A Chat With Rufus Sewell
Bullz-Eye.com, 23 October 2008
After a spending the better part of two decades working predominantly in film and theatre, English-born Rufus Sewell has finally decided to make that most important of decisions for an actor: to try his hand at American television. After several false starts at attempting to speak with Sewell (it was generally due to scheduling issues, but on one occasion, he had accidentally turned off his cell phone), Bullz-Eye finally caught up with the star of CBS’s “Eleventh Hour” and, in addition to quizzing him mercilessly about his new series, he was also willing to chat about his work on films (“Dark City,” “Cold Comfort Farm,” and the semi-classic monster movie, “She Creature”), his background on Syd Barrett before tackling Tom Stoppard’s “Rock ‘N’ Roll,” and his hopes for expanding the sorts of roles that he plays.
Bullz-Eye: Hi, Rufus, how are you?
Rufus Sewell: Fine, thanks. How are you doing?
BE: I’m good. It’s a pleasure to finally get to speak with you.
RS: Yeah, sorry it took so long.
BE: It’s quite all right. I understand you’re a busy man these days. So, would you ever have imagined that American network television would see its way to have a series which featured Nietzscheism as a major plot point in its first episode?
RS: (Laughs) Well, yeah, it seems to get round to featuring quite a lot of different and various points in the first episode. But, yeah, I think that can’t be a bad thing.
BE: Was it the intellectualism of the concept that drew you to the series? After all, certainly no one’s going to claim this is dumbed-down television.
RS: Not really. I mean, for me, it was just the fact that it was a refreshing change from the kind of parts I’m normally offered. And, yeah, the fact that he was an intelligent guy, the fact that I was playing someone very, very bright was certainly part of the appeal.
BE: What kind of familiarity did you have with the original British series?
RS: Not at all. I knew who was in it, but I never saw it. I was out of the country when it was on, and once I got offered the part, I decided for the moment to pretty much keep it that way, so as not to be swayed by anyone else’s performance and not be worried about that.
BE: What are your thoughts about British shows being adapted for American audiences?
RS: I don’t know. It depends. I mean, it’s not the kind of thing that I have any thoughts on. It’s either a mistake or it’s not, depending on how it turns out. If it turns out rubbish, then it was a mistake. If it turns out well, then it was a jolly good idea. (Laughs) I mean, that’s pretty much the way people think! There’s no rule. There was certainly a time that I would’ve thought that was a dreadful mistake, but then “The Office” happened, and that was more long-running as an American show as it ever was as a British one. I think as long as they take on their own flavor and they don’t try to ape everything…I think the advantage for us is that the British “Eleventh Hour” was only ever a four-part series, so after we’ve got past the four-part hurdle, there’s room for a lot of character development. And because there’s an age difference with the central hero, there are possibilities for us to end up going in very different directions and becoming something else, with the character developing in a different way. So, you know, it might start off in many ways remarkably similar, but the idea is for it to take off in its own direction. As long as there’s room for something to have its own flavor, there’s no reason it shouldn’t succeed. As to whether this one will or not, it’s not in my hands.
BE: Had you considered American television prior to this, or was this your first foray?
RS: No, my first foray wasn’t picked up. (Laughs) But I’ve certainly been open to the idea in the past, much in the same way that I’m still open to film, theater and everything else. What made me open to it is that I’m continually…I find that the casting process in films at the moment is, as far as I’m concerned, very unimaginative. And any mode – theater, film, TV – that offers me opportunities that I’m not getting elsewhere is going to get my consideration.
BE: Was it your decision or the producers’ decision to go with the accent that you use in the show?
RS: Oh, anything I do is only ever my decision. Any decision you make, you can’t… I mean, even if it’s a producer’s decision and you say, “Yes, okay,” it’s still your decision. So, yeah, it was mine. But, also, it’s what they wanted, and it’s what came to me with the offer: an American accent. But, still, taking it was my decision.
BE: In the first two episodes, which is all I’ve seen thus far, we don’t really get much of a feel for Jacob’s history, aside from the tease that he once had a shot at the Nobel Prize. Do you get the idea that we’ll gradually get more information about his history, or will he remain a mystery for the foreseeable future?
RS: Yeah, well, I hope he’ll remain… I quite like the idea that we don’t know much about him, but, obviously, more will slowly be revealed. There are certain things that will come to me as a surprise, I would hope. That’s part of what’s interesting about it. But, yes, hopefully, we’ll maintain as much mystery as possible and slowly, bit by bit, find out surprising things about him.
BE: Not to reveal anything, but have the producers let you in on any secrets about the character that have helped you play him?
RS: No, basically, as far as I’m concerned, I use my own imagination, and…I mean, we’ve had in-depth discussions about the kind of background he’s had, but then we don’t want to close off any avenues, in case any of our very imaginative writers come up with stuff that I haven’t thought about. I want to be open to it, y’know, and let the character develop in that way. But so far, whatever secrets I have will remain so.
BE: Clearly, he’s a man of science, but it’s actually pretty shocking in one scene, where he almost takes advantage of a person’s religious beliefs to get answers. How do you think something like that will play in the deep South?
RS: I don’t care, frankly. (Laughs) I mean, I don’t work in marketing. As far as I’m concerned, if someone’s offended, I’m doing all right. I definitely like the idea that, in terms of the hypocrisy, it’s something that would anger him very, very much, because he’s a great believer in life. He’s a great humanist. So, certainly, the idea of someone using their religion to do great harm to people is something that would make him angry. It’s not so much a comment on religion as it is on certain human hypocrisies.
BE: There’s a hint of humor here and there, most particularly when Jacob sets off his alarm while he’s at the hotel bar. Given that these are serious subjects, is it a challenge to slip in the occasional lighthearted moment without making it feel forced?
RS: No, as far as I’m concerned, I want to put in as much humor as possible, because there’s nothing forced about it. I don’t think you can get too much light-hearted moments, as long as it comes out of the situation and it’s not false. I think the one chance that this show has to be different from other similar shows is that humor, which I’m pushing for very much.
BE: You once used the phrase “rotational typecasting” to describe the battle you’ve experienced lots of bad guy roles…
RS: No, that wasn’t me describing the battle. That was me describing a very slow way out of the battle. My playing bad guys is not rotational; that’s just typecasting. What I’ve managed to do…what’s happened in my career is lots of people realizing I can play other parts, and every few years it shifts to a very different type of part, but what I would rather is play a different type of part every role, rather than every few years having them realize that I can do something else.
BE: I presume that you’re hoping for “Eleventh Hour” to aid you in the process.
RS: Well, you never know. I’ve discovered… I’ve come to realize that you can’t worry too much what effect certain things will have on your career. You’ve just got to do things for their own purpose, because you can never quite second-guess what effect things will have on the way people perceive you. It’s out of your hands.
BE: If nothing else, it’s an added bonus that it takes place in the present.
BE: And how do you like the schedule of working on a TV series versus film?
RS: Oh, I don’t like working at all. (Laughs) But, then, this is something that, when I was young, I did for free, so it’s quite an opportunity! But to tell you the truth, I’ve spent plenty of my time feeling underused, as I said, so I’m quite happy with the idea of feeling overused for awhile. It’ll be some time before I’ve had enough of this. I really like working late into the night and starting off early in the morning, because I like the fact that you just get more comfortable being a character and more comfortable in front of the camera. I like that. I mean, I’m sure I’ll get to resent the schedule soon enough, but for now, I’m in America, and it seems that my entire purpose to be in this country is to do this job, so there aren’t many distractions.
BE: I wanted to ask you about a couple of other things from your career, but the first has to be “Dark City,” which is one of my all-time favorite sci-fi films.
RS: Oh, thanks, glad to hear it!
BE: How difficult was that movie to make?
RS: For me, it was very difficult, because I wasn’t very experienced, and also, a lot of it was me on my own with either green-screen or looking off camera at a sort of perceived threat. So it was very difficult to maintain that level of near-hysteria in the character without it being over the top. I mean, I think it was…I won and lost certain battles in that one. Certainly, if I was to play the part again, I hope that my experience would make me play it slightly differently. I was still very proud of it, but I found it very taxing to find someone on the edge that much who didn’t know who they were, it was hard to find anything to base it on, because he didn’t really have a character.
BE: I know that Alex Proyas had a significant vision for what he wanted, but how much of a perfectionist was he, as far as getting that vision realized?
RS: Oh, he was a total perfectionist, but that was very, very much to do with the general mise en scène and the look of it and the idea, but in terms of the acting, he was very encouraging. He was quite happy to let me experiment. He gave me quite a lot of freedom; that way, he concentrated very much on the visual aspects.
BE: I’m sure doing period pieces can get to be a trial, but did you at least enjoy the challenge of getting to venture into America’s past and play Alexander Hamilton in “John Adams?”
RS: I did. I mean, I didn’t know anything about him. The challenge for me came about getting as much of the fascinating history that I’d discovered about Alexander Hamilton into the two or three scenes that I played (Laughs) because of having done so much research. Obviously, part of doing something like that – and I’m sure everyone involved in the series would’ve felt this – is the frustration of not having your character better represented, because every character in it, with the possible exception of Paul Giamatti as John Adams, would probably much rather have had 10 times as much to do to show all of the things that they discovered in their research. But, of course, you can’t make programs like that. But, for me, the frustration and also the challenge was trying to show in what was effectively a rough sketch a little glimpse of what the full portrait might be.
BE: So would you be up for portraying Alexander Hamilton in a full-length story of his life, then?
RS: No, I wouldn’t go back to that part. I’ve done that.
BE: Was “She Creature” as much fun as it seemed like it was?
RS: It was an absolute hoot. (Laughs)
BE: (Laughs) That’s so funny. The remainder of my question was actually, “Have you ever taken a film simply because it seemed like it would be a hoot to do?”
RS: No, I’ve never taken roles for that. Even “She Creature,” I thought it might be quite good. And, in the end, my ability to spot a hoot from a nightmare is very limited, I’ve discovered. You can’t tell, and invariably things that seem like they might be a lot of fun are not. But, no, I liked it, and I liked the part, and I loved the idea. The genre. But in terms of whether it would be fun to make, that was just a wild guess. But Sebastian (Gutierrez), the director, and Carla (Gugino), I got on with very, very well. So, no, it turned out to be great fun, but in the end, whether something’s a hoot or not is beside the point, because I’d rather have a bad time making good work than have a good time making bad work.
BE: You’ve been Fortinbras, Hotspur, and a modern-day equivalent of Petruchio, along with – I’m sure – quite a few other characters on stage, but what’s your favorite Shakespearean role that you’ve played?
RS: Oh, I haven’t played any of my favorites yet. I haven’t come anywhere near them.
BE: Is there one in particular that you’re looking forward to tackling someday?
RS: Yeah, a few ones. Well, one in particular. But I’m not going to tell you what it is. (Laughs)
BE: Well, fair enough. Still questing after it, though?
RS: Oh, yeah, still questing. I’ve got a few favorites, but I’ve got one or two that I’m really hoping to do, but hopefully they’re near enough in the future that I’d jinx them by saying them out loud.
BE: Is there a favorite that you’d played in the past?
BE: All right, then. If they ever make a film version of Tom Stoppard’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” would you be interested in doing it?
RS: I’d be interested in being Johnny Depp’s stand-in, certainly.
BE: (Laughs) I understand that there’s a reference to Syd Barrett within the play, and I was wondering…
RS: It’s about Syd Barrett.
BE: Oh, is it? I’m sorry, I’ve never actually seen it; I’d just read that there was a reference to his song, “Golden Hair,” within it. Well, I guess that makes this question even more apropos, then. I know that Barrett died during the production’s run. Was any mention made about his passing on the night of the first performance after the news broke?
RS: What, you mean within the play?
BE: Well, no, I meant, say, in the program or something.
RS: Yeah, well, for a couple of nights, there was kind of a ticker-tape announcement at the end of the play, just for people to read. But we didn’t want to work that into the play, because we felt that that would’ve been a little bit vulgar, like we were trying to use him to make our show more correct. I think that would’ve been in poor taste. But, yeah, for a couple of days, out of respect, we made a little announcement. It was an extraordinary thing to happen, because there’d never been a play about Syd Barrett, of course, so for him to die while we were doing it was quite strange and very moving.
BE: Were you a fan of Syd’s work before doing the play?
RS: Well, not really. I’d been very aware of it. I was very into early Pink Floyd, and I had certain friends who believed that, from Syd Barrett’s departure onward, Pink Floyd had become rubbish. I wasn’t of that opinion; I prefer post-Syd-Barrett Pink Floyd. But it was certainly something I was aware of and into. I was into a lot of the music that was in Tom Stoppard’s play, primarily the Velvet Underground. But, yeah, I’m interested in music, so I was very aware of him.
BE: Is there a particular project you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
RS: In terms of film projects?
BE: Sure. Although if it’s of another medium, feel free to go with that.
RS: I think “Tristan + Isolde” is quite a good film, and I think it kind of got missed. It was pretty underrated. I don’t know, there’s so many things I’ve done. But in terms of things I’ve done recently, I do think that “Tristan + Isolde” was a good little film.
BE: To step very far back, how did you originally find your way into acting in the first place? Was there a history of acting in your family, or was it something you discovered on your own?
RS: Oh, it was something I very much discovered on my own; I discovered it very young, and I very quickly knew. At first, it was sort of an attention grabbing exercise, but eventually it developed into a way of getting free sandwiches… like it is now.
BE: What was your first role on film?
RS: My first role on film was in a film called “Twenty One,” directed by a man called Don Boyd and with an actress called Patsy Kensit. I played her Scottish heroin-addict boyfriend who dies, called Bobby.
BE: At that point, I guess she was pretty much a household name in the UK.
RS: Yeah, she was when I was growing up. But she was a local kid who was in adverts and on TV, which was a big deal when I was about eight, and from then onwards…
BE: So was it bizarre, then, to be in a film with her?
RS: No, because I actually knew her from around. She went to my local Catholic school. She actually hung around with a band I was in when I was about 14, so I knew her, anyway.
BE: Was there a particular moment in your career when you realized with 100 percent certainty that you were going to be doing this for the rest of your life?
RS: Hopefully, that will occur at some point over the next couple of years. At the moment, it’s still touch and go.
BE: Do you have any interest at all in directing?
RS: Not really. I mean, maybe eventually, but there’s so much that I… I feel rather underused as an actor at the moment, and I feel that I have lots to do and lots to offer. There are lots of ways in which I could be useful as an actor that people haven’t quite cottoned onto yet. And I feel they will as I get a little bit older. People will realize that I’m capable of… not just a lot more, but just other things. Hopefully, I’ll be able to do more. And until I feel like I’ve started to get anywhere near what I’m capable of as an actor, I don’t really have any interest in moving on from that.
BE: And my last question is for a friend of mine who’s a big fan of this particular item on your resume: how did you enjoy your experience working on “Cold Comfort Farm?”
RS: Oh, I had a fantastic time. It was an incredible, incredible cast, I had a genius director, and an incredible script, and we were in the countryside in east Sussex, in London, England, and we had a fantastic time. But the material was so good. And, also, I love doing comedy.
BE: Well, I think that’s about it for me. I’m glad we were finally able to set this up!
RS: Yes, it was very nice to finally speak! (Laughs)
BE: I had actually wanted to speak with you after the panel for “Eleventh Hour” at the TCA Press Tour, but just as it started, my wife arrived at the hotel, and at that point, I hadn’t seen her in almost a week and a half.
RS: Priorities, priorities. (Laughs) No, I understand. Well, look, thanks a lot, and it’s been nice to speak with you!