In 'Zen,' Rufus Sewell Exploits His Dark, Brooding Side as Seducer and Sleuth

Kansas City Star, 11 July 2011
By Luaine Lee

By For actor Rufus Sewell it's not the carefully orchestrated steps in life that make you shine. It's all the missteps.

"Everything I do that's a strongly held belief is based on having learnt from doing the opposite," he says in his slightly breathy British tone.

"It's how I've learned my craft is by getting things wrong. I think it's very valuable to get things wrong if you can learn what you don't want to do again."

Ever since he braved the stage as a porter in "Macbeth," Sewell has explored the consequences of his choices.

"I get more obstinate as I get older. I've just learned what makes me unhappy, and it's always my fault in the end," he says seated in a deserted bar in the late afternoon, the sun spilling a slanted shaft on the flowered carpet.

"There's always some point you can trace it back to when you said 'yes' when you should've said 'no,' when you're aware dimly of all the facts, but you choose not to look at them. In my experience there's always that place I can point it embarrassingly back to, a point when I should've done something else - and for some reason didn't."

His credits - projects like "Dark City," "Eleventh Hour," "The Pillars of the Earth," "The Tourist," "A Knight's Tale" contradict his premise.

So does his latest endeavor, the role of the smooth but determined Italian detective in the "Masterpiece Mystery!" production of "Zen," premiering July 17.

In "Zen," Sewell exploits his dark, brooding looks as both seducer and sleuth. "The worst times are always immediately after I've made a leap in my work," he says, his hazel eyes pinpointed by the sunlight.

"I haven't worked since 'Zen' and that was months ago. That's kind of self-imposed. But not that self-imposed. I'm a fussy beggar, but not all that fussy. There's plenty of things out there that I would've done if they'd come my way, but I think I have to turn the ship around in harbor and that's never going to be a nimble move. I periodically have, every couple of years, and that is because every time I do a particular type of role - for some reason - people think that's the kind of role I ought to do," he shakes his head.

"Well, the expression of that role is me having done it. And I didn't want to do something else. So I'm sort of moving from one typecast to another. It's like having a varied career except that every four years I'm offered the same kind of role. It's fine, it just means I have to be prepared to be unemployed and sometimes that's really hard."

The father of an 8-year-old son who lives in England, Sewell has been married twice. "My biggest priority is him," he says. "I live in Los Angeles because my girlfriend's here. But one week out of every month I go back. I was with him a couple days ago so I see him every couple of weeks. I try to have a three-week rule."

Sewell's dad, who was an animator from Australia, died when Rufus was 10. "That was an enormous event but in ways that I didn't get to hear about until I was a fully grown man," he says.

"You suddenly realize that why you did something yesterday has to do with something that happened 16 years before. I don't know what it's like for that not to happen. My mother's response changed me. Because it's quite possible that people can be very, very damaged by parents that stay together. That can be the source of people's misery, and what screws people up when you have parents living in the same house.

I came from a not very well-to-do background but we were enormously privileged in many ways, just because of who my mom was, who my dad was. It was a very alive, culturally interesting place. I've become a survivor I always was because of the way my mum brought us up."

In spite of all his concerns about being typecast, Sewell says he's not so sure he actually likes acting. "You only need to like it once - when you decide what you're going to do for a living," he says.

"And after that it's a job, isn't it? I like it but because I'm determined to like it. That's why I sometimes have to sit and wait. Because if I only did the stuff I was offered, I would not like it. If I wanted only to do films, for example, then I'd always play the same kind of character and would I like it? No. So I should do something else. If I want to keep this job the thing that I always wanted to do, I have to be a lot more tenacious, dogged and stubborn and that means sometimes forcibly being unemployed until something good comes along."

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