of Five Points. Plagued by corruption within the police ranks as well as the greed and wanton desires of some of Manhattan’s elite, there are only a handful of people that Corcoran can truly trust. These include his closest friend and partner Detective Francis Maguire (Kevin Ryan), local doctor Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh) and Corcoran’s and Maguire’s colleague and friend, Andrew O’Brien. The show’s sets are just as much characters as those that the actors play, and Taylor was given a firsthand look at the world of Copper before filming even began.

“My first visit to the studio was for a wardrobe fitting,” he recalls. “I was arranging a time with one of [costume designer] Delphine White’s assistants to do an initial fitting, and she asked me, ‘Have you been to the studio yet to see the sets?’ I said. ’No, I haven’t.’ We shot in an old factory almost outside of Toronto and in the middle of nowhere called Fenwick Automotive Parts. When you first walk in it’s just like a big studio, and to the left you can sort of see the backs of buildings. However, then you turn a corner and, boom, there are five unbelievable blocks of 1864 Five Points.

“Every week the sets got bigger and more detailed. It was mind-blowing, and I remember looking around and thinking how grateful I was. It was a similar feeling to when I first walked onto the Defying Gravity sets and just being so thankful that I was getting to play on those sets for the next five or six months. With Copper, it was interesting just walking into this old tire factory and thinking about the magic that was about to happen. Every day we’d be sitting there watching the traffic flow by and saying to ourselves that no one has any idea what’s happening in this building right now. It was quite a surreal feeling and ‘weird’ place to be.

“When it comes to filming the Copper pilot, it was great. I hit if off right away with Kevin Ryan and Tom Weston-Jones. Although our characters are partners, when we first started the show, they were very separate. Corky ties in with these other worlds — uptown Manhattan and Carmansville where Dr. Freeman and his wife live. So during the pilot, it felt like we were making our own little show, and Tom would then go off and make two more little shows with other people,” jokes the actor.

“Early on in the shooting it was a lot of hanging out with Kevin and Tom on-set, and when we began to go out after work and socialize, that’s when we started meeting the rest of the cast. We had a great time at the bars just getting to know each other. We would sit at our own table, have a drink and talk. That really helped sort of seal the deal if you will when we got in front of the camera and began working together. One of the first things we shot were those scenes in the second episode with O’Brien and Maguire together with Corky in his house. It was two 12-hour filming days in a row with just the three of us in this little room. Being in a closed atmosphere like that, we clicked very quickly and became good buddies.

“The pilot was also a feeling-out process for us,” adds Taylor. “I think that’s something I got from watching the first and even second episode. By the third and fourth episodes, though, we knew exactly who we were playing far better than we did when filming the pilot. Again, that was a figuring out process for all of us as far as just who these characters were, their relationships with one another and what they thought of certain things. It was a real learning curve, and by the time we got to the second shooting block, which was episodes three and four, it was old hat. We all knew exactly who we were in relation to each other and could just play from there on.”

In the opening teaser of "Surviving Death," Andrew O’Brien assists Corcoran and Maguire in chasing down, apprehending and shooting dead a group of bank robbers. His imposing stature coupled with sheer strength and skill at firing a shotgun are definite assets that come in handy again later on in this episode and the one that follows. It could have been easy to simply make O’Brien a one-dimensional brawny guy with attitude, but instead, the Copper writers gave him greater depth. This, in turn, allowed Taylor to showcase more of his talents as a performer.

“It’s terrific the way my character develops,” he enthuses. “One of the things you’ll learn more about with O’Brien is that he’s extremely loyal. There’s mention of his wife in the pilot, and you’ll meet her later on, and in episode two you see some of his interactions with the Annie [Kiara Glasco] character. So for me, the trick was trying to find the balance and play this tough, strong man who was also vulnerable in a lot of ways. That’s a rarity. When you watch, for example, old Westerns, you don’t often get to see these hard gun-slinging dudes be family men as well.

“So I was happy whenever a new script came out, and the fifth episode is, in fact, very heavy with my character. It’s a slightly lighter one as well. There were a handful of writers on the show, but there were these two young guys, Kevin Deiboldt [story editor] and Kyle Bradstreet [executive story editor] who were kind of Tom’s head writers. They’d be on-set a lot and hang out with us, as did Tom, and the three of them got a real feel for our personalities outside of our characters. Tom really likes to get to know his actors and brings some of what they are into the writing.

“So believe it or not, you see a great deal of humor come from the O’Brien character. There’s a little bit of that in the first episode, and in the second one they tease him about his acquiescence to his wife and stuff like that. When you’re playing this big, tough, tobacco chewing and spitting guy, it’s fun to watch the writers create these moments that poke holes in his armor.

“They do some wonderful things down the road with O’Brien. The first three episodes are a bit slow for the character, but I was confident in the conversation I had with Tom, that everyone in this world plays a really big part. They just needed time to set everything up, which they did. I wish I could go into more detail, but can’t give too much away. I’m very pleased, though, with how they developed my character in the first ten episodes of Copper, and I think the audience will really appreciate that once they get to see what this guy goes through as well as his journey and where his loyalties lie.”

A 2003 graduate of George Brown’s Theatre Conservatory, the actor first began to hone his skills working onstage. He made his professional debut in a production of Bluffers Moon, which earned him a Dora Award nomination for “Outstanding Performance for Young Audiences.” This was quite an achievement, especially for someone who never planned to pursue such a career.

“I always drew and thought I’d go into the visual arts,” notes Taylor. “My dad is a jazz promoter as well as producer and my mom was involved in the arts, too. I really never saw myself in a nine-to-five job, and while I thought about being an illustrator or writer, I never considered acting until my last year of high school.

“A friend and I were spray painting backdrops for a drama class production, and some of the cutest girls were in drama, so we’d chat with them and I would tell stories and make people laugh. One of my high school teachers, who I’m still in touch with today, convinced me to take a drama class the following year, and in the 12th grade she cast me and this other student, Nick, in a two-handed play by Danny MacIvor. She thought it would keep us out of trouble and be a good thing to do after school as opposed to hanging out.

“One day our teacher told me and Nick that she had entered us into this big theatre festival in Ontario where arts and drama schools put on these masterful productions of stories such as The Crucible and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. We came from what was essentially classified as an inner city school and were going to do this little play that takes place in this kind of boxing ring. Well, we went through all three rounds and ended up winning. That helped give me the confidence to take a serious shot at acting.

“I managed to get accepted into a very selective conservatory program in Toronto, and after I graduated I was extremely fortunate to get an agent right away. I did some theatre productions in Toronto as well as a handful of commercials, and the last credit I needed to become a full union member of ACTRA [The Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists] was Terry Gilliam’s Tideland, which was awesome. Since then I’ve been lucky enough to keep working. I mean, there have been some slower times and some busier times, but for the most part I’ve managed to keep my head above water, which isn’t easy to do as an actor.”

Charlie Bartlett, Hooked on Speedman, The Incredible Hulk, Warriors of Terra and the upcoming Indie Jonesing are among the actor’s other feature film credits. On TV he has guest starred on a number of series including Murdoch Mysteries, Flashpoint and Rookie Blue as well as had recurring or regular roles on Aliens in America, House Party, Covert Affairs and the aforementioned Defying Gravity. Like his role on Copper, Taylor considers Steve "Wass" Wassenfelder to be a dream-come-true character.

“After a couple of [taped] auditions, [Defying Gravity executive producer] Michael Edelstein and David Straiton, who directed the pilot, came up to Toronto to meet with me and a couple of other actors,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what they wanted with Wass, so I just did my own take on him and they liked it. Michael then stood up and said, ‘Now do it with Asperger’s syndrome.’ I didn’t have a clue what to do, so I did almost an impression of the show’s Rollie Crane character combined with my take on Wass and they really liked that, too.

“It was awesome to then go to work on a show where there was Ty Olsson [Rollie Crane], Eyal Podel [Dr. Evram Mintz], Ron Livingston [Maddox Donner] and Zahf Paroo [Ajay Sharma] playing these astronauts who had to follow protocol as far as the way they spoke and behaved as well as the level of physical shape they were in, and then there’s Wass. He was the complete opposite of everybody. He didn’t have to be courteous and was arrogant because he was so smart.

“One of the most disappointing things for me about Defying Gravity not continuing was that there was a great story arc for Wass. I’d written this little bio about Wass, and that he came from a very poor family. His mom was around 16 years old when she had him and he was essentially raised by his grandparents. That, of course, was before [series creator/executive producer] Jim Parriott told me that Wass was the man who discovered the key to the meaning of life.

“I quickly scrapped my little notebook story where my character came from humble beginnings in Minnesota and listened to Jim’s take on what Wass was going to accomplish. Beta [a mysterious entity] was going to start to change him physically, which meant I would have had to get into shape as well. We were also going to learn that Wass had been cured of Asperger syndrome when he was a child, but Beta was going to reverse that cure. My character would then start to become obsessive compulsive once again and obsess about fractals, which is what he did as a child.

“So while his fellow astronauts were working out at the gym and trying to get really fit, Wass would just naturally be losing weight as well as getting muscular and at the same time obsessing over fractals. Unlike the other characters, that’s why Wass never had any flashbacks. He was more of a facilitator for Beta on their mission as opposed to one of these people who were changing something in their lives or dealing with regrets.

“Other than all the Wass stuff, the best thing to come out of Defying Gravity was the relationships with the people. I still keep in touch with most of the cast. They’re all terrific as was the crew, and Copper feels very similar as far as the caliber of individuals you’re working with. They’re just good people who can joke around and are also tremendously talented and very capable at their jobs.”

When it comes to his acting career, variety is definitely the spice of choice for Taylor. “A lot of actors get typecast or they play one particular character quite a bit,” he says, “but I think because of my size along with ability to gain as well as lose weight and being a somewhat athletic and coordinated person, I’ve been able to play a wide variety of roles so far, which I’m most proud of.”

Please note, all Copper photos copyright of BBC America, and all Defying Gravity photos copyright of ABC.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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