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The Times (London)

4, 2001, Saturday

SECTION: Features

LENGTH: 2069 words

HEADLINE: A rake's progress

BYLINE: Grace Bradberry


Rufus Sewell has come a long way since his days of stealing food to survive. And now Our Man in Breeches has charged off to Hollywood to become a fully paid-up screen villain

Rufus Sewell is slouching on a sofa at the Four Seasons Hotel. His eyes look as if they've been drawn with a thick piece of charcoal, which has been used to sketch the long straight nose. He has been called saturnine, but it is hard to apply that word to a man who has just been brought a cup of tea with full-fat milk -a concoction that in Beverly Hills seems as parochial as a Miss Marple thriller. Straight off a 12-hour flight, he is full of nervous energy, lighting a cigarette and talking very fast, as if he fears interruption. He seems more than usually afraid of being misunderstood, and of being held to past statements. Take, for instance, the opinion, voiced more than once, that he would never move to Los Angeles for fear he would do as other English actors had done, take sub-standard work "to pay the swimming pool cleaner". "I read that and I thought, 'Oh no, I'm f,' because I might want to live here at some point. It's just that whenever I've hung around here it's always ended up being faintly embarrassing, so that's why I end up going back to Kentish Town," he says, subsiding into a lazy grin.

It is seven years since Sewell became famous at home, playing the dreamy Will Ladislaw in the BBC adaptation of Middlemarch. Shortly before, he had played the mathematics tutor Septimus Hodge in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia at the National Theatre, and soon afterwards he starred opposite Kate Beckinsale as the brutish Seth Starkadder in John Schlesinger's Cold Comfort Farm. He wore tight trousers from a variety of different periods, and wore his hair in a style described by one excitable reviewer as a "lava flow". Inevitably he became the latest Sunday-evening crumpet, toasted by the British middle classes. But there are, in truth, only two main roads by which English actors reach Hollywood. One goes past timbered houses, stagecoaches and frock coats, the other through bed-sits, council estates and drug dens. Ewan McGregor took both routes, starring in Emma and Trainspotting en route to Star Wars stardom. Sewell was mostly our man in breeches. He was not entirely happy about this, and for a long time he said loudly and repeatedly that he would rather be doing anything but costume dramas, felt uncomfortable playing romantic leads, and had no intention of going to Hollywood merely to play English villains.

Yet here we are, sitting in Beverly Hills discussing his latest film, A Knight's Tale, in which he plays a villainous English count. "Yeah, full of shit, aren't I?" he says. "I didn't want to move to America to play English villain after English villain. But I always wanted to play one. I waited for a good one and I think this is a great one. It's a Basil Rathbone baddie. Dressed in black, black horse -cool, and it's a funny film."

The film is written and directed by Brian Helgeland, who won an Oscar with director Curtis Hanson for the screenplay of LA Confidential, James Ellroy's gritty tale of police corruption. A Knight's Tale is in an altogether different vein. Pitched squarely at the MTV generation, it is the story of how lowborn William Thatcher (Australian hot-shot Heath Ledger) reinvents himself as a nobleman and joins the jousting circuit, presented as the Super Bowl of its day. Helgeland's favourite rock anthems -from Queen to David Bowie and Thin Lizzy -are combined into the action in a way that you'd call exuberant rather than artful. Just to give a flavour, at the first jousting tournament, the peasants sing along to Queen's We Will Rock You, with its rousing "Boom boom WAH! Boom boom WAH!" chorus.

When we meet, the film's success or failure is not yet known. Rolling Stone magazine has given it a great review, which stands blown up in the publicity suite. But Sewell has not seen the review, and seems somewhat tense. I ask how the role was pitched to him. "It wasn't pitched to me!" he says, incredulously. "It's not like the director comes round to your house and says, 'Rufus...' I just got the script and I read it. When you read, 'The crowd will break into We Will Rock You', you think 'OK'. Brian just stuck his favourite songs in there. I was a little wary. I thought, this is either going to be embarrassing or not. But I figured, 'They'll do it in such a way that if there's an unsuccessful test screening they'll just whip the music out'. But the way he filmed it you couldn't do that."

The film's turned out to be a moderate hit, taking more than $ 55 million in the US so far, largely from a teen audience, and Elvis Mitchell of The New York Times wrote, "Rufus Sewell steals the picture as the villainous Count Adhemar, delivering his high, light croak with a mellifluous purr in the cadence of a man convinced of the import of his own words."

If Sewell speaks cautiously, then that's probably because he has been on the Hollywood brink ever since Cold Comfort Farm and Carrington, in which he played Emma Thompson's lover, the artist Mark Gertler. But he has had a series of near misses. The 1998 sci-fi thriller Dark City, in which he starred opposite William Hurt as a man whose memory has been erased by aliens, performed poorly at the box office, and John Turturro's Illuminata, which also starred Susan Sarandon, never even got here. Asked which of his Hollywood films he is most proud of, he dodges the question. "I've only ever made one film here and that's At Sachem Farm and it never came out," he says, with a short burst of laughter. The film also starred Minnie Driver and Nigel Hawthorne, but didn't find a distributor. Another of his films, The Honest Courtesan, he wound up panning after it was renamed Dangerous Beauty -a detail that he discovered in the middle of an interview. "My reaction was 'f* bollocks'. But I didn't say that about the film because I didn't want to get told off." Unfortunately his remark that the title sounded "like an amalgamation of 50 Demi Moore films that no one would want to see" was applied to the entire film. "So, that was a little bit unfortunate," he says. Most recently, he appeared opposite Kim Basinger as a Satanic cult leader in the film Bless the Child, which was a critical and commercial disappointment. But he goes back to his theatrical roots in October, when he returns to the National Theatre to play the title role in John Osborne's Luther.

People have been telling him, once again, that A Knight's Tale will be his big break in America. "I just keep my mouth shut -I've heard it before. But I really like this movie. When I saw it I couldn't wait to take my mates to it."

At 33, he is certainly young enough for Hollywood success -if that's what he wants. But like so many British actors, he seems half-tempted, half-horrified by the American film industry. He has always said that he wants a career "like Ian Holm -not fantastically famous, just doing really good parts with really good people". In America, that would set him up to be William H. Macy or Steve Buscemi -yet he has the looks of a leading man.

"I'm being self-effacing and shruggy about it, but I don't think I'm that kind of actor," he says. "If it's something a little more quirky that's fine, but if I'm expected to be generally fabulous I become rather wooden I feel. This is what I ended up looking like, but that wasn't the plan," he says. "I'm at home with myself -but in a different way."

At school, he was the fat boy, and, full-fat milk aside, he still watches what he eats. "If I eat everything that's put in front of me when I'm filming, they end up with discrepancies -such as a porky actor at the end."

He has also taken up jogging. "When I was growing up I thought I'd be dead at 29. At 30, I realised that I wasn't, and I'd maybe have to start catching up and live a little longer. You have an idea in your head that because your dad died, you're going to." His father, Bill, was an Australian animator, who created the Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds sequence in Yellow Submarine. He left home when Sewell and his elder brother Caspar were young, and would make erratic appearances in their lives. He died when Sewell was ten. The brothers were brought up by their mother, Jo, who allowed them to run around naked until they were eight, and sold vegetables from an old taxi, much to their embarrassment. Much has been made of his wild adolescence -the truanting, experimentation with drugs, the minor shoplifting. "Those stories, they're all kind of true," he says. "But adolescence is adolescence. There's always naughtiness, hair-dyeing and crap outfits. It was no different from that, really." According to one version of events, he left school at 14. "I had a bloody good go, but there are systems in place to prevent that happening. I nearly killed my mother. I'd say, 'Bye, Mum,' in my school uniform and go off to Hammersmith to hang out with my mates." Teachers disliked him, he recalls. "I was cocky -you can imagine that. I've never been rude particularly, because I don't like people not liking me. But they did their best to put me back in my place."

He moved on at 18 to the Central School of Speech and Drama, where he continued to bunk off. "I looked like I'd been forced to go against my will, I'd so trained myself to avoid institutions. They did actually come down and slap me, and say if you carry on like this we're going to chuck you out. I had the presence of mind not to sulk too much, because I knew they were right."

He was in no way a spoilt drama student. When he was 16, his mother had moved to Wales, and then part way through his course at Central, maintenance grants were phased out. "I lived on people's floors and stole generously whenever I could get away with it. I actually got caught stealing smoked mackerel and hoummos from the Lebanese supermarket opposite Central. I suddenly manufactured all sorts of guilt -but it didn't work, I got fined enormously." By then he was working, and was able to pay.

Over the years, Sewell has been linked by the tabloids with Kate Winslet, Emma Thompson and Madonna, though only the Winslet liaison stands up under scrutiny -they dated for a while. In 1999 he married Yasmin Abdallah, a fashion journalist with whom he was living. The marriage lasted only a year. "There was a particular set of circumstances as to why I got married because she was from another country anyway," he says, cautiously. "We'd been together for a very long time, so it wasn't something that started and ended that quickly." Any wisdom he gleaned from this experience, or his other relationships, is, he says, "entirely for the benefit of the people I know -because I've never been able to benefit from it myself". He's in a relationship now, though he declines to say with whom. Is it difficult coping with long film shoots? "Not yet it ain't. It can be -but it's worth having a go though, isn't it?" This is not said as sarcastically as it might sound.

The shoot for A Knight's Tale took place in Prague. For Ledger and Sewell it was preceded by weeks of horse-riding and jousting training. "I've learned to ride five times," says Sewell. But for all the coaching, doubles did most of the jousting. "People say, 'Oh, I always insist on doing my own stunts'. F*** off! It hurts! If you're wearing armour from head to toe, then why not leave it to someone braver and cleverer than you?" At the weekends, they soothed their bruised bodies with the local brew. "The beer was so cheap..." he sighs.

After our interview, Sewell, Ledger and other cast members attended a screening of the film. Who knows if they were celebrating or experiencing second thoughts about the project, but the night carried on. The following day Ledger, whose face was then plastered across LA beneath the words, 'He will rock you', was rocky on his feet. An American colleague had to nurse him through their interview, as he muttered about his hangover and took swigs of beer. His esteemed cast members, including, apparently, Sewell, had not enjoyed the comfort of their rooms at The Four Seasons, crashing instead at his house. That morning, he had driven them all to the hotel in his car. None of them felt loquacious. I don't know why, but I find this story oddly touching. A Knight's Tale opens on August 31


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