Cut and Thrust
Rufus Sewell’s career has been frustrated by a combination of typecasting and his own laidback approach. Now – locks and laxity dispensed with – he’s punching his weight again
Telegraph, 5 November 2003
You don't expect to come face to face with Rufus Sewell without a head of black curls. It's just not right. We are in the Covent Garden Hotel, and the broad grin and slightly lazy right eye are there, but the trademark tresses have been shorn. 'It's better than a few months ago,' he protests, running his large hand over where they once were. 'There was a moment when I was almost totally bald.'
This isn't an act of rebellion, a determined attempt to rid himself of the foppish stereotype he has so often been forced into, as much as a practical necessity. 'Underneath the wigs, Charles II had short hair,' Sewell explains of his latest role. 'But don't you worry. The wigs themselves were all about black curls.' Actually, his haircut is a bit of a relief. Despite being one of the most critically acclaimed stage actors of his generation, Rufus Sewell has always fallen prey to frustrating preconceptions.
'The reason I am unemployed for six months out of every year is because I have to turn down most of the films I'm offered. If I didn't, I'd only ever play a dark, satanic count on a horse.' Ever defending himself with humour his conversation is littered with mimicry and self-deprecating jibes - Sewell is surprisingly serious when it comes to discussing 'Charles II', the forthcoming four-part BBC drama in which he plays the all-powerful, all-womanising Restoration monarch. 'I've never felt so right doing anything,' he states, almost apologetically. 'More in tune, more relaxed, more happy, really.'
With his hands wedged firmly between his knees and his eyes fixed on the floor, he seems rather embarrassed to be admitting contentment. Or perhaps he's just afraid. 'Because I hear myself saying things like that, and then I get really terrified because I know that I have given more to playing Charles II than I have ever given to anything else. So however good or bad I am in this is, I think, how good or bad I am full stop.'
In his career to date, Sewell has been capable of both good and bad - mostly very good on stage, not so good in one or two ill-chosen films. In 1992, he won the Critics' Circle Most Promising Newcomer Award for his role as a Czech emigre in 'Making It Better'. Shortly after that, he landed the part of maths tutor Septimus Hodge in a sell-out National Theatre production of Tom Stoppard's 'Arcadia'. His Macbeth at the Queen's Theatre in 1999 may have been roundly panned, but he made up for this with a revelatory performance as the eponymous hero of John Osborne's 'Luther'.
Film, however, has proved a harder nut to crack. Comedy has always come easily; supporting roles in the low-budget British comedy 'Martha, Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence' and the jousting romp 'A Knight's Tale' were well received. ('Rufus Sewell,' one New York Times critic wrote of his louche, sarcastic performance in the latter as - you guessed it - a villainous count, 'absolutely steals this picture.') But lead roles in more serious films such as 'Dark City' (alongside William Hurt and Kiefer Sutherland) and 'Illuminata' (opposite Susan Sarandon) made little impact.
Some might argue that Sewell simply doesn't have leading-man credentials - too sinister to be a heart-throb, too handsome and lighthearted to be a character actor.
Sewell, however, has a different explanation. 'For a long time, I didn't give anything my all. I was so afraid that I'd be crap, so I held myself back.'
Sewell himself suggests that it simply took him a while to find his focus in life - partly due to the death of his father, the bohemian animator Bill Sewell (he created the 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' sequence in the film Yellow Submarine), from a heart attack when Rufus was 10. When he was a toddler, Bill had left the family home in Twickenham. Rufus and his older brother, Caspar, used to go and visit him every weekend at his studio in Soho, which would always be full of waifs and strays discussing the meaning of life. Good relations were always maintained between Bill (an eccentric Australian who had come to Britain in the 1950s to seek out his hero, Dylan Thomas) and the boys' barefoot Welsh mother, Jo, and many a happy family holiday was spent in a cottage in Wales. Bill was often days late, but always came with presents; 'It gave me this really bizarre idea of what makes someone cool - not really trying, but always having the potential to be fantastic.' And then he committed the ultimate rejection: he went and died, preserved for ever more in his younger son's mind as the hero who didn't put the time in.
Sewell was a rebellious teenager who wanted to be a rock star, and he dressed accordingly: dyed hair (purple, orange, peroxide, you name it), black nail varnish and a feather earring. Teachers disliked him - the feeling was mutual - and he was always playing truant. 'Bye Mum!' he'd say, leaving the house dressed in his school uniform, only to head straight for Hammersmith where he would sit around and smoke dope with his friends. He indulged in petty crime - a bit of shoplifting here and there - but nothing too serious.
At the age of 14, he spent the night in a cell when a policeman stopped a friend of his mother's driving drunk back from the pub with a heavily made-up Sewell - whom the officer presumed to be a male prostitute - in the back seat. 'A large part of my adolescence was spent doing my very best to draw attention to myself,' Sewell grins. And what better way to do that than become an actor? He remembers at the age of seven watching Anthony Hopkins in a film and wishing he could do with his eyes what Hopkins could do with his.
While at sixth-form college many years later, a drama teacher who remembered Sewell's brilliant childhood performance in a production of Rumpelstiltskin lent him £100 to go and audition for drama school. Until then, he hadn't managed to commit to any form of work; he was fired by Hounslow Council for being a truly appalling roadsweeper and lasted one day as a roofer's mate. But something about his time at Central School of Speech and Drama made sense to him. He had found his vocation.
Despite his early success on the stage, it was Sewell's performance as Will Ladislaw in the 1994 BBC production of 'Middlemarch' that made him a household name. The industry was at his stockinged feet 'but everything I got sent had the word "attractive" or "Byronic" in it and I was totally turned off,' he remembers. Sewell hates being called 'Byronic' ('the only thing we have in common is dark curly hair, for goodness sake') and has always resisted, in his own words, 'that heroic thing'. He just can't do it, he laughs, 'without feeling like an utter plonker'.
He goes so far as to state that he would rather not work at all than spend three months of his life 'playing an empty, good-looking character in a costume drama'. He needs, he insists, something to get his teeth into if he is to have an outside chance of doing a good job. 'Charles II' may be a costume drama, but there is plenty for the 35-year-old to get his teeth into. Also starring Diana Rigg, Helen McCrory (an ex-girlfriend) and Shirley Henderson, it promises to be an in-depth exploration of the life and times of a brilliant, badly behaved king.
When Sewell was offered the part, he was living in Los Angeles (something he once said he'd never do), in a house once owned by Rock Hudson, with his girlfriend, the writer Amy Gardner, and their one-year-old son Billy. Ironically, they had moved there 'a matter of weeks before, because I wasn't getting any interesting work in England. Then I was offered 'Charles II' and off we went to Prague.'
According to Joe Wright, the director of the mini-series, 'Rufus is a joy to work with because not only is he one of the funniest people I have ever met, but he is also a really extraordinary actor. And he's kind, too. Quite early on in the filming, I told him that, as head of the actors department, he had to look after all the other actors - be their king, in a way. Now most actors would have scoffed at that, but he took it on board and became a real company leader, in the old-fashioned sense of the word.'
Sewell himself attributes his energy and openness during filming to a deep personal happiness. 'Having Amy and Billy there was the main reason I felt so at ease,' he says. 'They would come and have lunch with me every day and I would go home to them at night. I guess it was a bit like having a regular job in that it felt very stable.'
Despite the best efforts of the press to put him into the promiscuous young Brit heart-throb category ('Madonna fails to woo her lucky star,' announced one tabloid in 1995; others wrongly suggested liaisons with Patsy Kensit and Emma Thompson), Sewell's relationships have, in reality, been of a largely long-term nature. After his involvement with Helen McCrory ended amicably in 1995 ('We are really good mates,' he says now), Sewell got together with Yasmin Abdallah, an Australian fashion buyer. They married in 1999, but split up a matter of months later.
A naturally private person, Sewell is loth to divulge the details of his relationship with Abdallah - or Gardner for that matter - but suffice to say that he is very, beamingly, 'happy'.'Being a father is just lovely,' he enthuses. 'Billy is a funny, cheeky, lovely boy and I love being with him. Parenthood is terrifying though. I can barely walk past a building without panicking that it's going to collapse on his head.'
Does being a father make him think about his own father? 'Sometimes it does. But it was such a long time ago. Of course, it's sad that he won't see Billy grow up, but then he didn't see me grow up either.'
In a bizarre echo of his childhood, Sewell seems to find himself living a free-spirited existence with his family. Although Amy isn't forced, as his mother once was, to sell vegetables out of the back of her car to earn a living, they are none the less an itinerant trio. 'We are a bit like travelling gipsies at the moment,' he says. 'Wherever I go, they go too.' That's all well and good for now (and Sewell is the first to admit that it has had a very positive effect on Billy, who warms to strangers in an instant) but his responsible side worries about the future. 'One day he's going to need to go to school, and I don't really know what we'll do then,' he says, staring into the middle distance. 'Still,' he grins, pulling himself out of it, 'there's nothing wrong with not having a base if Mummy and Daddy are always there to hug him and make sure he feels grounded.'
Rufus Sewell, it seems, has grown up. The man close friends remember as the one who would always stay up the latest, laughing the loudest, has not only quit smoking but also no longer drinks during the week. 'When I was doing 'Luther' I thought I'd give it a go and see if it made a difference to my performance,' he remembers. 'And, unfortunately, it did. All these sodding people kept saying' - cue the mock-luvvie voice - ' "Oh God, Rufus, you've got this fabulous new clarity", and I thought, "Oh shit". But when it's as plain as that you have no excuse not to give it a rest. I used to work with a hangover a lot and all it did was give me an ability to stare at a fixed point and cry meaningfully. That feels like good acting to a hungover person, but it's not. It's just self-indulgent, really.'
So on the set of Charles II he worked harder than ever before, drank less, and felt better about himself and his work. 'I loved playing Charles in his forties,' he says, 'because it was almost as if that was the age he was born to be. I think I was born to be in my thirties and everything else was just about getting me there.'
'Charles II: The Power and the Passion' will be shown on BBC1 next month