London Stage and Screen Star Rufus Sewell on Pinter's Old Times and the Role He'd Love to Play on Broadway, 13 March 2013
By Matt Wolf
Thanks, GE2

Itís been nearly seven years since Rufus Sewell created the role of a Czech grad student in Tom Stoppardís 'Rock Ďní Roll', a performance that earned him an Olivier Award and later a Tony nomination. Since then, he has starred in a short-lived American TV series ('Eleventh Hour'), played Alexander Hamilton in the hit miniseries 'John Adams' and tackled a variety of film roles. Now, Sewell is back on the London stage as the riveting center of 'Old Times', the oblique yet alluring 1971 Harold Pinter play in which Lia Williams and Kristin Scott Thomas alternate playing his wife and her best friend. The engaging and articulate actor recently chatted with about plays that require singing, role swaps, and the fact that men do ripple.

Whatís it been like to headline this acclaimed revival of 'Old Times'?

Itís been wonderful. I have never done a Pinter play before, so I tried not to worry too much about a Pinter ďstyleĒ and just act as natural as possible while at the same time paying attention to the pauses and the rhythms. And, of course, thereís been the effect of the changeover between the two girls. There are not only two different versions of the play, but each of those versions also changes. A line that gets shouted one night might suddenly be whispered the next. This isnít a pin-down-able play for the audience ó or for us as actors, either.

The production must keep all three of you tantalizingly on your toes.

Because weíve had to watch each other like hawks, we havenít been able to settle into the safe rhythms you often get with a play. Itís like knowing your enemy [laughs]. You have to have a beady eye on each other all the time because whatever changes has a ripple effect.

Iím glad you said ďripple effect,Ē since your character has a great line during a conversation about ripples made by stones on the water: ďDo men ripple too?Ē Do you think you ďrippleĒ?

[Laughs.] One does what one can. Iíve been known to ripple twice on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Scholars and critics have written reams about 'Old Times', and about Pinter in general. Is any of that stuff helpful to you?

It is important to have an awareness and an understanding of the academic side of it. Letís say you are doing a Shakespeare: Itís good to be aware of the contrary historical documentation that youíre ignoring [laughs]. I have my own intellectual reaction to this play, and itís not like I havenít thought about it and read about it, but I really feel as if the best way I can serve the authorís intention is to play it as humanly as possible.

Some may be surprised to find that the script calls upon you to sing snippets from the popular songbook.

Well, I had thought Iíd always been able to sing, but as weíve got into the run, my voice has constricted more and more so that now the audience is probably only aware of what a dreadful, dreadful singer Deeley is [laughs]!

Are you implying that we wonít be seeing you in a Broadway musical any time soon?

I think New York can rest easy. I actually like old musicals, but Iím not really a fan of modern musicals per se ó the kind where a housewife is humming to herself and out comes this Broadway-honed vibrato. Iím not a fan of very ďtheater-yĒ voices, but I can always change my mind!

Would you be interested in bringing Old Times to Broadway? Or joining Roundabout's forthcoming Broadway revival of Stoppard's 'The Real Thing'?

I would love to go to New York with [Old Times] but thereís not been any talk of that that I know of. 'The Real Thing' does obviously interest me. I read about it and thought ďWhat fuckerís doing that, then?Ē - with, of course, immediate reparations and apologies sent to the marvelous person who may well be playing it.

On the Stoppard front, itís difficult to believe that 20 years has passed since you opened at the National Theatre as Septimus in 'Arcadia', the play that launched your career.

And itís strange that 20 years is a crucial period of time in the play weíre doing now, as well. But when I think back on my past 20 years, it feels far more recent, as if it was more like seven years ago ó which points, if anything, to the fact that Iím an old fuck [laughs]!

A lot has happened in that time, including the fact that you are now a parent. Has your son seen 'Old Times'?

Itís interesting: Ian [Rickson, the director] and Lia and Kristin and I all have children, largely of a similar age, and at one point Ian said in rehearsal, ďDo you think we should bring our kids to see the show?Ē My feeling was, ďIf we get this right, absolutely not.Ē By that, I meant that itís the kind of territory that if weíre doing it correctly should be too disturbing and strange for kids, though they might not know why. [My son] Billy is 10, and he comes backstage sometimes and plays with his iPad. Luckily the show is only 85 minutes long, so Iím not gone for very long!

Your absence from the theater has allowed you to do a lot of forthcoming films.

Yes, Iíve done a film of John Banvilleís wonderful book 'The Sea' with a first-time director [Stephen Brown] that was shot in Wexford [Ireland], and a small but wonderful film called 'Iíll Follow You Down', in which I play the father of a grown-up Haley Joel Osment. And thereís 'All Things To All Men', with Gabriel Byrne, which comes out [in the UK] about the same time our play closes. Itís a gangster film in which I play a crooked cop and get to act more ďLondonĒ than I am normally cast.

Sounds good, but letís hope itís not seven years before your next London play.

I donít want that either! But what I donít want to do are what you might call ďsuccess roles,Ē where youíre opening in the West End in this or that celebrity play. 'Old Times' might sound like that, but to me, it felt like a genuine risk, and thatís what I like. Iím happy to fail, as long as I fail with an open heart. Having said that, Iíd rather not fail; Iím not an idiot!

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