Rufus Sewell: “PRESIDENT” Evil

Fangoria, 21 June 2012
By Michael Gingold

When a movie’s vampire-slaying hero is none other than the President of the United States, it requires an especially strong bloodsucking villain to oppose him. Enter Adam — a character not present in Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, but created for the film (opening this week from 20th Century Fox) and vividly enacted by British actor Rufus Sewell.

Sewell has been acting for 20 years now in a wide variety of genres, with horror/fantasy credits including BLESS THE CHILD, VINYAN, the made-for-cable SHE CREATURE and, most notably, as the hero of Alex Proyas’ stunning DARK CITY. But Timur Bekmambetov’s historical horror/action epic is his first turn as a creature of the night…

FANGORIA: There have been so many different screen portrayals of vampires over the years — when you got the part of Adam, did you approach it in terms of finding a new way to play a vampire, or just portraying this specific character regardless of the fact that he is one?

RUFUS SEWELL: Well, I’d never actually played a vampire before, so at that time I couldn’t give a f**k who else had played a vampire, I was so pleased! For me, what was important was not going into it with such lofty notions of redefining the idea of the vampire. But considering the current state of affairs with TWILIGHT, etc., it felt enough just to return to the roots of them being stately, vicious monsters. I know there’s some amazing stuff being done in TRUE BLOOD and so on, but in terms of films, I just liked the fact that they didn’t twinkle, they weren’t involved in little romances and they were evil as f**k. As far as my character was concerned, I thought of him as a politician and a great soldier for his cause and a great president for his people, with a very clear agenda: to find a homeland for his creed.

FANG: Adam is not in the book, but did you go to it just to get yourself versed in the world Seth Grahame-Smith created?

SEWELL: I did, yeah — up until the point I realized Adam wasn’t going to turn up [laughs]. I must admit, I was so excited to download the book to Kindle before anyone had told me that Adam didn’t appear, and I was a good way through it before the script arrived. But I enjoyed it, and it was very important to me to see that the source material was actually very good and to check the tone of it — that if there’s a joke, the joke is in the title. It’s played deadpan. An SNL sketch dragged out for two hours wouldn’t necessarily work; you need to have some investment in it. And reading the book, I could see why they would need a character like Adam, and what function he performs. Then it was about being sure of the things he needed to be, and not just perform a function, but try to make it more organic.

Luckily for me, from the time I got the part to the time I did it, the character grew exponentially. But he was written with a master plan and a need — not just a function, but something he was after. So he was quite playable. My idea of him as a kind of cigar-room dealmaker — the vampire’s vampire, the man you’d vote for in vampire elections — was born out of and given life to by the script. That was my take on it, the idea that he considers himself to be a parallel, an alternative, that Abe is his opposite number. They can have a man-to-man chat about leadership and humanity, and Abe would be someone he’d want on his side rather than just destroying him for the fun of it.

FANG: You’re involved in some pretty intense action scenes. How were those to shoot, especially with Bekmambetov as director?

SEWELL: Bewildering, because you have to take a leap of faith that when you launch your leg in the air and shout and go “Aaargh!” or whatever, that he’s not going to leave you hanging, that you’re going to be supported by the film and the FX are going to balance you. It’s very difficult to keep a clear idea of where you are in the story when you spend days and days repeating a twist on top of something that you’re promised will be a speeding train next to a cliff. You just have to keep that in your imagination, because it’s greenscreen. So you hook onto the actors you’re working with, and you trust the director. But the scenes that are the most exciting to watch are often the most difficult to do, and not necessarily a thrill.

For me, the exciting ones were actually the dialogue scenes. I mean, I really like the sequence — though there’s a big fight in it — between me and Abe in the ballroom when he comes to my house. I liked that chance to talk to him, and that speech is what I based my idea of Adam on. It was something that was quite rare on this film — a scene where you went home and had a clear memory of how it went, because we spent a day doing it, I remember saying my lines, I remember his face... The fight scenes, I had so many disjointed memories over those few weeks that I could not imagine what it was going to be like. So it was more of a delight to see the fight scene, and go, “Jesus! Look at that!” Because they’re so incredible — not just the ones I’m in, but the horse one, etc. But the scenes where I actually got to look someone in the eye and speak to them were the most satisfying to do.

FANG: How was Benjamin Walker as a co-star in general?

SEWELL: He was great. He was very believable as president. He has a very commanding presence, a very natural authority. Very fun to work with, a great sense of humor, but unbelievably patient and dedicated. The amount of time he would spend in makeup every day — eight hours, nine hours... He’d watch movies that FANGORIA fans would approve, every genre would be covered. There was Kurosawa week, and there were monster movies, Troma, all sorts of things. It was like an Abraham Lincoln Film Festival; he’d be there, having his stuff applied with a TV in front of him.

FANG: I love the idea of Walker in the makeup room watching Troma movies.

SEWELL: [Laughs] Well, maybe those are wishful thinking on my part, but who knows?

FANG: How much makeup did you have to deal with?

SEWELL: A lot when I was, as the script described, “vamped out,” with all the veins and the lenses they put in, that incredible look they have. But only when I was fully on attack, because the rest of the time I was in a respectable place in the vampire world, so I was as regal or presidential as they could have me look. And when I did have the makeup, it was still nothing compared to the job they did on Ben. Physically, one of the saving graces for me was that Adam is very high up on the food chain; I could send my minions to do my fighting for me, so there wasn’t quite so much training involved.

FANG: It’s interesting that the actor playing the hero of this film required more makeup than yourself, playing the villain.

SEWELL: [Laughs] Yes, I know! It’s strange, but this is the world we live in. But when I did have the makeup done, it was a great way of focusing. You could see this creature kind of come out. It’s really quite scary-looking.

FANG: How did working with Bekmambetov compare to your experiences working with another very visual director, Alex Proyas, on DARK CITY?

SEWELL: I love Alex. What was very interesting about DARK CITY was, I was playing somebody who has no idea where he is; he never sees the sunlight, and that was pretty much my experience of doing the film. We were at Fox Studios, before it was Fox Studios — it was the Sydney Showgrounds — and I’d occasionally see a bit of sunlight when they’d open a door, and some sand would blow in and I would see the end of a surfboard, but then they’d close that door [laughs] and I’d be in this place from 6 in the morning until 10 at night. It was a strange world!

The difference would be that Alex has incredible preparation. In terms of the acting work, he leads you to it and tells you what he doesn’t like, and I’m happy with that. With Alex, it’s beautifully storyboarded and he plans it meticulously, and the whole world is created in design. Timur is prone to having moments of inspiration, which, if you’re not careful, can render your preparation moot. I think the guys who planned the fights and the actors in them found that one of the challenges was that a fight they’d been working on for weeks wouldn’t actually work in a situation that need to be abbreviated or elongated or changed completely. But they had enough training, Ben especially, that they could adapt.

With the dialogue and stuff, when Timur would have ideas about things to change, I would need to protect my character’s story, because Timur’s a very visual guy. But he was incredibly amenable. Once I said, “All right, listen, I need to be able to keep this aspect of my character. Is that possible?” he’d say, “Yes, let’s work together.” So I’d have to process his ideas so I didn’t get washed away, or the character in the story didn’t get washed away from me.

FANG: You mentioned earlier that for you, the director’s cut of DARK CITY that’s available on disc is the film. What makes it the superior version in your eyes?

SEWELL: Well, at the time, there were [test] screenings that a segment of the audience didn’t understand, so it was made more clear and obvious. They put in explanations at the beginning, they sped things up, they did all these things which, to me, were disappointing at the time, because one of the great things about reading the script was the slow, late discovery that you’re not on planet Earth, and in the non-director’s cut they tell you in the beginning where you are. It just took away a lot of the fun for me. That was removed for the director’s cut, and also, Alex put a little bit of the oxygen back into the film, just by adding a few seconds into every scene that had been sped up. He enthusiastically altered what they asked, and it worked in many ways; he only added 15-20 minutes or something, but I think it transformed the film. Just making those key changes at the beginning, or unmaking those changes, presents the film as it was always intended.

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