Rufus Sewell: 'I Had a Vague Idea That I'd Enjoy My Life Being an Actor'
Express, 19 December 2012
Despite his pin-up looks, Rufus Sewell likes to stay under the radar. But the BBC1's Christmas spy thriller might just blow his cover. Dark curls, piercing eyes and chiselled features: Rufus Sewell’s face should be his fortune. We’ve had plenty of opportunity to admire it over the years, from 1994’s Middlemarch – he was the Mr Darcy of his day – to Zen, last year’s stylish but short-lived detective series. But all that charisma has never quite brought the fame you’d expect.
That may be about to change, however. Sewell, 45, stars in 'Restless' – novelist William Boyd’s adaptation of his own spy thriller, and the centrepiece of BBC1’s Christmas. And if the actor’s own estimation is anything to go by, it’s going to be special.
“This is much more than goodies versus baddies,” he enthuses. “It gets involved in their relationships.You couldn’t hope for a better script and it’s been great to have a big part in it, with really good actors.”
Could he be referring to Sir Michael Gambon? “He’s very funny, very naughty and obviously a wonderful actor,” says Sewell. But then there’s also 'Downton Abbey'’s Michelle Dockery – “sadly we don’t have scenes together” – and Hayley Atwell as Eva Delectorskaya, a beautiful but enigmatic Russian who Sewell’s character recruits to spy for the British during the Second World War.
The plot is a globe-trotting affair, set in New York, London, Paris and Mexico, and most of it was filmed in South Africa. But there was no danger of Sewell feeling homesick – at least not for Britain. For the past nine years his home has been Los Angeles, where he shares an apartment with a girlfriend he’d rather not name.
“I did a job in LA and when it came to an end I had a place there and no place anywhere else. So that was that,” he explains. “I live a quiet life there. I don’t do a lot of parties and I don’t spend a lot of money.”
His one extravagance, he admits, is travel. “I fly back and forth to England all the time to see my son. Every couple of months, at the least.”
Ten-year-old William is the child of Rufus’s second marriage, to screenwriter Amy Gardner (both unions were short lived, the first lasting just weeks). The actor’s own parents split, too, when he was five, with Rufus and his older brother staying with their mother in a London council flat. Worse was to come when his father, a film animator, died of a heart attack, five years later.
“Even after they split my parents would still get together for weekends,” recalls the actor. “My brother and I weren’t dragged into taking sides in a nasty divorce – it was all kind of OK. But my dad was only in his fifties when he died, so my memory of him is the memory of a 10-year-old boy. My mother struggled hard to keep us after that, working in bars and selling vegetables door to door. Although even when my dad was here, he wasn’t very good at getting money.”
Following these early upsets, Rufus admits he went off the rails. “There was a period when I got into trouble for shoplifting. I became a smoker, a drinker and a rabble-rouser.” Was it cause and effect? “Possibly,” he muses. “Though I was doing these things with other kids whose parents were alive. Some of them turned out all right, some didn’t. I’m still in touch with a couple of them.”
These days, however, he’s a teetotal non-smoker. “My son is now the same age as I was when Dad died,” he says. “Because of him, I gave up smoking and drinking six years ago. I’d been smoking since I was 12 years old, around two packs a day. I was a proper smoker and I never stopped loving it. When I gave up, I walked around really angry, punching walls, for about two weeks. Every time I got really desperate, I’d go for a run. Who’s to say I’m not going to drop dead tomorrow but I’ll do what I can to protect myself.”
If the actor’s personal life has seen its troubles, his career has steadily flourished. Encouraged by his teachers, Sewell won a place at the Central School of Speech and Drama, where Dame Judi Dench directed him and was so impressed that she found him an agent. His break came in 'Middlemarch', and he has since appeared in films including 'Holiday' with Cameron Diaz and 'The Tourist' with Angelina Jolie, as well as a huge body of highly acclaimed stage work that includes Tom Stoppard’s 'Arcadia' and several Shakespeare roles.
“The toughest part about being an actor,” he says, “is knowing when to accept work and when to turn it down. Doing second-rate work hurts me more than unemployment and being poor. 'Restless' was one of those rare occasions when a perfect role was offered to me and I’ve relished it. When I went to America, work had run out in London. Though that’s changing now.”
His next job is filming a drama 'The Sea', in Ireland, with Ciarán Hinds and Sinéad Cusack, and next month, he returns to the London stage in Harold Pinter’s 'Old Times' with Kristin Scott Thomas.
“The only reason I do this job is for myself. I don’t do it for other people. I do it because I once had some vague idea that I’d enjoy my life this way and I’m determined to continue to do so.”
'Restless' is on BBC1 at 9pm on Thursday and Friday, December 27 and 28.