A Bit of Ruf
E. Jane Dickon
The London Sunday Times Magazine
8 February 1998
Settled with a pint of bitter in his north London
local, Rufus Sewell is as affable an actor as ever publicized a film. The brows that beetled to such devastating effect
in the BBCs Middlemarch, turning Sewell overnight into a rival to Mr Darcy, are raised in
polite responsiveness; the black polo neck is benignly bookish and the pleasantries are
genuinely pleasant. But every so often, just
as the words young buffer are forming themselves above Sewells head, the
badness comes over him. In the middle of a
resume of his recent work (no fewer than four feature films in 1997), Sewell, quite
suddenly, loses it. His knuckles whiten
around his glass, the chin goes up with b***er it belligerence and a sentence
that started off calm and considered switches gauge and hurtles down an altogether more
are talking, he says, in tones of purest disgust, to someone who acted in a
film called Dangerous Beauty. When we started
out it was called The Honest Courtesan, but that was considered too highbrow for
Hollywood. Well, boll***s to that. Im not going to pretend to anyone that I dont
think its a title for f***ing muppets. If
it was a horse called Dangerous-bloody-Beauty, I wouldnt back it. But there you have it. Im in a film called Dangerous Beauty and its
not my fault.
a moment, it looks like he might cry with the idiocy of it all, and it would do his public
image no harm if he did. Cynical-but-sensitive
is what he does best. He did it in frock coat
and frills in Middlemarch and in Tom Stoppards Arcadia at the National Theatre. He did it in frayed sweaters and sneakers as an
IRA terrorist in Ron Hutchinsons Rat in the Skull at the Duke of Yorks. And he did it again as Emma Thompsons
frustrated lover in Carrington, and as a master crook and cardsharp in the film adaptation
of Joseph Conrads Victory. After nearly
a decade of roles requiring him to wear his psychology on his sleeve, Sewell is
understandably thrilled that his latest role, as Giles Winterbourne in a screen adaptation
of Thomas Hardys The Woodlanders, requires him to act straight from the gut.
is the good-est person Ive ever played, and theres not that much good in me
that I can fasten on to, says Sewell, and this sounds less like false modesty than a
frank statement of resources. As an
actor, you tend to rely on the dodgy aspects of yourself to build up a character. Its much easier to have a limp than it is to
walk naturally, because that way you have something to hold onto. The greatest challenge in the part of Giles was
his absolute simplicity.
by Phil Agland, the documentary maker whose award-winning Beyond the Clouds followed a
year in the life of a remote Chinese community, the screenplay of The Woodlanders
approaches 19th century rural England with the same respectful anthropological
perspective? A real village of
functional dwellings was erected in the Hampshire countryside and shooting schedules were
dictated by the turning of the seasons (an unheard-of indulgence in Hollywood, where
summer is a matter of lighting and imported blossoms). Slowing down to the pace of life in the last
century was, says Sewell, the hardest thing of all.
early on, the director took me to one side and said, Look, Giles is not less
intelligent than you are, so stop patronizing him, says Sewell. Giles is someone who thinks at a slow pace
and doesnt say much, and its easy to equate that with slowness of mind. It reminded me of when I used to work on building
sites as a teenager. I would waltz in there
with Tolstoy under my arm and spend the day with men who were completely different in
their intelligence from me, but often very much brighter.
It took me a while to realize that, but when I did, I felt stupid.
harder to stomach, in Hollywood terms, than a practically non-speaking romantic lead is
the resolutely unresolved ending on the movie. Never
one for the happy-ever-after, Hardy is at his most remorseless in The Woodlanders. Giles and his sweetheart (played by Emily Woof)
are allowed just one kiss before Nemesis steps in. Sewell
treasures the comment of the woman who, cheated of a sprig-muslin and orange blossom
finale, came out of the screening and announced that, as far as she was concerned, Hardy
was no Jane Austen.
like saying Tarantino is no cheese-and-ham sandwich or This piece of
string is better than Wednesday. Theres
just no comparison, he insists. All the
same, you know what she meant. Punters
expecting another Quality Street production with breeches and bodices
straining at the seams will be disappointed. Nature
may burgeon its socks off around him, but Sewell keeps his moleskins firmly on.
came to me as a great juddering shock that Giles, a man in his 30s, lives and dies a
virgin, says Sewell. As an actor,
you are used to talking about the sexual truth of a character, but here is a
man whose love life begins and ends in a kiss. Giles
is a sexual person, but he is absolutely not a sexy person and that made this part
different from anything Id done before.
takes his Mr Sexy image on the chin, without complacency or coy demurral. Its better than being known as Mr
Smelly, he acknowledges, but he wouldnt much mind if he never hears the word
Byronic again. I have been
asked what is it like to be a Byronic seven year old, to which the only possible reply is
Oh, f*** off. In fact, in
the flesh, Sewell smiles more than he smolders, and comes over as neither mad nor bad but
funny, fluent, and very fast. Reports of his
rakes progress through ranks of swooning starlets are grossly exaggerated. Reports
of his cheekbones are not, but the extravagantly sculpted features seem distinctly less
romantic when he insists that he got them by ding of 20 years of diligently sucking his
the past 18 months Sewell has lived with his Australian girlfriend, Yasmin, who, he is
pleased to say, is not an actress. Just for
the record, he is Happier than I have been in a very long time,
does not realistically expect the Rufus Happier Now story to make the front
page. For Sewell, one of the weirdest effects
of celebrity is the creation of a cuttings-file doppelganger. On paper, he has spurned the advances of Madonna (Boll***s,
I had a perfectly nice drink with her and left to go filming) indulged in a public
snogging marathon with Kate Winslet (It was three seconds while I put her into a
) and is well-nigh monomaniacal on the subject of his former weight
problem. In person, he is bored to tears with
the whole fat-boy issue I wasnt that fat, for Gods sake
but cheerfully admits that his body type prevented him living out his adolescent
Ziggy Stardust fantasies. Podgy
curly-haired androgynous just doesnt work. At
best you look like an extremely affordable male prostitute.
the teenager Sewell adopted an all-purpose rebellious look of peroxided hair, feather
earring, eyeliner, and black nail varnish, and embarked on a life of crime, stealing hit
singles from Woolworths and knickerbockers glories from Wimpy Bar. In a spooky
presaging of parts to come, he also affected a frock coat from Oxfam. Even now, aged 30, and sung as Paul Smith
separates, he refuses to laugh at his younger self. Id
wear eyeliner now, if it suited me, he says stoutly.
Whatever it is that dictates the individual about you is the one thing
you should keep. I dont wear eyeliner
any more, but that bit of me that did is the bit that I lost for a while and that Ive
been desperately clawing my way back towards.
what the teenage rebel was rebelling against remains unclear, as his upbringing was
remember when I was at school that everyone elses parents had clean cars and my mum
drove a taxi full of vegetables (she supported the family for a while on the proceeds of a delivery round),
never wore shoes and was 6ft tall. She was
determined that my brother and I would grow up unsuppressed, and looking back now, I think
pere, who died when Rufus was 10, was even less conventional. As Australian animator who worked on Yellow
Submarine and the 1970s cult cartoon Roobarb and Custard, Bill Sewell was a beatnik and
boozer who came to Britain in search of his idol, Dylan Thomas. Rufus and his brother grew up shuttling between
their mothers house in Twickenham and their fathers studio in Soho, where
Sewell remembers hanging around quite happily while his father discussed life and art with
passing tramps. It was a rackety kind of
childhood, but he always felt loved. Certainly,
he has emerged with a solid sense of self-worth, which, underneath the easy houour, he is
at pains to preserve. He is a great believer
in reverse psychology. The worse I am in something, the more shipper and confident I
seem, because at least that way people will leave me alone, he reasons. Similarly, when a female director tried to
humiliate him by patting him on the bum and treating him as the token totty,
he had his counter-strategy set up.
someone thinks Im stupid, I always try to keep them thinking Im stupid,
because then I can control the situation. This
woman irritated me a lot, but I was determined not to show it. She was a highly intelligent, rather screwed-up
woman and there was a certain amount of revenge in her behaviour; she thought this was her
opportunity to get back at the way she had been treated by men. And, in a way, it was useful for me to find out
how women must feel when they are treated like that.
Maybe the casting couch is as much a problem for men now, but it generally
doesnt happen with the kind of work Im doing.
Maybe if I was up for Lace 4, it would be more of an issue, but you dont
usually shag your way into the new Tom Stoppard play.
first thing Sewell learnt about deal-making in America is that you leave your sense of
irony at the studio gates. I have this
theory about irony, of rather the lack of it, being a power tool. He confides. Movie executives allow me a little more
freedom than they would allow most people, because Im a European, but I
still come away from these meetings totally unmanned.
Im a naturally ingratiating person, but without recourse to irony Im
stripped of all my normal defense mechanisms. Its
all very well being terribly English and saying,Bah! Theyve got no irony. Who wins? They
do, every time. In the end, Id end up
talking like them because it was the only way they could understand me.
rising star is clearly visible from both sides of the Atlantic. In 1997, as well as The Woodlanders,
Dangerous-bloody-Beauty and a low-budget English comedy, Martha, Meet Frank, Daniel, and
Laurence, he completed two major-league American movies: John Turturros Illuminata,
in which he share the bill with Susan Sarandon and Donal McCann, and Dark city, a sci-fi
fantasy co-staring Keifer Sutherland and William Hurt.
Scripts involving hapless Englishmen in love with kooky American girls
arrive from the States on a weekly basis, but this is not the kind of work that interests
has he nay plans to jump the pond on a more permanent basis. I can pronounce as much as I like about not
selling pit to Hollywood, he says, but I dont want to make a
moral stance out of my career choice. The
fact is that, professionally, its wiser for me to stay here; I honestly dont
know any make actor who has moved to Los Angeles and whose work, in my opinion, hasnt
suffered as a result. You end up getting a
swimming pool and then doing Kick Boxer in Space to pay for it.
the meantime, hes looking for a corker of a stage play, but with Arcadia at the
National and Brian Friels Translations on Broadway already under his belt, is there
another Troy for him to burn? He fancies
taking a crack at Macbeth and is currently in negotiation with a small London theatre
about a possible production. There is none of
the usual pettifogging about the Scottish play.
He sings out the name of Macbeth like a challenge. I think I know what to do with one bit of
one scene, and thats a start. It
is, he insists, just another part, but unless he is thinking of playing the youngest Lear
in town, it is hard to imagine a more challenging role.
"Ill never have a part that I think of as the big
one,'" he vows, disclosing, beneath the banter and bravura, his own vaulting
ambition. Because what on earth would I
do once Id played it?"