Two Imports Meet on Broadway: Rufus Sewell & 'Translations.'

Back Stage , 24 March 1995
By Ellis Nassour
Thanks, Michelle

British actor Rufus Sewell will play Owen in Brian Friel's 'Translations,' a play that was first produced in Ireland. Sewell will perform under an arrangement made by the exchange program between Britain and America's Actor's Equity unions. Sewell came to America with experience in theater and film, such as Public Broadcasting Service's Masterpiece Theater and the British Broadcasting's 'Middlemarch,' an adaptation of George Elliot's novel.

After making an impression on TV and in the movies, Rufus Sewell (who, many women claim, is this year's Hugh Grant) is making his Broadway debut as Owen, the independent son of an Irish teacher, in Brian Friel's "Translations."

The play, which premiered in Ireland in 1980 and ran two years ago on London's West End, was done here in 1981 at Manhattan Theatre Club. The new Broadway production is at the Plymouth Theatre, where Friel feels at home. His "Dancing at Lughnasa," which won the 1992 Tony for Best Play, and last season's failed "Wonderful Tennessee," were mounted there.

Sewell co-stars in a stellar cast headed by Brian Dennehy, Dana Delany, and Donal Donnelly, and featuring Rob Campbell and Michael Cumpsty. Howard Davies directs. Sewell is appearing under American and British Equity's exchange program.

"It was a matter of the producers convincing American Equity I was worthwhile to the play," explains the 27-year-old actor. "I have no idea what b.s. they used or how much they exaggerated the truth. I was in the pub. That was the best way of dealing with it. There was nothing I could do to help it along. I got the part a long time before, but didn't believe I was coming to Broadway until the day before I left for America."

He's put everything he's heard about Broadway at the back of his head, "because I don't want to be intimidated. My friends say, 'Oh, my God, Broadway!' That's when it becomes daunting! It has this celluloid reputation from so many '30s movies. It's slightly more than the West End. Broadway, wherever you go, conjures up certain images."

Auditioning for Eliot

Sewell was well-received in "Middlemarch," the BBC's adaptation of George Eliot's epic Victorian novel of youthful idealism, disillusionment, ambition, romance, greed, and blackmail. This was seen here last April on PBS's Masterpiece Theatre. Sewell played the handsome Will Ladislaw, who falls in love with the wife of his scholarly cousin, Edward Casaubon.

According to Sewell, his audition "was an ordeal. The script wasn't completed, so I was asked to read from the book, which was horrifyingly dense. After 10 minutes, I was still on the first sentence, which was about five pages long--or so it seemed! I asked to be excused, went to the canteen, got myself a pot of coffee, a pack of cigarettes, and for two or three hours dug in. I went back, read, and got the part."

On the same day that he began shooting "Middlemarch," Sewell opened at the Royal National Theatre as the tutor Septimus Hodge in Trevor Nunn's staging of Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia," for which he won raves and a 1993 Olivier Award nomination.

"It was for Best Actor with Curly Hair," he quips. Actually, it was for featured actor. He didn't win. "I wasn't disappointed because I knew well before that I wouldn't. My nomination was my birthday present, so to speak. I was in Ireland making a movie, so I phoned and said, `I won't be able to make it.' They said, `Okay,' so I knew."

Is it coincidental that he pops up in New York just when Lincoln Center Theater's production of "Arcadia" is about to open? "No, no, no!" he replies. "There's an element of revenge."

Sewell says that the challenge of "Middlemarch" was "maintaining the feeling that events in the story present just as real a situation as your life." That's a task that constantly crops up for actors.

Identifying Owen

The "Translations" cast is almost evenly divided between American and English/Irish actors. Sewell notes that the cast bonded quickly, and that "there was something for us all to do. No matter where you come from to do this play, it's difficult to acclimate to the setting and characters. We had to end up in the same community of the play. All had an equal amount of work."

His character, Owen, "is from a small town and moved to Dublin, the big city. He wants to become a man out of the shadow of his father. He convinces himself that working with the British to change the Irish place names into English is helping Ireland enter the modem age."

Was there a problem identifying with Owen? "No," Sewell laughs. "I don't mean to sound arrogant. If we hadn't had the rehearsal process, I'd have been in trouble. When I read the part, I could understand Owen's ability to delude himself. He's an opportunist to a certain extent. Eventually, I began to see him. That's what I needed."

Every project is different, the actor comments. "There are differences between two movies, two plays. That's what makes our work interesting. If it were the same, you might as well work in a bank. What's great about our profession is that it's a different experience each time. With every role, I have to find a new process."

How does he begin? "I haven't gotten it down pat. I have to discover something every time. It depends on the circumstances and role."

Because director Davies was familiar with his work, Sewell got the "Translations" role without auditioning. "It's nice, but when the director has cast you based on what he thinks you'll do with the part, you begin to worry that he's made a mistake." Does that make him work harder? "You always find an excuse to get paranoid in this business."

"Working with a range of directors," Sewell says, "has enabled me to rely on myself to the best of my ability, despite the different influences around me. I've had enough experience now that if I'm left alone, I know what to do. The last couple of years, I've worked with directors who didn't leave me alone. They've helped by edging me toward something I hadn't anticipated."

British Bio

Born in London, Sewell spent part of his youth in Wales, which, he says, "makes me half a country boy." His father is Australian and his mother, he laughs, "claims to be a gypsy--which is a very good background for an actor, isn't it?" He developed an interest in theatre at an early age. What attracted him? "Sex and free sandwiches." Would he care to elaborate? "No. That's all you'll get!"

He trained at London's Central School of Speech and Drama. One of his first acting jobs was a tour of "Royal Hunt of the Sun." At Sheffield's Crucible Theatre and Manchester's Royal Exchange, Sewell appeared in classics and made his way to the West End. Then British TV discovered him. "Gone to Seed" with Peter Cook and "The Last Romantics" with lan Holm are among his TV credits. His big break came in 1992 opposite Jane Asher in "Making It Better," playing a student involved in a romantic triangle between a gay spy and his wife. He received good notices last year in "A Man of No Importance" the Sony Classic production starring Albert Finney and directed by Suri Krishnamma. Sewell played a 1960s Dublin bus driver idolized by Finney's character--a conductor who entertains passengers with Oscar Wilde witticisms and dreams of directing a production of Wilde's "Salome."

"Middlemarch" and the Finney film generated increased interest in Sewell. His dark, smoldering looks will be on display soon in three films made last year. One of those, "a love quadrangle" comedy called "Carrington," directed and written by Christopher Hampton, puts him opposite Emma Thompson and Jonathan Pryce. Starla Smith, a photographer who snapped him at "Translations" rehearsals, found his attraction. "It's his eyes," she said. "They almost smile."

Sewell admits to one bad habit: smoking too much. Among his assets is a wicked sense of humor. Though he's good for a lot of laughs, he's taking his career very seriously. As for those eyes, they certainly are piercing.

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