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A Bit of Ruf

By 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 Sewell’s 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 dangerous track.

“You 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.  I’m not going to pretend to anyone that I don’t think it’s a title for f***ing muppets.  If it was a horse called Dangerous-bloody-Beauty, I wouldn’t back it.  But there you have it.  I’m in a film called Dangerous Beauty and it’s not my fault.”

For 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 Stoppard’s Arcadia at the National Theatre.  He did it in frayed sweaters and sneakers as an IRA terrorist in Ron Hutchinson’s Rat in the Skull at the Duke of York’s.  And he did it again as Emma Thompson’s frustrated lover in Carrington, and as a master crook and cardsharp in the film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 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 Hardy’s The Woodlanders, requires him to act straight from the gut.

“Giles is the good-est person I’ve ever played, and there’s 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.  It’s 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.”

Directed 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.

“Quite 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 doesn’t say much, and it’s 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. 

Even 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”.

“It’s like saying ‘Tarantino is no cheese-and-ham sandwich’ or ‘This piece of string is better than Wednesday.’  There’s 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.

“It 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 I’d done before.”

Sewell takes his “Mr Sexy” image on the chin, without complacency or coy demurral.  “It’s better than being known as Mr Smelly,” he acknowledges, but he wouldn’t 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 rake’s 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 cheeks in.

For 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”,

But 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 taxi…”) 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 wasn’t that fat, for God’s sake” – but cheerfully admits that his body type prevented him living out his adolescent Ziggy Stardust fantasies.  “Podgy curly-haired androgynous just doesn’t work.  At best you look like an extremely affordable male prostitute.”

Instead, 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 Woolworth’s 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.  “I’d 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 don’t wear eyeliner any more, but that bit of me that did is the bit that I lost for a while and that I’ve been desperately clawing my way back towards.”

Precisely what the teenage rebel was rebelling against remains unclear, as his upbringing was emphatically liberal.

“I remember when I was at school that everyone else’s 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 it worked.”

Sewell 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 mother’s house in Twickenham and their father’s 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.

‘If someone thinks I’m stupid, I always try to keep them thinking I’m 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 doesn’t happen with the kind of work I’m doing.   Maybe if I was up for Lace 4, it would be more of an issue, but you don’t usually shag your way into the new Tom Stoppard play.”

The 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 I’m a ‘European,’ but I still come away from these meetings totally unmanned.   I’m a naturally ingratiating person, but without recourse to irony I’m stripped of all my normal defense mechanisms.  It’s all very well being terribly English and saying,’Bah! They’ve got no irony.’  Who wins?  They do, every time.  In the end, I’d end up talking like them because it was the only way they could understand me.”

Sewell’s 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 Turturro’s 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 him.

Nor 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 don’t want to make a moral stance out of my career choice.  The fact is that, professionally, it’s wiser for me to stay here; I honestly don’t know any make actor who has moved to Los Angeles and whose work, in my opinion, hasn’t suffered as a result.  You end up getting a swimming pool and then doing Kick Boxer in Space to pay for it.”

In the meantime, he’s looking for a corker of a stage play, but with Arcadia at the National and Brian Friel’s 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 that’s 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.   "I’ll 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 I’d played it?"




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