With his smouldering looks and prodigious talent, Rufus Sewell should have the world at his feet. So why do people keep mistaking him for a fat Joaquin Phoenix? And why do directors only want him on horseback? He tells all to Emine Saner
The Guardian, 8 December 2006
The following correction was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and clarifications column, Saturday December 16 2006About two years ago, Rufus Sewell was called on to the flight deck of a plane he was on to meet the captain. "The stewardess said, 'We're witnessing the aurora borealis and the captain was wondering if you'd like to come and see it.' I was like, 'Oh, OK.' The captain said, 'What have you been doing, a movie?' I said, 'Well, yes, I've been doing a little film.' He handed me a piece of paper and asked if I'd sign it for his son. He said, 'Could you write "From one gladiator to another"?' [Sewell's face creases into a grin.] It was just this horrible moment. I couldn't bring myself to do it. I said, 'Actually, I think you've got the wrong person'. He was like, 'Who are you? You were in 'Gladiator', weren't you? Joaquin Phoenix? No? Well, what are you doing here?'"
I like this story because it seems to say a lot about Sewell and his career. A case of mistaken identity has dogged him since the start, when he played Ladislaw in the BBC adaptation of 'Middlemarch'. With his curly dark hair, straight nose, hooded hazel eyes and dangerous cheekbones, he seemed born to be in breeches. Except what he really wanted to do, what he thought he would be best at, were edgy, modern roles . The brooding, mysterious looks, combined with the fact that you can't seem to remember him ever smiling, gave him his trademark smoulder - but actually he is warm, funny and self-deprecating. He can be defensive - he continually strikes that classic pose, arms and legs twisted round each other like a gnarled old tree - but not pouty or moody. He doesn't once sigh and ruffle his fingers through his hair, something he is constantly accused of, he says. Defensively.
He still gets mistaken for Phoenix, most recently a couple of weeks ago in Los Angeles. I say it is flattering, I suppose. "Well, not really - to be like a less successful version of someone else. And only in 'Gladiator', when he got deliberately fat." At 39, despite a film career that has been steady since the early 90s and a stage career that has brought him much success, he is still not well-known enough to be recognised as Rufus Sewell.
That may change with his latest film, 'The Holiday', a shamelessly commercial Christmassy romantic comedy that is only just saved by the calibre of its cast (Kate Winslet, Cameron Diaz, Jude Law and Jack Black). Sewell has a small part, based, it seems to me, entirely on Hugh Grant's Daniel Cleaver to Winslet's Bridget Jones. He neither shines in it, overshadowed as he is by Law's beauty, nor is his part fleshy enough to show his talent (he describes it sarcastically as "my epic, multi-layered performance"). I wonder if he did it for the money. "I'm in a position where I'm being continually knocked back for the kind of independent films I want to be in because people don't know who I am. In the past, I've done commercial films in the hope that it will help me be in the smaller films I want to be in. I'm informed constantly that this will help, but so far there's no fucking evidence of it whatsoever. We'll see. And it was fun," he adds. "You know you're going to be working with a really decent actress [Winslet is a former girlfriend, now friend], so that element of cheesiness, which is the feel of a film like that, is held at bay because Kate is so good."
He says he is continually offered the same roles - usually involving sword fights or being on horseback, where he is either the dark villain or some troubled nobleman (his recent films - 'A Knight's Tale', 'Legend of Zorro', 'Tristan and Isolde' - bear this out). "I try to see it as flattering. If I do something, maybe people think I do it well enough to think that's all I can do. I'd get scripts and I'd think, 'What am I playing?' Suddenly on page 14, it's 'We see a dark shadow of a man on a horse, he has a thin slash of a cruel mouth.' You just think, 'Oh, fuck off.'"
At the moment, he is "deliberately unemployed". He finished a hugely successful run in Tom Stoppard's play 'Rock'n'Roll' at the National Theatre (last week, he won the Evening Standard theatre award for best actor) and he says he might rejoin the cast when it goes to New York. "And I've done a couple of films that are coming out soon where I feel like I've proved my point about the kind of actor I want to be."
The one he is most excited about is 'Amazing Grace', a film about the abolitionist William Wilberforce, in which he plays Thomas Clarkson, another anti-slavery campaigner. He likes it, partly, because his character looks "really hideous". Anyone expecting to see Sewell all tousled and sexy will be disappointed. "He's quite odd-looking," he says. "He's this irascible, grumpy, boozy, stooped figure. I just loved playing him and I don't look particularly recognisable. I look like a spoghead." He demonstrates how his hair is flattened for the film and hunches over. "Ooh, you look really ugly," I say (a "spoghead", I imagine). "Yeah! Yeah!" he says with genuine excitement.
Sewell was born in Twickenham and, despite his name, he is not very posh. His father, Bill, had come from Australia in search of his hero, the poet Dylan Thomas. He was an animator (he worked on the Beatles' film 'Yellow Submarine') and married Sewell's mother, Jo, a Welsh artist. His parents broke up when Sewell was five and his father was an intermittent presence in his life after that. "[I saw him] all the time when I was really young, then it slowly shifted. We were never aware of some schism. He was always working at his studio in Soho and my strongest memories are of going to spend the weekend with him there. It was great. We'd go and sleep on cushions in front of the telly and watch Hammer horror films and eat really rubbish food. Him and my mum, there wasn't any animosity that we were aware of."
His mother took several jobs - in a pub and selling vegetables - to bring up her sons (Sewell has an older brother, Caspar). There wasn't much money but they were not exactly starving. "We had a piano," Sewell points out. It was a bohemian upbringing - his mother allowed him to run around naked until he was about eight.
His father died when Sewell was 10. It is impossible to say how that affected him. "[It was] horrible, but it's just become part of who I am. I don't know what it's like for that not to have happened. Maybe I wasted a lot of time trying to embody a 10-year-old boy's idea of what his dad was like; I was late for things, and trying to have a twinkle in my eye because I remember him being like that. I didn't get a chance to find out for myself what he was really like."
It is probably too simplistic to say that his father's death was the reason Sewell went off the rails a bit, but it must have contributed. Sewell says it was "an average naughty childhood" - he started dyeing his hair, drinking, taking drugs, shoplifting and truanting. Or "being an 80s twat", as he puts it now. It was his school drama teacher who encouraged him to audition for the Central School of Speech and Drama. He was signed by his first agent before he even left, although it was five years before 'Middlemarch', his first break, came along.
In 1999, he married his long-term girlfriend, Yasmin, a fashion buyer, but they separated the following year. Shortly afterwards, he fell in love with Amy Gardner, a scriptwriter and producer. Their son, Billy, was born in 2002 and they married quietly two years later. He once said he was pleased there was no Hello!-style fuss surrounding their wedding, which shows how private he keeps his private life. Nor was there any Hello!-style fuss about their separation earlier this year.
He is notoriously tightlipped about his personal life. He is rumoured to be seeing Alice Eve, his 'Rock'n'Roll' co-star. "It's important to me to be in a relationship when I'm in one, but I'm not someone who needs to be in a relationship," he says. "I don't actively look for it, I've never been like that. I've gone through long periods without being with someone and got a bit lonely, but not for a while."
Did he always want to be a father? "No. I think I was a bit frightened of having to be a grownup and tried to put that off for as long as I could. I don't feel that way now, obviously." I wonder if he worried about being a father, given that his own was not such a steady presence. "It wasn't one of these immediate things, but I did realise I wanted to be around for [Billy] more and be a good dad. I love it. My job, being the way it is - and if I'm going to be fussy about the kind of work I do, I can't also be fussy about where I do it - means that I have to be active in maintaining a positive contact with him."
He sees his son regularly, although now that he is at school Sewell is wary of taking jobs that take him away from London for too long. His "deliberate unemployment" means that he is spending a lot of time with Billy at the moment. I tell Sewell I hope I don't see him on horseback any time soon, because that means that all the small parts in commercial stuff and all the interviews he has done saying he wants more variety will not have worked. He broods for a second, then smiles. I think he just needs a bit more practise at that.
'The Holiday' is out today.