Rufus Sewell on ‘Zen,’ ‘Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter,’ and Tom Cruise

Wall Street Journal, 31 July 2011
By Susan Michals

There are not a lot of actors these days that could be described as smolderingly handsome. Sure,there’s Brad Pitt and Clive Owen and George Clooney – the usual smoldering subjects, but beyond that there’s but a handful. British actor Rufus Sewell is certainly one to add to the list. We’ve seen him in countless period pieces, (think “A Knight’s Tale” or “The Illusionist”) and mostly played the bad guy (like that nasty Jasper Bloom in “The Holiday”) but now the actor has done a complete 180 to play a honest, albeit slightly jaded cop... who just happens to be Italian – and with a British accent.

In the Masterpiece Mystery television show “Zen,” Sewell plays Aurelio Zen, a Roman police officer. Far from typical “Law and Order” fare, the mini-series is less procedural and more about the mores of Italian society where Zen must play by the rules of internal politics (or rather work around them) to solve the cases he gets assigned to that he doesn’t really want in the first place. The tone is much more amusing and lyrical as opposed to the heavy handed full frontal assault you’d get on any of the Dick Wolf series (particularly Sunday night’s episode entitled “Ratking”). While playing the good guy was a great experience, the next time we’ll see Sewell will be in another – yes, wait for it – villainous role – that of the vampire Adam, in “Wanted” director Timur Bekmambetov’s coming “Abraham Lincoln VampireHunter.” Here, on the eve of the final episode of “Zen”, the witty and outspoken Sewell talks about losing a famous role of vampiric proportions to one Tom Cruise, and channeling his inner Orson Welles.

Zen is not exactly dark like Jane Tennyson in “Prime Suspect” but he’s no “Miss Marple” either. He’s divorced first of all, and she’s probably a virgin.

You’re probably right, but we don’t want to picture it.

But Zen doesn’t seem to have the deep dark secrets like Jane Tennyson.

Anyone that you judge by uniform if you get to know them long enough you see there’s stuff going on. It’s just not your standard complex character TV fare; he’s got loads of little grubby secrets like everyone else.

You’ve played a lot of rakes as well.

Any of these questions you might ask me, playing bad guys, doing period drama, rakes or kings, it’s because if I’m unemployed and waiting for work, chances are it’s going to be one of those things. And I can either hold out for something that’s either not that and maybe not work for another year, or I can try and find a way to bring new color to that role.

Well look at Jasper Bloom in “The Holiday.” I wouldn’t call him a villain per se.

I’d call him a wanker. I tried to give him a bit more humanity but that got cut.

“Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter”. Can you talk about it?

There was one day were there was some kind of press on the set – I wasn’t there that day, and I [was] sent this missive about how we were going to, we were going to speak to them (the press); I’m in charge of my own intellectual property, thank you very much. As far as I’m concerned, it’s kind of goofy but serious, but it could be very funny. The thing about being a movie called “Abraham Lincoln VampireHunter” is it’s not “La Dolce Vita 2” – it’s based on a good book and extremely well written.

But your character wasn’t in the book.

I guess they decided they needed an über villain. I met Timur [the director] on SKYPE. Meeting someone on SKYPE throws up a whole new bunch of questions on etiquette. Do you tell someone when they’ve frozen in an unattractive position? That happened and I opted for no.

I’ve said in the past I don’t want to play any more bad guys, and I don’t really, but if a part is really well written with a great director and cast – I have to do it and this was one of those circumstances. I can always change my mind if I bloody well feel like it. I want to play interesting, smart characters and this is one of them.

So you’re a smart vampire then.

Well, yes actually. I’m a 5,000 year old vampire who has seen it all. And the big thing for me was to decide how he was supposed to talk because you can’t do an Aramaic twinge – because if they cut the scene that explains where you came from you just look stupid. So I just picked Old Hollywood – rather, old American, like Roosevelt. He’s a man’s man, cigar room dealmaker who also happens to be the king of the vampires. I just liked the idea of infusing a little Orson Welles too. I just played him as if you were a vampire and you had to vote for someone in some upcoming vampire election, you’d probably vote for him.

Where did you film?

New Orleans. Fantastic. The 110 degree weather dropping to 109.5 at night I could do without especially since I was in a 17th century costume at one point.

When you mention New Orleans and vampires you know what I think of.

Lestat. You know I was nearly cast as Lestat. Neil Jordan had me audition for him and then he flew me out to L.A. to test for it (Sewell was living in London at the time), they built the set and everything like that and the morning of the screen test I got the call from my agent who said “I just want you to know that Tom Cruise has expressed a very serious interest – do you still want to bother going in?” I said ‘Yeah, I suppose so, that’s why I’m here.’ I went and did the test and then went home. So it only took 17 years to get some version of the part.

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