Don't Call Me Babe
In his brief career, Rufus Sewell has been linked to Patsy Kensit, Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, even Madonna. But then you don't want to believe everything you read in the tabloids. Jane Burton meets the reluctant himbo.
Guardian, 25 April 1997
This is the man who turned down Madonna and Patsy Kensit, snogged Kate Winslet for 20 minutes in a restaurant while his shepherd's pie went cold, and who nips around Emma Thompson's whenever her boy friend is away. At least that's the tabloid version of events.
He is also, according to the metres of hormonal columnage, a Byronic babe: "Deep hooded eyes, fine bridged nose, strong white teeth, sculpted features, masculine six foot frame, just got up hair, cheekbones elbowing their way out of his face." That kind of thing.
It is all, says Sewell, un-Byronically, "a load of bollocks". Looks first: trussed up in breeches and frock coat as Will Ladislaw in the BBC's 'Middlemarch', or as Septimus in Tom Stoppard's play 'Arcadia', he was the romantic hero half the home counties would have pawned their pearls to meet. And as the ridiculously macho Seth Starkadder in 'Cold Comfort Farm' - a TV hit last year, now making the leap to the cinema screen, he put the sex back into sowing seed.
Forget it, he says. "I'm not your Mr. Sexy type. I'm not strong and silent. I talk too much and probably, at my best, I'm more cuddly than anything else.....I'm not one of these leather-trousers boys. I can play it, but I'm not it." He insists that he scarcely gets a second look in the street. " In newsprint people drool, not in reality."
Sitting inches from Sewell - aged 29, dressed all in black - on a sofa in one of the more louche Soho drinking clubs, I'm not convinced. Perhaps more like a young Dylan Thomas than a costumed romantic dish, especially four beers down when the "sculpted features " etc. relax and take on a cherubic tone and just a hint of incipient paunch peeks out from the fold of his shirt.
Not that he is complaining about his sex symbol status. "Anything that remotely alludes to handsome, I'm not going to turn down. Listen, I was a porker until I was 16. I only have the cheekbones because I so desperately wanted to look like David Bowie that I sucked my cheeks in constantly. My brother used to call me The Fat White Duke. But at the moment I'd rather be unemployed than do the next script that comes in where the first thing mentioned is a frock coat."
Despite the fact that he has gone out of his way to take some distinctly unglamorous roles - heroin addict, phone sex pest, IRA terrorist to critical acclaim - he remains known as the smooth-looking bloke in a frilly shirt. 'Middlemarch', in particular, is responsible. He agrees that Ladislaw was not his greatest moment, and to be fair the character is thinly written: "I think the problem was George Eliot wanted to shag Will Ladislaw, and because of that she didn't give him the benefit of all the dimensions she gave the others." That's Sewell's theory anyway. But if a polymath like Eliot had the hots for her "pretty sprig", then he might as well give up now and head with his frock coat for the Hollywood Hills.
Even genealogy seems to be against him. Recently he discovered that he is descended from one Joseph Sewell, a gentleman highwayman deported in 1830 for robbing goods train - a rogue so prodigious in his baby-making that there is now a Sewell town somewhere in Western Australia.
Despite the inevitable phone calls, Sewell hasn't been tempted by Hollywood: "I don't give a fuck about the money. Occasionally I get offers, cheap Hugh Grant roles when he turns them down. But you have to start playing English stereotypes, and I don't want to do those parts. It's not because I'm above it, it's because I'm not, and I believe I'd get sucked in. The only reason I did 'Cold Comfort Farm' was as a piss-take, a sort of answer to that.
So he's not a Byronic babe, more an ironic babe, but doesn't he still have a remarkable effect on women - Madonna, Patsy, Kate and Emma? This, it turns out, is mostly journalistic fiction. He was Patsy Kensit's junkie boyfriend in the film 'Twenty-One'. An over-imaginative reporter rang up on the trail of something steamy. "I've got one scene with her where I'm in bed," obliged Sewell, "but I'm dead." A "Patsy isn't good enough for me" headline was the result.
In fact Sewell had known Patsy from childhood, they were mates: "We used to have a band and she'd hang out with us in the studio. That's all I'm saying....She was the girl who went, "Pop!". Madonna came in for similar treatment. She had seen him in 'Rat in the Skull', at the Royal Court, and invited him to dinner: "The story ended up being that I turned down Madonna, but you know, she made no offer to me, I was going out filming every night after the show. She asked me if I wanted to come for a drink first - me, Madonna and two other people. So I went to the Ivy and had a starter and a drink. I finished, said goodnight and left. That became the candlelit, romantic dinner for two." It was particularly embarrassing, he explains, because one of Madonna's friends accused him of planting the story, something he strenuously denies. He sees the funny side now: "I had Madonna fans coming up to me in the street going, ' How could you......you should be so lucky Rufus.'"
As for Emma Thompson, they acted together in the film 'Carrington' - Sewell playing another blouse-wearing-artist with sex on the brain - but the idea of as affair is nonsense, he says, and the paper that printed it hastily followed up with a retraction.
He does admit to kissing his co-star in Branagh's 'Hamlet', Kate Winslet, with whom he had a brief fling, but it was "three seconds while I put her in a cab outside a restaurant" - The Ivy again. "I suppose you can be more careful, but it was a very quiet street. The idea that what you're doing is parading yourself is so silly."
Is he single now? No. Is she an actress? No. And that's all he'll say. In the past, he's been notoriously cool about coupledom. "I am not the sort of person who needs the security of a relationship," he said in 1995 when he split up with actress Helen McCrory.
Though he protests that he runs away from autograph-hunters "in case I disappoint them", and that he'd rather not be noticed - despite dining in a restaurant almost permanently staked out by paparazzi, he admits he spent much of his young life aching for attention.
Growing up, he ticked off most of the boxes in the manual of difficult adolescence: dyed hair, black eyeliner, earrings, drugs, bunking off school, Special Brew in the park and generally posing about, wearing, as poetic justice would have it, a Victorian frock coat from Oxfam. Prior to that, until the age of eight, his mother allowed him to wander round the house naked. She didn't want him to be "repressed."
"I was." he says, "an arrogant prat, a very pretentious little wanker, until drama school knocked it out of me." He even managed to turn the job sweeping streets in Hounslow into a grand artistic endeavour: "I was planning my autobiography already. I wanted to be the most stylish street-sweeper Hounslow ever had. For all my trying, I looked like a git. I got fired, of course I did."
His father, Bill, an Australian animator (who worked on "Yellow Submarine" and "Roobarb And Custard") was not the greatest role model: " He was a bumbler with change falling out of his pockets and holes in his trousers. An artist who would forget to provide the things that were necessary but would turn up with presents." He married three times, and separated from Sewell's mother Jo early on, leaving her to support Rufus and his brother Caspar with pub jobs and a vegetable delivery round. "We would live on what was left over. I remember it being, like, slightly rotting artichokes with everything for a week."
In the late seventies, Bill took to wearing kaftans and following the Maharishi Yogi. And when Rufus was 10, he died. He had always told the family that he was an only child, but then came a letter from an Australian sister, who had spotted the Sewell features when she saw Rufus in a film and made the connection. "Suddenly I've got an auntie Sydney who is married to a de-frocked priest, and about five cousins, who all look so much like me and my brother. They've all got these green eyes."
The raft of exotic revelations come unbelievably thick and fast. Take this story: his father originally came to Britain in search of his hero Dylan Thomas - who else? Now his mother lives in the house in Wales where Thomas wrote "Under Milk Wood". A sentimental decision presumably? "Oh no, we found out afterwards. Moving house is a serious business, you don't want to do it for a silly reason like that," he snaps back, and shoots me a withering look with those green eyes.
Sewell's choice of interesting rather than high-profile roles means that cinema's big-business machine occasionally spits him out - as in the case of 'Victory', a film based on Conrad's novel, of which he is especially proud. It is still waiting to be screened, halted in a web of financial wrangling. Other films, however are on the way: 'The Woodlanders', 'The Honest Courtesan' and 'Dark City' are scheduled to open later this year, and meanwhile there is C'Cold Comfort Farm', disinterred from the TV vaults after unexpected success at the American box-office.
So, for the time being, Sewell is sticking to his guns. He's about to start filming a British comedy in which he plays an embittered man who used to be a child star. "I'm going to be very dissolute. So I just don't care what I look like. I think I'll have a fucking weird Afro, or a shaved head....and a huge tummy," he says with a relish. Then asks me to pass him another beer.