Rufus Sewell Is Living His Zen Moment

The Globe and Mail, 19 July 2011
By Andrew Ryan

Rufus Sewell has become rather fussy in his character portrayals. Currently starring in the PBS Masterpiece Mystery! series 'Zen', the soft-spoken Englishman has a reputation for picking his roles carefully.

After growing up in Twickenham, Sewell attended London's Central School of Speech and Drama, where one of his instructors, Dame Judi Dench, saw potential and set him up with an agent.

His first notable appearance was in the 1994 BBC miniseries 'Middlemarch', which he followed with a breakout stage turn in 'Arcadia' at The Royal National Theatre. He played the lead in the 1998 cult hit 'Dark City' before his brooding good looks led to roles in 'A Knight's Tale', 'The Legend of Zorro' and 'The Illusionist'.

Network television came calling in 2008 with 'Eleventh Hour', a drama in which he starred as a biophysicist investigating unsolved phenomena. The show lasted less than one season, but he bounced back in the HBO miniseries 'John Adams'.

'Zen', adapted from the novels of Michael Dibdin, casts Sewell as a wry Roman police detective who tackles crime and corruption with stylish flair.

More than half your acting résumé has been roles in period pieces. Is that by preference?

I've never had any particular predilection towards period drama or swords and sandals. It's not something I'm particularly fond of or any better at than anything else.

Zen walks both sides of the law with aplomb. Is he a good guy or a bad guy?

That's for the viewer to decide. He's not, for me, a winner. I was drawn to the fact that he wasn't one of those corridor-striding kind of winners. The absolute heart of him is how he reacts when he's cornered. He has to be slippery.

How close is your portrayal to the literary version?

The books were the inspiration, of course, but they're so unique. Michael Dibdin wrote 11 books and they vary wildly in style and tone. Some are overtly comic. Some are incredibly dark. And in some the character of Zen is very shadowy and, in some cases, doesn't even appear until halfway, and then fails to solve the crime. In others he's right at the forefront. The one constant is that he's strangely un- dynamic. In many ways, he's just trying to get through the day.

Was filming in Rome the biggest perk of making the show?

What's wonderful about Rome is that it's unaffected by the tourists and stuff. The place is magical. And the Italians are lovely. We were working ridiculous hours, so I didn't see a lot of the city, but just getting dropped off and walking back through Rome at the end of the evening was one of the great pleasures of making the show.

Did the cruel fate of 'Eleventh Hour' sour you on American network television?

I'd say I'm burned on network television. I learned more doing that series than probably anything else I've ever done, but the first benefit of that knowledge is not to do another one. With network television there are so many people you have to please in terms of business and demographics. The kind of thing I like is quite difficult to produce under those circumstances. And even the kind of thing I like, I wouldn't necessarily want to be in for a long time.

No envy, then, of Hugh Laurie's success with House?

No. I think he's fantastic. And I could watch that show back to back, and he's brilliant in it.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Masterpiece Mystery! airs Sundays on PBS.

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