Rufus Sewell: Almost Famous
Rufus Sewell was a pin-up in the 1990s, then his career stalled. He tells us about moving to LA, giving up drinking and why he can't wait to lose his looks
There was a moment in the mid-1990s when Rufus Sewell's international stardom was assured. Before his 30th birthday, he had starred in two hugely successful TV adaptations, of 'Middlemarch' and 'Cold Comfort Farm', and taken a lead role in the original production of Tom Stoppard's 'Arcadia', alongside Felicity Kendal and Bill Nighy. He would clearly become stupidly famous. But then he… didn't.
"People talk about opportunity knocking," he says, "but the gate was always swinging in the breeze before I got to the door. I was the lead in 'Interview With The Vampire', until Tom Cruise decided he was interested. I was in 'The Wings Of The Dove' with Uma Thurman, until that got cancelled. I was in 'Shakespeare In Love' with Julia Roberts, until that fell apart. So I've been close lots of times, but I think it's been the making of me as an actor." He pauses. "Yes, years of compromise and disappointment have added depth to my acting." He lets out a big laugh. "Well, I have to think something, don't I?"
If Sewell is bored of being asked why he isn't a bigger star, he's far too polite to say so. In fact, he's disarmingly honest about his stop-start career. "For a long time, I've had to hustle," he admits. "If a film role is obviously great, then it's been difficult for me to get a look-in." Instead, he says, he has to "kind of trick my way into supporting roles". His recent cameo as the demented Reverend Duchemin in BBC2's 'Parade's End' is one such example. "I'd never have been anywhere near it were it not for my personal relationship with Tom Stoppard," he says (Stoppard adapted Ford Maddox Ford's books for the screen).
He takes a gulp of his latte and cracks his knuckles, like one of the many villains he got stuck playing after 2001's 'A Knight's Tale'. For years, Sewell was rarely off horseback. Casting agents, he says, "thought I was what I looked like, which was a curly-haired… whatever". He fades away, embarrassed. "If there was a list of people getting picked, I wasn't on it." He's 45 now. The black curls have been cut short, and his cheekbones are sharper. He is currently on stage in Pinter's 'Old Times', and starring in film thriller 'All Things To All Men'. Yet a feeling lingers that Sewell has not yet shown all he's capable of.
"People never knew what to do with me," he says. "I was neither one thing or another." By which I think he means he was too handsome to play character roles and not pretty enough to be a romantic lead. And that, he says, goes all the way back to his days at Central School Of Speech & Drama. "There were a chosen few, and I wasn't one of them. I was playing waiters and servants… I was really peeved not to be cast in what I considered the proper butch roles." Still, in his final year he played the porter in a production of 'Macbeth' directed by Judi Dench, was spotted by an agent and got a job almost immediately. "Which shocked everyone, including me."
Sewell and his older brother grew up in Twickenham with his mother Jo, an artist, and his Australian father William, an animator who worked on the Beatles' 'Yellow Submarine' film. His parents separated when he was five. In the past, he's talked of visiting his father's Soho studio, and how his mother sold vegetables out of the back of a van to feed her sons. But today he's keen to downplay any bohemianism. "My childhood was late-70s suburban. We lived in Twickenham, but in council-assisted accommodation next to a Londis. So I was a little bit posh and a little bit free school dinners. We were poor, but we had a piano. We were arty but my mum had to work in a pub."
His father died when he was 10, and the teenage Sewell was an enthusiastic smoker, drinker and bong smoker. "Did I start early? No earlier than my friends. But then I suppose you do choose your friends." He didn't like school much, often skipping classes, but got hold of acting fairly early on, after a teacher suggested he join a drama class. His idols were Anthony Hopkins, Michael Gambon, John Hurt... the kind of "useful" actor he says he'd like to be today. "'The Singing Detective' and 'The Naked Civil Servant' were very influential for me. I went round wearing a hat and nail varnish for a long time in the 1980s," he says. "I remember, when everybody else started doing it, feeling vaguely put out." Growing up, he describes his relationship with his brother, who is three years older, as "fractious". They played in a band together, and "being close in age we kind of occupied the same space". Rufus dyed his hair blond and wanted to be David Bowie. His brother called him "the fat white duke".
The first time Sewell went to meet his agent, who should be there but Hurt, his hero from 'The Naked Civil Servant'? "John Hurt was in the office and he gave me a Gauloise. I thought, 'Fucking hell! Here I am in my agent's office, having a Gauloise with John Hurt!' I realised that the only giveaway for my being nervous was that every time I tipped my ash into the ashtray, my hand shook, so I kept my cigarette in my hand and burned a hole in my finger."
There followed some louche years in Soho, with many parties and larky nights at the Groucho, and two short-lived marriages along the way – one to a fashion consultant and one to the mother of his 10-year-old son, Billy. Another actor, Emily Woof, who made her film debut opposite Sewell in the 1998 film 'The Woodlanders', has written about Soho nights full of "great flirting and excitement", but also of actorly "paranoia" and "suppressed hysteria". She remembers her co-star as "beautiful, rakish and charming – not like a real person at all". Does he recognise that description of the era? "I don't have particularly pleasant memories of that time, but not for the reasons she says…" he begins before pausing. "No, I don't recognise that," he says finally, giving me an unsmiling stare. The silence that follows is Pinteresque.
His mum, he says, has always had mixed feelings about his career: "Embarrassed, worried, proud." But she's proud of both of her sons, he says. His brother is a landscape gardener and plays in a band signed to a record label. "We've got a really close friendship now. He's a very honest person, which I value. He's not someone who is able to say, 'You were wonderful, dear.' If he's not happy with something, I can tell from his face. He just looks pained. Even when he pretends to like something, he'll accidentally tell the truth, which is horrifying, obviously."
Sewell recounts a story about returning after six months from his first acting job in New York. "When I came back, I met everyone down the pub. I was at the bar, and my brother came up and said, 'Rufus?' I went, 'Yeah, mate?' And he said, 'You didn't used to talk like Bob Hoskins.' I was so paranoid about people thinking I'd turned American that I was giving it all that, 'Whoarrr, awright mate.' It's something I notice meeting expats in Los Angeles: English people accidentally reinvent themselves. So they might get posher, or you meet these Etonian gangsters." He shudders. "It's not very attractive."
Sewell currently lives a lightfooted life between LA, where he lives with his girlfriend, and London, which he visits every two weeks or so to see Billy. His son has seen some of his films, he says, but only at other people's houses. "I haven't sat him down and said: 'Take a look at your dad, son.' He's watched 'A Knight's Tale' and stuff. That's clever, daft fun. The kind of thing you can enjoy, once you've got over the idea of Daddy being the quintessence of evil…"
After 'Rock'n'Roll', his second Stoppard play, for which he won an Olivier award in 2006, Sewell not unreasonably expected more work offers to come his way. When nothing did, he found himself accepting a US TV series called 'Eleventh Hour'. "I was pretty much starting again at that point. It seemed like it could be half good, but it wasn't." He was relieved when it was cancelled. "By the end of that job, there was no strong impulse to go anywhere else, so I discovered I was living there."
It seems to have been a happy accident. Sewell says that he's done more work for the BBC since he moved to LA than in the previous 15 years. "If I have any meetings with Hollywood types, it's on Skype anyway. And I discovered long ago that if I tell them I'm in West Hollywood, it's far less appealing than if I tell them I'm Skyping from London." He and his girlfriend share "a little flat and we don't dine out or go on flash holidays. Because if I spend my money on bullshit, I have to pay for it in the quality of work that I do. Luckily I'm not with someone who wants all that stuff."
He no longer drinks or smokes, although that has "nothing to do with LA", he prickles. "It happened long before." Still, he relents, "I suppose the idea of myself as clean-living was something that scared me. The idea that just because you're full of toxins you're more rock'n'roll. But, with me, my best work has happened since. Smoking went great with lager, but take the lager out of it and I could feel it all. Also, my son's the age now that I was when my dad died. So yeah, since I went to America, I have got healthier and maybe some of that's LA. Who gives a shit if I live longer? The people who sneer can fuck off. I used to be one, so I understand, but I was a casualty of it, too.
"I lived in New York a few times and loved it, but it wasn't a particularly healthy or happy time for me. Not really. The time that I've had in Los Angeles has been happier, accepting that being mundane is actually quite pleasant." When I wonder what he does when he's not working, he tells me it's an odd thing to ask, "because when I'm not working is more than 50% of the time, so what you're talking about is my life". He says he used to tell people he liked photography, but he's stopped saying that because it made him sound as though he spent all day mooning around with a camera, and he does a fey little mime. "I've ended up running, getting fit, because if I have months between jobs, it's a project. Now what I do when I'm unbelievably broke and unemployed is, I go, 'Right, I'm going to be so unemployed, I'm going to get a fucking six pack!'"
Does he still get recognised when he returns to Britain? "In the past, the joke was that I would be if I went to a tearoom or an antique shop." Now, he says, it tends to be tourists. "It keeps your feet on the ground." If Sewell could get the work he'd like in the UK, he wouldn't be in America. He's not bothered about being a household name, he says: he just wants to be "an all-round actor – the kind you can throw in any part. It will probably take me another 10 years."
What about his recent role as a spymaster in the BBC thriller 'Restless'? "It's beginning to happen," he agrees. "As I get older, it's getting easier. I think I've grown into myself. And as the hair gets thinner, the waist gets thicker."
There's an indie film next, as well as a swashbuckling blockbuster that Billy could go and see. "I always wanted to do small, low-budget things, but I've ended up doing big films to try to persuade people in England that I'm castable. It doesn't work. The only thing that works is to stop caring and just get on with it. My attitude towards the film business in this country now is like a girl that rejected me. I want to go out with her again, I want her to really want me. So I can chuck her." He gives another gusty laugh.
• All Things To All Men opens on 5 April.