The Rake's Progress
Daily Mail, 30 April 1994
You could not have predicted a great future for Rufus Sewell. Of any kind. He was fired by Hounslow Council as the worst road sweeper in living memory. He lasted one day as a roofer's mate. He was not what you'd call good- looking, either. People used to tell his mother he reminded them of the young Dylan Thomas. More often, he was just called Fatty. "I was," he says, "quite gargoylean and chubby."
Not that he cared. He started dying his hair at 11, after an experiment with his grandmother's peroxide, which turned it mauve. He was blonde, then two-tone brown and yellow, then orange, pillar-box red, henna-red, auburn and finally jet black. He painted his nails black, wore eyeliner, a feather earring and a Victorian frock coat from Oxfam. "I was a posey so-and-so, but I would have been the first to admit it. I was quite proud of being different."
At the age of ten, he stopped doing school- work. He spent the next five years bunking off school, running wild and sipping Carlsberg Special Brew through a straw. By 12, he was smoking marijuana on a regular basis and shoplifting the top ten singles with his mates. Two years later, he had spent his first night in the police cells. At 16, he was wondering if he was gay. He was, you might say, an intensely dramatic young man.
So perhaps it was inevitable Rufus would become an actor. The only thing no one could have possibly predicted is that he would also become quite extravagantly handsome. He now has sculpted features, a masculine six-foot frame and plenty of natural dark brown hair. All of which have provoked an hysterical outburst of adjectives and metaphors in the press. So his slightly bulging eyes are now "hollowed and mesmeric", giving him variously "the dissolute air of a Hellfire Club rake" or the heavy lidded glare of "the Lizard King, the Prince of Darkness". And that's just the eyes. There are printed paeans to his cruel cheekbones and Byronic curls that would bring a blush to the cheeks of Adonis.
You probably know him as the brooding Ladislaw, the romantic fantasy of George Eliot's middle age, in the BBC adaptation of "Middlemarch". But it was his stunning West End debut as Jane Asher's bisexual lover in "Making It Better" that first marked him out. For once, all the critics agreed: Rufus Sewell was a certain future star.
Nearly two years on, we are strolling through Dublin where he has arrived to make a film with Albert Finney. And no one throws a second glance. Indeed, the photographer is attracting rather more attention than our smouldering new sex symbol. "Who are you?" asks one grizzled shopkeeper, noting the scruffy-looking specimen posed against his wall. "I," says Rufus with mock self-importance, "am an actor." "Aren't we all," says the shopkeeper, shuffling back into the gloom of his open doorway.
The adult Rufus still has a decided penchant for the dramatic moment. Halfway through his third pint of Guinness, he excuses himself to make a phone call. What was that all about, Rufus? Oh, just his agent, saying Mel Gibson wants him for his next film, "Brave Heart". So let's see. That will have to be fitted in after the one he's making with Emma Thompson ("Carrington") and before the one he's doing with Uma Thurman ("The Wings Of A Dove"). And just for starters, there's a neat little scene-stealing performance in tonight's Channel 4 film, "Citizen Locke", in which he plays a 17th-century midshipman arguing with the philosopher John Locke (John Sessions).
All heady stuff for a 26-year-old former tear-away from Twickenham. "But I don't want it to go to my head," he protests. "I know people are saying really nice things about me, and under the circumstances, I'm sure I could turn into an asshole. I'm really quite frightened of that."
Interestingly, during our three-hour trek taking pictures around Dublin, he never once combs his wind-blown hair or stops to peer at his reflection. But you could not put that down to undue modesty. He adores being photographed, and admits as much. Indeed, he is unusually self-assured. "I used to try to pretend to be shy because I thought all the really good actors were unsociable. But it's not worth bothering," he says. As a child, he refused to wear clothes, so he was allowed to run about stark naked until the age of seven. Usually screaming and coated with a thick layer of filth, he says. His upbringing was deliberately Bohemian. "Mum thought my brother Caspar and I should be into anything and everything. We weren't thrashed or given six of the best. She didn't want us to grow up repressed, and if there's one thing I'm not it's that. But she had a lot of flak from the neighbours, who thought she was lax. Quite late in life, she discovered a new career working with disturbed kids, and she always said we were the best training she could have had."
The Sewell boys, one suspects, must have been perfect horrors. "Oh, I'm sure we were revolting, ill-disciplined little gits for quite awhile," he agrees. "And for me, let's be honest, there was a certain amount of attention-seeking involved. But I grew up with confidence. No one told me I couldn't do anything until I discovered it for myself. I've never been frightened of meeting people, trying my hand at anything. I feel just as much at home in a Dublin cottage as anywhere. I like possessions, but if I lose anything, I don't give a damn. And I think I'd bring up my own children the same way."
His mother, Jo, is Welsh, and his father, Bill, who died when Rufus was ten, was an Australian artist who came to Britain in the early Fifties seeking his hero Dylan Thomas. They separated when Rufus was small, but continued enjoying family holidays together at a Welsh cottage with no electricity or running water. Rufus and Caspar would also see Bill every weekend at his studio in Soho, where he, was known as a local 'character'.
"He was a large, self-educated rogue who liked his beer," says Rufus. "At home we have a self-portrait he did in 1955 where he has two hoop earrings, hair to his shoulders, a leather jerkin over a barrel chest and a pint in his hand. We look quite alike, with cheekbones like knee-caps, as though someone is leaning out from behind our faces."
He can still vividly recall the moment he was told his father had died from a heart attack. But he cannot find the words to express his reaction. "I just know it wasn't that immediate release you see on TV, with gushes of tears and everything sorted out. I suspect the greater part of my dealing with it is yet to come." With hindsight, he can see the shock must have unhinged him, because it coincided with the start of his truancy. "it seems so classic now. I went through a period of shoplifting, throwing bricks, getting into fights and hanging around with a rough mob. God, I think I nearly killed my mother or at least took a couple of years off her life. She'd have the truant officer round, she tried everything."
School was the one area where Jo attempted to reform Rufus, but he was untameable. He believed, and still does, that the teachers at his comprehensive picked on him because of his confidence - though it is just as likely they singled him out because of the make-up and multicoloured hair. "They thought I had an attitude problem." So did his mother's boyfriends. "She had a number of them who didn"t approve of the way she was bringing us up. But she'd say: "I'm sorry, if it comes to that, then get out"'.
He was, he recalls, continually pitching up in police stations. "Mainly for things like running out of Wimpeys without paying for a Knickerbocker Glory." Once, when he was 14, he went off to a party with a man Jo vaguely knew. "I got a bit drunk, fell asleep in the back of his van and woke up to find him driving, drunk as a lord." A passing policeman took one look at Rufus's black nail varnish, decided he must be a male prostitute and locked him in the cells overnight.
He ate magic mushrooms, tried speed and smoked marijuana. "I actually found it rather boring, but it took me a long time to admit it. You get into a self-absorbed spiral of navel-gazing. Giving up was probably the best decision I ever made. If I'd continued, I would have been a write-off. I've known enough of them. I still consider myself a potential danger zone with drugs, so now I'd rather get drunk and make a fool of myself."
When he was 16, a rather peculiar thing happened to Rufus. His body lengthened and thinned out and the girls who had always ignored him began to take note. "I'd been quite happy being chubby. The confusion came when I suddenly changed and people started treating me differently. I became quite vain and self-conscious for a while. When other people said I was good-looking, I was worried I would be found out".
At this stage, most people thought Rufus was gay. "They assumed it because of the eye-liner, so I suppose I encouraged that. I liked the idea of looking extravagant. I'd get beaten up by a lot of older men because they thought I was gay. Then I began to think: "If everyone thinks I'm gay, then perhaps I am".
In fact, he's quite certain he is not. Three years ago, he played Mr.Darcy in a provincial production of "Pride And Prejudice" and fell in love with one of his co-stars. "It must be the first time in history Mr. Darcy has ever run off with Lydia Bennett," he says. His girlfriend is Helen McCrory, who is living with him in a flea-infested cottage until her return to the National Theatre as Nina in "The Seagull". She is small and unshowy, with strong features and not a trace of make-up. "She's a good mate as well as being my woman and has a brilliant sense of humour. Marriage doesn't mean anything to me personally, but I'm pretty sure about Helen and we may end up together. I also respect everything she does, and it's great to have someone you trust who will be sensitive and honest about your own work."
He is, he admits, quite ambitious now. Acting was all he ever wanted to do, ever since a school production of Rumpelstiltskin which is still talked about in Twickenham to this day. Even when he swept roads and laboured on building sites for extra cash, he'd be thinking: "Well, this will be good for Wogan one day."
At drama school, he fostered "a tramp image" and was not a favourite with his tutors. He simply wouldn't work. "It was my way of not being blamed if things went wrong." Halfway through his course, he was suddenly shaken to discover he had lost confidence. "Maybe it was good for me to have it undermined. If I had a real problem, it was that I relied on it too much." It was around then that he threw away the eyeliner, stopped the endless posturing and began studying in earnest.
Nearly five years on, he still nurses a hankering for the perverse and over-dramatic. For every "Middlemarch", for example, he is ready to do a "Dirty Weekend". That was the Michael Winner film, derided by the critics, in which Rufus played a heavy-breather bludgeoned to death by a hammer. "I wanted to play a pervert," he says. "I knew it wasn't going to "La Dolce Vita", but there's something about people saying, 'Ooh, you'd better steer clear of that' which makes me want to do it."
Hollywood seems the logical next step. He has been flown over three times in the last year, losing out on one leading role to no less than Tom Cruise. But he says: "I worry for myself out there - I don't want to turn into one of those "please, send-Marmite" ex-pats. They have this way of speaking which is geared to selling themselves. You know they have to do it, but it's sad to see them pumping themselves up all the time." Possibly the most truly remarkable thing about young Mr Sewell is that, such a level head has emerged from such a terminally delinquent child. But perhaps that's why. Perhaps the wild streak has been exhausted, the thrill of rebellion has finally lost its appeal.
"Oh no," says Rufus. "If I miss the bus home and I have to sleep under a bush, there's still something in me that actually likes it. Any weird experience. If I meet a bunch of people in a pub and they, say, 'Let's take off', I'm the first to jump in."