Rufus Sewell, Interview: Back in the Spotlight
After several years living in Los Angeles, British actor Rufus Sewell is returning to the London stage, in Harold Pinter's Old Times
The Telegraph, 12 January 2013
When Rufus Sewell walks on stage next week, to star in a revival of Harold Pinter’s 'Old Times', it will be for the first time in almost five years.
It was back in March 2008 that he completed the Broadway run of Tom Stoppard’s 'Rock’n’Roll', having picked up Olivier, Critics’ Circle and Evening Standard awards during its eight-month run in London for his portrayal of the rock-music-loving Czech academic Jan (he was later also nominated for a Tony Award).
To Sewell, that period in his life had felt like a new beginning: before taking on the role in 2006, he had separated from his wife; he had also stopped drinking and smoking. Playing Jan had left him keyed up.
'I was relatively light-footed, because I was living a guerrilla existence,’ he says. 'I didn’t have somewhere to live. I was very excited for what would come next. And I felt very ready for it.’
With the prospect of performing in 'Old Times', Sewell seems to be displaying a similar fizzing excitement to that which he had at the end of 'Rock’n’Roll'.
When I meet him on a Friday at the end of November after his first week of rehearsals, Sewell, 45, is the image of ebullience. Wrapped in a fuzzy beige scarf over a tweedy overcoat, he is savouring being in London for these first biting days of winter (he has lived in Los Angeles with his girlfriend for the past four years). He guides me through the door of the cafe, remarking on the pleasure of being genuinely courteous after five days of needle-sharp Pinter dialogue.
In 'Old Times', Sewell is to play Deeley, a film director in his 40s, a part previously played by an impressive roll call of actors – Anthony Hopkins, Colin Blakely, Robert Shaw ('I had a love since I was very young for those really great, useful actors; people who weren’t personas,’ Sewell says).
Written in 1971,'Old Times', one of Pinter’s 'memory plays’, is set in a farmhouse near the sea owned by Deeley and his wife, Kate. Anna, a friend of Kate’s from 20 years before, comes to visit; as she starts reminiscing, lines of conflict are drawn and no one’s recollections can be trusted.
The creeping darkness of the play was perceptible from day one, Sewell says. 'After the first day of rehearsal I came home with a feeling in my gut, as if someone had said something mean, but I hadn’t worked out what it was.’
Spending time in Sewell’s company produces quite the opposite of this feeling. He is sparky and garrulous, with charm that matches his handsomeness and a rich masculine laugh that bubbles up with pleasing frequency. He is a natural tease, his most frequent target being himself. 'Pseuds Corner!’ he exclaims at one point, having caught himself describing 'Old Times' as 'knobbly and pulsating’.
Considering his return to the stage, he says, 'I’d nearly done quite a few things. But I wanted a great role. This is the first time I’ve read something and thought, this is the one I can’t not do.’
'I had been on Rufus’s tail for a number of years,’ says Ian Rickson, the former artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre who directs this production. 'Rufus is a bloke, he’s an alpha male, but he has this nuanced, intuitive sensibility underneath. I’ve always coveted him, and he just keeps getting better and better. To have him on the London stage is very exciting.’
Aside from Sewell’s return, 'Old Times' has all the indications of an 'event’ production. It will be the first of Pinter’s plays to be produced at the Harold Pinter Theatre, formerly the Comedy Theatre, which was renamed in the playwright’s honour last year.
Sewell will star with Kristin Scott Thomas (who last summer gave an acclaimed performance in another Rickson-directed Pinter revival, 'Betrayal') and Lia Williams. Added to that, Rickson has devised a compelling gimmick: to further accentuate what Sewell describes as the play’s 'unpinned-down quality’, Scott Thomas and Williams will alternate roles, the decision over who will play Kate or Anna each night perhaps even being made on the toss of a coin.
Despite all this, and his own clear excitement about the project, Sewell is not banking on the play being a hit. 'My reasons for doing this were not about my anticipation of its success,’ he says. 'It may not go that way for me.’
Sewell’s relationship with success is something of a conundrum. It has certainly come knocking throughout his career, but not always in a way that he has welcomed. He generated a great deal of heat in the early to mid-1990s, first on stage in the original production of Stoppard’s 'Arcadia' in 1993, for which he was nominated for an Olivier Award, then in screen roles such as the dashing Will Ladislaw in the BBC’s 'Middlemarch' and the farmhand-turned-matinee idol Seth Starkadder in the film 'Cold Comfort Farm'.
But Sewell was not interested in carving out that, or any, lucrative niche for himself. He railed in interviews against being typecast as ludicrously handsome heroes and, as a result, was dubbed a 'reluctant himbo’. Later, he expressed similar frustration at playing a run of villains in films including 'A Knight’s Tale', 'The Legend of Zorro' and 'The Illusionist'.
'I’ve never done anything cynically,’ he explains of his choices. 'I have certain standards, and some of those standards will remain for ever, but some of those standards are erodible month by month [of unemployment]’.
Somewhat ironically, considering his trio of awards and his excitement when he finished the run of 'Rock’n’Roll', Sewell then suffered 'the longest period in Britain I had been unable to find a job’.
After several months, he ended up taking a central role as a socially challenged biophysicist in the American television crime drama 'Eleventh Hour', 'for want of anything else’ – an example, perhaps, of his standards eroding. Though respectable, its audience figures were not enough to see the series continue beyond 18 episodes.
'I was relieved when that particular job got cancelled because I realised very strongly that I did not want to be in an American series which wasn’t great,’ Sewell says. 'I’d like to do great work. I’d like to do my best in nearly great work, or do my best in good work, or, at worst, do my best in OK work. I’m prepared to do all those things.’
He still aspires to being one of those 'useful’ actors – he fondly remembers his first professional job for Tim Pigott-Smith’s Compass Theatre Company in 1989. He toured with two plays simultaneously, playing a Franciscan friar in Peter Shaffer’s 'The Royal Hunt of the Sun' in regional theatres, and a skinhead comic in Trevor Griffiths’ 'Comedians', which they performed in prisons.
'It couldn’t have been a better start for me,’ Sewell says. 'I don’t think the roles that I’m necessarily known for in this country are my best work, or even anywhere near it. I didn’t think I was great in 'Arcadia'. I think it’s a great part and a great play and had a lot of attention.’
Instead Sewell counts among his proudest moments his performance as a suspected IRA bomber in Ron Hutchinson’s 'Rat in the Skull' at the Royal Court in 1995, his Petruchio in the BBC’s 2005 production of 'The Taming of the Shrew', his performance of Simon Armitage’s 9/11 poem Out of the Blue for the award-winning television documentary of the same name in 2006, and his small role as the anti-slavery campaigner Thomas Clarkson in the 2006 film 'Amazing Grace'.
Recently, he was pleased with his lead in the BBC detective drama series 'Zen', a slick adaptation of Michael Dibdin’s books set in Rome, shown here in early 2011. His performance as Aurelio Zen was lauded by critics, and audiences responded well to this new complicated, attractive screen detective. But the show was axed after an initial three episodes. He could see it coming, he says – 'they [the BBC] didn’t like it’ – and insists the axing was preferable to continuing with an adjusted or compromised 'Zen'.
Sewell’s drive towards diverse and satisfying work has sometimes had a strange, topsy-turvy effect on his cv. He claims that he ends up taking roles in blockbusters – a 5,000-year-old vampire leader in 2012’s 'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter', for example – because he finds it harder to get cast in edgier, independent films. It seems an odd state of affairs considering his hunger for interesting work, and his track record, but he insists this is the case.
His move to Los Angeles was not a strategic career move. He met his girlfriend, a Japanese-American hair stylist, while he was there filming 'Eleventh Hour', and stayed. 'It is more about a relationship and hiding away between jobs than anything else,’ he says. 'And it’s cheaper than London. It’s where I go to avoid Hollywood, weirdly enough.’ His girlfriend grew up in LA, so she has a 'relatively jaundiced view of Hollywood, which is nice’. They live modestly, not taking big holidays and making only the rarest appearances at red-carpet events.
'I don’t know if the money I’ve earned is going to need to last me for the next few weeks or the rest of my life,’ he points out.
His main expenditure is on plane tickets to and from Britain. He has a 10-year-old son, Billy, with his ex-wife Amy Gardner, and he flies back to see him at least every six weeks. 'He loves school, he’s really interested in reading and drawing. And he’s good at maths. I think that’s his mother.’
Perversely, the move has had positive consequences for his career on this side of the Atlantic. 'If my British film career was a girl, then I’d been hanging around outside her apartment a little bit too long,’ he says. 'Since the moment I decided I’ll stay [in LA], the interest in England has sparked up. I’ve actually done more work for the BBC in those four or five years than I had done in the 15 years previously.’ Aside from 'Zen', he turned in a scene-stealing performance as the insane Rev Duchemin in the recent Stoppard-directed 'Parade’s End'; he also heads the cast, along with Hayley Atwell, of a forthcoming adaptation of William Boyd’s 'Restless', as the senior intelligence officer Lucas Romer.
Sewell describes his position in the industry food chain with rather unnecessary self-deprecation. In public, he is frequently mistaken for other, higher-profile actors. 'It’s generally Joaquin Phoenix,’ he says. 'I suppose it keeps my feet on the ground. I don’t know why the universe is so determined to keep my feet on the ground.’
He says that when he’s reading film scripts, 'if a film role is still obviously good on page 10 my heart sinks because I know I’m probably out of the running. However, if only I can see how it’s a great role, then maybe I’m in there.’ His own style is understated, too – charcoal jumper, dark jeans, tan brogues – but with the odd youthful touch, such as a black beaded bracelet on his wrist.
His childhood in Twickenham was unconventional. His father was an animator, originally from Australia, who worked on the Beatles’ 'Yellow Submarine', and his mother an artist and musician. Money was tight, and the family moved house frequently around the area, his mother doing an array of jobs from vegetable seller to barmaid.
After his parents split up when he was five, he and his older brother, Caspar, spent weekends with his father in his Wardour Mews studio, surrounded by all the sights and sounds of 1970s Soho. 'Fag-ash Lils hanging out the window saying, “Got a light, dearie?” Pure Dennis Potter. I remember really clearly going out for a late-night showing of 'The Pink Panther' and having to wait in the street while my father talked to a tramp for about 25 minutes about life and art. He did strange things like that. That is a memory that I’m glad I have. I like the fact that that happened.’
His father died when he was 10, smoking being one suspected factor. Sewell has been described as going off the rails in his teens, but says now, 'I wasn’t a rebel at all, I was just a bit of a twit. I got myself into a bit of a mess.’ He regrets missing so much school, playing truant one day, then, not wanting to face the music, skipping the next. He says he feels his lack of education at times. 'I feel the need to catch up, which is why I like reading so much.’
He is strangely reluctant to explain the roots of his love of acting – 'I’m doing a play all about how untrustworthy our memories are. Every time we put together a memory, we change it according to our circumstances at the moment of remembering,’ he says. In a 1995 interview, he described his drive to act as 'revenge’, having felt like the fat boy who didn’t fit in at school (Sewell wanted to look like David Bowie; his brother used to call him the 'Fat White Duke’). A school drama teacher urged him to audition for drama schools and he won a place at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama.
Ian Rickson, speaking from Norfolk, where the cast of 'Old Times' are having a week of rehearsals in rural isolation, describes Sewell as a bundle of contradictions. 'He’s dark and aquiline and yet he’s soulful and human. He’s brittle and highly strung, but has something very zen about him.’
You could add more to this: that he is profoundly comfortable in his own skin, yet acutely self-conscious, constantly undercutting anything he says that could be deemed pretentious ('Can I get through this sentence without using the word “visceral”?’ he grimaces at one point). He likes his peripatetic lifestyle – 'as far as I’m concerned I live in England and I live in America, depending on where the work is’ – but he loves routine. 'One of the things I love about rehearsing is the mundanity. The times I think of as happy are when you have a relatively unremarkable little routine. You have your cup of tea...’
He remains rootless, yet family is enormously important to him. As well as seeing Billy as often as possible and ensuring he is never away from his girlfriend for more than three weeks, Sewell sees a lot of his mother and brother. He says he is closer now to Caspar, a landscape gardener, than when they were growing up. He recently went to see Caspar’s band, Grand Union, playing at a pub in Isleworth, a regular gig. The scene he describes is akin to a more with-it version of the Von Trapps. 'I haven’t joined in yet’ – Sewell plays drums and 'limited’ keyboards – 'but a lot of the family do. My mum plays jazz piano, and my niece Zaki sings.’
His mother’s resourcefulness during his youth has been a key influence. He enjoys home economy. 'I was really adept at making a great meal out of things you wouldn’t know you could make a meal out of. I was famous for Sewell’s gruel.’ He senses this applies to his work, too. He has always worked better in the teeth of a challenge. 'When things have gone bad I go, “Rrrright, watch this!” I’ve coped less well with things being good in the past.’
Fortunately, Sewell says, he has worked on this tendency. As he looks forward to his return to the stage, he even allows himself some cautious optimism. 'All sorts of wonderful little projects are just starting to tumble my way. I’d like to think this is going to be a change, not just a feature of a particular year.’