No one ever expected that the pristine and proper Elizabeth Haverford would ultimately end up having so many secrets or shades of gray in the BBC drama series COPPER. However, the one person not surprised at all is the woman who portrays her. In an exclusive interview, star Anastasia Griffith talked about all the surprising sides to her character and what lies at the root of those dark secrets in the heart of the Fifth Avenue woman of mystery.
What drew you to such a dark series like COPPER and the role of Elizabeth Haverford?
ANASTASIA: I think a lot of the rich writing on television these days is pretty dark; and I’ve always been driven more to drama, than comedy. I don’t think I realized quite how dark it was going to be. But in the big scheme of things, I don’t think COPPER is as dark as a lot of shows out there. What I do think is dark about it is the time period that it is set in. It is a particularly brutal period, where survival is very difficult. In a way, I embrace it. I think it is kind of real and I feel if we were to make it more polite or prissy and brush over the lifestyle of the time, it would be a shame. Elizabeth, for me, represented something else. She represented an insight into the women at that time and I thought that was very important story to tell — for us to be grateful and realize how far we have come and to realize the fact that we really had no independence, no ability to have opinions, and really were at the mercy of men. A woman’s reputation depended on a man and being attached to their livelihoods. So I thought that all made an important challenge, and I felt she was someone who was trying to break down those boundaries.
We have learned a lot about Elizabeth as the show has peeled away layers and we learned that she was not what we assumed she was on the surface. What surprised you the most as you got to know her?
ANASTASIA: Nothing has really surprised me because I have been very involved from the beginning with development of the character. It was something I felt very strongly about — that she wasn’t what she seemed. When we first started on the show Tom Fontana sat all of us down and asked us what our backstory was, and for me that was always more interesting than just seeing someone who was just playing by the rules. But even then, things come up that you don’t expect. I think what’s been confusing more than anything is her loyalty. Because of her need to survive and that being the most important thing of all, I think I found it difficult to find motivation for some of the things she does – because she seemingly does care about what the war stands for. She cares very much about the freedom of African Americans and she cares very much about freedom in general. So I think some of her decisions have been difficult for me to understand and to understand her motivation. Just the fact that she is so changeable. That’s perhaps the most surprising.
Elizabeth seems to adapt really well given whatever the circumstance. Like when her husband turned out to be someone who is a criminal and was then he is killed. She adapted very quickly.
ANASTASIA: She’s a survivalist. That’s really what I feel that beyond anything she will survive. I don’t think she does that just for herself; I think she’s a fighter for all the people around her too. It is also about self-interest. When self-interest is at stake, she will fight very hard and she’ll win. She’s kind of Machiavellian in that way. I also think we have to be careful not to judge her from a modern standpoint. It must have been very frightening to know that your entire future is in the hands of a man – and the man that she married to save her from a certain existence and to take her away from England and bring her to the new world, ended up not being what he said he was. So she had to grab that and make something of it. And she does. But some might say that being that changeable and being that flexible is maybe a strength and not a weakness.
What is the one quality you most admire about her?
ANASTASIA: Her ability to survive and her strength – and her balls, honestly. (Laughs) She has balls of steel.
We have also seen this season that Elizabeth is involved with Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid). Do you think she is marrying him for love?
ANASTASIA: I do. I actually feel very strongly about that. I think they have a deep friendship. I don’t think she’s a liar or that she fakes things. I think she genuinely was attracted sexually to Corcoran, and I think her friendship with Morehouse has developed into something fairly mutual and deep. I don’t think that they are necessarily good together, but I do think there is a need for each other. They get each other and not many other people in this world do get them. They kind of stand out in their own community and they don’t fit into the downtown community, so maybe it is a bit of that. Whether that is real love, who knows. But I think she thinks it is.
Elizabeth is also in an interesting position in that she gets to play both the romantic heart of the show and a Confederate spy, offering a bit of intrigue. There is a duality to her, which is interesting.
ANASTASIA: Absolutely. It is interesting to have such a strong woman as a female romantic interest. But I don’t think she is the only female romantic interest. I think all three: Elizabeth, Eva and Sara (Franka Potente and Tessa Thompson’s characters) have romantic relationships. But I think Elizabeth and Corcoran have been put out there as the will-they or wont-they scenario as historically seen in television. But I don’t thing the show is limited to that in any capacity. No one person is good or bad. They are all varying shades of gray, and so no one’s position is safe. This whole thing could turn upside down very quickly. So I’m not surprised by the duality of it. As for Elizabeth being a spy, I think we learned that she did not set out to be a spy for the Confederacy. It was about survival. I think she doesn’t agree with the war, in the same way that a lot of people didn’t agree about the Iraq war, and agreed that what was going on was ultimately not right. I think she wanted the war to stop. She wanted lives to be saved by the war being over. But there was self-interest in it too. She was going to get money, which she desperately needed because her house was mortgaged, which she didn’t realize. And that’s a very real concern. I think some of the intrigue was resolved in this last episode as we learned she didn’t set out to be a spy. She hasn’t been a spy with the Confederacy from the very beginning; she only resorted to it out of desperation. But we should not be putting people in boxes on this show — or Corcoran could just as easily be a criminal as much as he is a hero. That’s the point of the show, it’s asking people to put aside their sense of morality and start empathizing with these very different characters. I think Five Points and even Fifth Avenue at that time was incredibly different from how life is now – in terms of life and death.
COPPER explores the darker sides of human nature while simultaneously exploring the darker sides of the life they were living amongst at that time. It makes it interesting and that that is perhaps what draws in the fans.
ANASTASIA: It is a very complicated time period. I’ve been watching GAME OF THRONES and it strikes me that then, as it is in COPPER, life does not mean what it does today. We guard life and battle death with severity and things change much more quickly. I feel there is a darkness to that in COPPER, but there is also a sense of humor about it too. It’s not quite as serious. In fact, I think some of the best moments in COPPER are the comedic moments. Surprisingly, the dark side of the world that they live in offers some really light moments.
Do you think Elizabeth has a humorous side?
ANASTASIA: That’s a very good question. Yes, I do. I think it is deeply buried and you see a little bit of it. It’s something that I would like to bring in more – and I mean that as an actress, not just for the character. I think sometimes it is really important when you’re dealing with serious subjects that you find humor in it, and that humor is found when showing the darkest and saddest moments. That is something I would like to play more. Elizabeth has a very good sense of humor and when we see her with Morehouse, we see her letting go and shackles coming off a little bit and the corset loosening – though all geared with a bit of desperation at the moment. But you do see that she has a little lightness. It just keeps having to be put down because she has so much on her mind.
With the wedding preparations, we also get to see Elizabeth befriend Sara Freeman (Tessa Thompson) and there seems to be a bit of lightness in their relationship. It has been interesting to see them kind of bond over that.
ANASTASIA: Absolutely. And in the scenes that we have seen of them together, you have to remember Elizabeth has been taking opium and drinking heavily, but I think she finds a lot of lightness in Sara. Sara is a completely different person from Elizabeth and I think Elizabeth finds Sara delightfully uncomplicated. It’s almost that she can escape her own intensity through connecting with Sara, who seems to simplify things and make things easy. She finds that Sara has things fairly straightforward in her own life and there is a sweet friendship that happens between them. Sara has the unique ability to disarm Elizabeth in some of her most intense moments.
Each one of Elizabeth’s relationships seems to reflect a kind of yearning in her life to connect.
ANASTASIA: I think she is looking for freedom. I don’t think that is something new or an old idea. It’s something people look for all the time. Whatever that means to them. But I think that is what Elizabeth is looking for. I think that is why she left England. She found it stifling. But her uptown life is very similar and I think she needs space to breathe. Nothing is offering her that. She might have thought she would find it down South once the war ended, but that hasn’t worked out. So now she is looking for that with Morehouse. I don’t think it’s just her that is searching. I think many, many people go through that in lots of different ways. So I think it’s about freedom of speech and freedom to be who she wants to be. She doesn’t get that being a woman in that society at that time.
What does this second season offer for Elizabeth? We see that she’s on the cusp of getting married and embarking on this new relationship, but that she has some dark secrets at the same time.
ANASTASIA: This season takes her on a real journey. There’s a real arc for Elizabeth this year. It’s not always pretty. There’s a lot of fear. There’s a lot of guilt. And there’s a lot of surrender, which is kind of beautiful too — that she goes through — and a lot of that is done with the help of Morehouse. I can’t give a way too much. But there’s definitely a good arc that she goes on.
Is there something special coming up that the fans should watch for?
ANASTASIA: We start to see how things are going to play out with the Kennedy situation. That gets dealt with quite quickly. That should be something that people will be really interested in.
Then quickly, about your role on BANSHEE as Dr. Paradis, that was quite a fun surprise to see you pop up for a brief appearance in that role. Do you yet know if you’ll be revisiting it in the second season of BANSHEE?
ANASTASIA: I haven’t been back yet and they began shooting the second season about a month ago. They haven’t approached me to go back yet, but we did sort of joke about it. Because it was a flashback, it would mean they would have to either do more flashbacks where he was in prison or I would have to be aged up 10 years, which I’m not adverse to. I think it would be fun. But I don’t know if it is in the budget or if there’s interest. I love the show and I’m a big fan of Antony Starr’s. Greg Yaitanes is a friend of mine. He’s been a friend of mine since DAMAGES, so I’d happily go back and do more work with him.
How were you approached to do the role of Dr. Paradis on BANSHEE?
ANASTASIA: Greg emailed me and offered it to me. It happened to be about a month after I finished last season of COPPER and it was so different. It was so modern. I had actually just finished doing an online psychology degree, so it seemed like the perfect step outside of the Elizabeth Haverford role. So it was fun. I just wanted to do something different. I really relished the fact that the scripts were long, well-written scenes. It’s quite rare to have three-page scenes of dialogue just one-on-one and back-and-forth. For me, that was really appealing. I hadn’t done that in a while. It was almost like doing theater. It was literally a day’s work, but it was fun to do.
To see what other secrets Elizabeth may be hiding and how that further entangles her in a world that she is desperate to escape, be sure to tune in for all new episodes of COPPER on Sunday nights at 10:00 p.m. on BBC America.
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