A Romantic Image He'd Gladly Shed

New York Times, 22 February 1998
By Sarah Lyall

Rufus Sewell has been called "Byronic" so often that he has begun to have a recurring fantasy: he will shave off his rich, dark curls and begin his acting career again, typecast this time as an unpretty skinhead.

"I don't want to be a hair actor," he said recently here over lunch at the fashionable Ivy restaurant, at a prime table that befitted his status as a local star who just happened to have two films -- "Dangerous Beauty" and "Dark City" -- opening within a week of each other. Neither his rumpled, all-black clothes nor his unbrushed hair and unshaven chin dimmed the impact of his most prominent features: his enormous, slightly protruding greenish-hazel eyes and finely chiseled cheekbones. "I don't want to be an actor who's good-looking. I'd like to be as good-looking as I can, but I don't want to be a good-looking actor."

He went on: "It's not that I'm against being called Byronic, but it's certainly no truer than anything else. You don't want to hear it more than twice in a row."

Mr. Sewell, who was once seen smooching with Kate Winslet at this very restaurant but who is now happily living with a fashion journalist, has some reason to be concerned about show business's looks-ist tendencies. Just as Colin Firth, another appealingly unkempt British actor, burst into the public consciousness when he emerged from a lake in a wet poet's blouse in the BBC version of "Pride and Prejudice," so the 30-year-old Mr. Sewell has found the public -- particularly the female public -- most responsive when he wraps his brawny, six-foot-tall physique in a frock coat and tight breeches.

Most memorably, the roles that have called for such display have included Septimus, the dreamy tutor in Tom Stoppard's 1993 play, "Arcadia," onstage in London, and Will Ladislaw, Dorothea's passionate, unconventional suitor in the BBC's adaptation of George Eliot's "Middlemarch" (1994).

Casting Mr. Sewell in "Arcadia" was "a stroke of luck for us," said Mr. Stoppard, who couldn't resist evoking a certain Romantic British poet. "He was Byronic, with a very good comic instinct. I don't think the character in 'Arcadia' could have got off to a better start. Is Rufus a sex symbol? Well, good for him, but he's also an extremely accomplished actor."

Mr. Sewell has played a host of other characters, like Patsy Kensit's charming, heroin-addicted boyfriend in the movie "21," a suspected Irish Republican Army terrorist in Stephen Daldry's 1995 London revival of the play "Rat in the Skull," a sexy painter in the film "Carrington" and a sensual rube in "Cold Comfort Farm." But he worries about being pigeonholed as a romantic lead in roles for which he feels he doesn't have a particular aptitude.

"As soon as I play somebody who's not a hunchback, people begin talking about me in a way that I feel very uncomfortable with," Mr. Sewell said. "I'm O.K. at these parts, but there are plenty of other people who are really good at them. It's a very limited career. So what I'm saying to you is probably a neurotic overreaction to the fear of being, in five years' time, jobless."

He needn't worry anytime soon. The films in which Mr. Sewell is appearing at the moment certainly display his versatility.

In "Dangerous Beauty," which opened last Friday, he plays Marco, a dashing 16th-century Venetian nobleman who chooses love with a beautiful, spirited and brilliant courtesan, played by Catherine McCormack, over duty with a plain and pious wife (who wouldn't?). This is a film that brings him close to his reluctant Lothario image. In "Dark City," a film that is part noir, part science fiction and opens Friday, Mr. Sewell plays a bewildered American who wakes up next to the body of a murdered woman, not knowing where, or who, he is. And in "The Woodlanders," which is adapted from the Thomas Hardy novel and is out in Britain (no release date is set in the United States), he plays Giles Winterbourne, a simple laborer in love with his childhood sweetheart (Emily Woof), who marries above her station and learns, too late, that she has chosen the wrong man.

"Dark City" is clearly a departure for Mr. Sewell. It's a surreal, almost hallucinogenic, work set in a world of eternal night where an eerie group of deathly pale creatures in leather overcoats are conducting sinister experiments with human memory. The cast includes Kiefer Sutherland as a sickly doctor, William Hurt as a world-weary police detective and Ian Richardson as the leader of the supernatural villains.

While this strange film may not have wide appeal, it could attract a cult following. Mr. Sewell, who clearly loves going to the movies as much as he loves acting in them, described it as a "Fritz Lang science fiction film."

"That's what I loved about it," he continued, "that it's a strange mix of styles. When I read the script, it reminded me a little bit of 'Brazil,' a little bit of 'Barton Fink,' a little bit of 'Jacob's Ladder.'

"What I like about it is the way it doesn't worry about the why and the how, but just says, 'This is the way it is.' "

THE FILM'S director, Alex Proyas ("The Crow"), said he had chosen Mr. Sewell for the film's leading role because "he has real intelligence, and he has a certain danger." In looking for a character the audience wouldn't necessarily be familiar with, Mr. Proyas cast Mr. Sewell after a multicontinental trawl of about 100 actors. "Rufus is someone for whom everything's not on the surface," he said. "To have that possibility of danger under the surface -- to be able to play what is in the beginning a very stereotypical genre American character, from a fresh perspective -- is perfect for the film."

While Mr. Sewell says he is pleased with "The Woodlanders" as well, he admits to having reservations about his role in "Dangerous Beauty." He believes that Marco's dark edges were lost in the editing. "I did enjoy the film, but when I read the script, I saw a lot more darkness than was actually there," he said. "It was a grubbier, dirtier, more vicious story."

Marshall Herskovitz, the film's director, laughed when he was told of Mr. Sewell's remark -- as if to say, typical Rufus.

"The thing about Rufus," he said, "is that people have been trying to get him to play leading men for a long time, but he's always wanted to play bad boys. Rufus sees himself as a character actor. What we worked on together during the shooting was opening the window on this man -- Marco, not Rufus -- to reveal a vulnerability and an openness of heart. That was finally the great achievement of the part for him. He'll always have that twinkle in his eye, that humor, that mischief."

Not only that, but Mr. Sewell resented it when the film's title was changed from "The Courtesan" after 95 percent of the people in preview audiences said they didn't know what a "courtesan" was (about half confused it with "cortisone").

"What if the 'stupids' honestly don't know what a courtesan is? What's wrong with that?" Mr. Sewell said. "You could learn a word."

It seems reasonable to suppose that Mr. Sewell has been fulminating against authority since he was a teen-ager in Twickenham, a London suburb, and spent too much time drinking beer in the park instead of going to school. Pudgy enough for his brother to begin calling him the the Fat White Duke -- "I looked like Dylan Thomas with 90 percent of the liquid taken out" -- he played in a variety of rock bands, including "a Brian Eno-inspired band," a punk Oi band and something he describes as an "anarchist" band ("We were 14 and, and we thought we were anarchists").

Broke at 17, he borrowed $170 from a sympathetic teacher to pay the audition fee for several drama schools. He went to the Central School of Speech and Drama, which trained him well, but, he said, "it was very unpleasant."

"My natural manner irritated them, and there was a kind of communal effort to sit on me," he said. But when Judi Dench came to the school to direct a play, she took young Mr. Sewell under her wing, setting him up with an agent. His first acting job was really two jobs: in the mornings, he said, he played a "semi-psychopathic comedian" in one play and, in the evenings, a Franciscan friar in a second one. "If I could continue on like that always, I'd be happy," he said.

In fact, what Mr. Sewell really likes best are roles that call for him to be antisocial, psychologically impaired, and -- even better -- criminally minded. In "Martha Meets Frank, Daniel and Lawrence," scheduled by Miramax for a fall release, he plays a former child star who is having trouble growing up. "He's borderline alcoholic, chain-smoking, drug-taking, womanizing, vicious, lying, cheating and self-pitying," Mr. Sewell said happily. "He's also extremely quick and funny. I really enjoyed playing him."

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