The Best of Times
The Stage, 17 February 2013
It’s uncanny how popular you become with your female friends when you reveal that you’re off to interview Rufus Sewell. Can I make the tea, says one, may I be your assistant, offers another. This is proof, if any were needed, that Sewell, back on the London stage in Ian Rickson’s enthralling revival of Pinter’s 'Old Times', still causes female hearts to flutter. Having said that, the fact that Sewell is flanked in the production by two such luminous talents as Kristin Scott Thomas and Lia Williams might cause a pang or two of jealousy among male theatregoers as well.
Two decades on from his sudden emergence as one of the most charismatic actors of his generation, Sewell is irritatingly unchanged, his youthful appearance belying his 45 years. The spring of 1993 saw him as Septimus, the ill-fated tutor in the premiere of Tom Stoppard’s 'Arcadia' at the National. Almost simultaneously he was filming 'Middlemarch' for the BBC as the dashing Will Ladislaw and two such eye-catching vehicles created a deafening buzz around him. Epithets such as Byronic and Heathcliffian were regularly bandied about and great things predicted for him.
Even if it hasn’t quite worked out as some pundits predicted, Sewell’s career has been more diverse and more substantial than is often assumed. A West End 'Macbeth', John Osborne’s 'Luther' at the National, a revival of Ron Hutchinson’s 'Rat in the Skull' and an award-winning performance in Stoppard’s 'Rock’n’Roll' in both London and New York, underline his stage credentials. On screen, he was an acclaimed Petruchio and a passionate Hotspur and in many ways he was an inspired choice to play Aurelio Zen, Michael Dibdin’s weary Italian detective. His recent murderous spymaster in William Boyd’s 'Restless' on BBC1 suggested an older actor projecting both maturity and danger. The biggest impact his work has made in the cinema was arguably created by the cheerfully anachronistic 'A Knight’s Tale' opposite the late Heath Ledger, in which Sewell’s saturnine colouring pointed him towards the villain’s role. The success of the film may have been good for Sewell’s bank balance but it has tended to blind Hollywood to the scope of his talents. Tinseltown seems to prefer him as what he calls “dark-eyed Count on a horse, No 7”.
Back on stage at the Harold Pinter, Sewell is playful, almost nonchalant, and he reveals an unexpectedly tuneful singing voice wrapped around some 20th century standards. At times, as Deeley, he bares his teeth at Anna, the interloper, as they limber up to battle for possession of Kate, Deeley’s wife and Anna’s friend. The impact is immediate and electric. Given the success of 'Rock’n’Roll' and Sewell’s evident ease on the stage, it’s surprising that he’s waited five years to make a return to live theatre.
“I’ve always liked the idea of regularly doing a play but I was offered things which I felt were too ‘celebie’ and West Endy,” Sewell explains.
“I was a very big fan of both Kristin and Lia and I knew that Ian [Rickson] had directed some fantastic Pinter productions. This is my first time in a Pinter play, apart from appearing in a short film of 'Victoria Station', and I’d only met him once, briefly, at a benefit. I suppose I was a fan of his work but a pretty ignorant one. Pinter’s language is extremely precise, of course. I don’t think that there is an agreed style of doing Pinter and I’m trying to serve it in a way that is my natural response to it. The play is incredibly powerful, but also incredibly natural and true.”
In general, it is unwise to make bald assertions about something as fluid as a Pinter character. Sewell is willing to give us a few pointers, however.
“Deeley is a film director. He’s in his 40s – he talks about his father and only vaguely mentions his mother. He’s possibly in a place where he shouldn’t be and I don’t think he considers himself to be particularly successful. He’s been married for 20 years or so. These are my private conclusions and I don’t think that it’s my business to force my conclusions on the audience. After all, Deeley is more than just one thing. He’s clever, he’s scared, he’s bolshie.”
To make matters even more interesting for Sewell, he has to adjust to his co-stars alternating the roles of Anna and Kate.
“I think it’s a brilliant idea because of the way the characters overlap. You could argue that they are two halves of the same personality. Alternating the parts has been very complex for them – it’s been enormously generous of them to do it. It’s been equally fascinating for me to play to them. Both have very different approaches, different charm, different attack modes – and you have to have different responses at your disposal.”
Sewell maintains that what he refers to as his “roister-doistering days in Soho” are behind him and he now takes great pleasure in the everyday.
“I’ve been very happy with the mundanity of it – coming to rehearsals, doing the show, going home. I love being on stage, although it’s always a bit of a jolt to come out of the rehearsal room and go on to the stage. I almost resent the fact that it’s gone public. It makes me nervous to see my name in lights, and yet at the same time, you have to be aware of all that bollocks. When I did 'Making It Better' at Hampstead in 1992, I claimed in the programme credits that it was my first appearance in London, although I had appeared in something at the Battersea Arts Centre and a number of the critics referred to my ‘London debut’. People talk about me in 'Arcadia' and I think I was okay in it but I’ve given better performances in other productions that didn’t have the same impact. But I knew 'Arcadia' was going to be an event and I wanted to be part of it.”
Like many actors in his position, with an international film profile, Sewell feels stifled by industry preconceptions of what he has to offer and, to an extent, he is shackled by the very qualities which brought him attention in the first place.
“At times, I think of my career as a map,” he says. “The closer you get to the map, the more you know where you are but the closer I get to my career, the less happy I feel. At the same time, I have carved out the career for myself which I wanted. Now I feel liberated from the need to show the f*****s what I can do. I suppose that my ambition is to be a relatively useful actor and I think of myself increasingly as a craftsperson. I’m interested in playing human beings – sometimes good guys, sometimes three-dimensional good guys, sometimes a complex bad guy.”
In the 20 years since he made his name, Sewell’s private life has featured two marriages and the birth of a son, now 11, and, he implies, a good deal of ‘roister-doistering’.
“I no longer have a style to maintain,” he says. “I rent a little flat in Los Angeles, I don’t take holidays, I don’t dine out and I take cheap flights. I only moved to Los Angeles to do 'Eleventh Hour' and when I started it, I realised that it was not where I wanted to be. Then it was cancelled and living in Los Angeles now is very much about my current relationship. Paradoxically, my time there is where I’m most apart from the business.”
Sewell speaks positively about two films he has awaiting release. In 'All Things To All Men' he plays “a slightly crazed London cop”, alongside Gabriel Byrne and Toby Stephens and he also stars in 'The Sea', a screen version of John Banville’s Booker-Prize-winning novel. There is a definite sense of renewed enthusiasm in the way he talks about the future.
“I now think that the best defence against mediocrity is to lower your expectations. I now feel able to walk away from the second rate and in any case, whenever I’ve done things in the past for cynical, financial reasons, that’s when I’ve tended to fall on my arse. I’m determined not to take other people’s advice – everybody’s bluffing anyway, as I now realise. At 45, I feel that I’m at the beginning of something new, although you always have to take account of the realities. There’s no point in saying that you’ll only work with Martin Scorsese – if you do, you’ll be vegetating in your bedsit, waiting forever for the phone to ring.”