Q&A: Rufus Sewell

Sydney Morning Herald, 15 January 2012
By Michael Idato

If you were playing Shakespeare's Hamlet, no one would think anything of either reading the original text or looking at another interpretation of the character. With Aurelio Zen, did you pick up the Michael Dibdin novels?

Yes. And it applies just as much to Shakespeare as anything else, or if you're playing a real character. As far as I'm concerned the more you know the better and you just have to trust your intelligence to know when it diverts from fact or previous versions, why and to what purpose. I read as many of the novels as I could ahead of time because I wanted to find out if there was anything in there that was better used than ignored. I didn't want to lose anything for ignorance.

What did you make of Aurelio Zen?

Reading the books, there are obviously a few things I'm immediately aware of in terms of casting. [First] he's not me. He's considerably older. If I was a purist, I'd argue myself out of the role. So they've cast me. Why have they cast me? I have to presume there are some changes that are deliberate. You're always going to offend some people but you're never going to offend them any less for trying to please them.

You recorded the audio books of Ian Fleming's James Bond. As a character, are the book and film interpretations chasms apart?

Bond, in his way, is quite camp in the books … liable to go off on a very long dialogue about soufflés. If people were presented with the book version they'd feel it had tarnished the [film] Bond they know and love. So, basically, it's a case of who gets there first.

Is an Italian police thriller like Zen distinct in any way from, say, an American or British police series?

What is key in Michael Dibdin's character is that even though he's an Italian, Zen in Rome or around Italy is almost a foreigner himself, because he's a Venetian. With the exception of one of the novels where he goes back to Venice, he's an outsider and it's very much written from the viewpoint of an Englander living in Italy because Dibdin was living in Italy when he wrote it. There are certain things that are inherently Italian and there are certain things that are tourist Italian and it's a bit of a pick and mix.

Zen was filmed on location. What did you make of Italy?

There is a phrase and I don't know how true this is but it certainly informs Dibdin's writing: in England we make laws and break rules and in Italy people make rules and break laws. And you can argue 'til the cows come home whether it's a cliche but it does seem to be borne out in Italian society. In their political scandals, for example, the Italian prime minister actually breaks the law, whereas the scandals in England are about people following the laws but pushing and breaking the rules. In Italy, the fact it's about who you know is met with a shrug and a sort of, "that's the way it is".

You have said the humour in the character of Zen was an important factor in deciding to take the role. Why?

I have found myself playing characters so devoid of humour in the writing that it became the struggle of my day to find them. My fear at drama school was that nobody would take me seriously as an actor and I would be stuck doing comedy, so when it came to taking dramatic roles I kind of leapt at them to prove a point to this faceless crowd in my head. It would never have occurred to me I would get slightly jammed into drama. The stuff that is easiest, most fun and delightful for me is humorous.

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