After a ten-day break, Rufus Sewell is back on stage in Tom Stoppard’s new play Rock ‘N’ Roll, this time treading the boards at the Duke Of York’s, after the show transferred from the Royal Court. Caroline Bishop snuck in the gap to grab a chat with the London-born stage and screen actor and found a man who goes to great lengths to fulfil his craving for variety, even if it means sporadic unemployment…
Rufus Sewell does not mince his words. “It’s what I want to do if what I’ve been doing is the opposite, if it’s an interesting part, but if it’s what people think I do then no, f**k off! Because that’s absolutely the opposite of the kind of actor I am and I refuse to be pigeon-holed into something that limits me.” He’s in the middle of a rant against typecasting, and blimey, I wouldn’t want to be the unfortunate agent who suggests he takes such a role.
That’s not to say that Sewell is being unfriendly as he talks to me on the phone, in fact he’s chatty, open and witty, but he’s certainly a man who knows his own mind, says what he thinks and won’t take kindly to a journalist who assumes anything about him. “Often when I talk to people,” he says, “I find people don’t even ask you, they say ‘well of course the stage is your natural home’, and I think don’t tell me what’s my natural home! I mean, it was films that got me interested in acting.”
I’m running the verbal gauntlet of interviewing Sewell because he’s currently in Tom Stoppard’s new play Rock ‘N’ Roll, which, after a successful run at the Royal Court, has now transferred to the Duke Of York’s. In it, Sewell plays a Czech student studying in Cambridge in the 1960s, who later goes back to Prague, becomes involved in the dissident movement and goes to prison. It’s a “long journey”, says Sewell, which is played out to a soundtrack of British and Czech rock ‘n’ roll music of the time. It is, of course, a role unlike any other that the typecast-phobic Sewell has ever played, and one which he is enjoying for its complexity. “What I find demanding is being asked to do similar things, being expected to play a generic type when in fact people are far more complex, so I find it quite liberating to play someone who is in context more like a real person.”
Sewell seems in his element in Rock ‘N’ Roll, which he describes as “such a vividly written play, even if, like me, you don’t understand most of it!” He’s refreshingly honest about the fact that it took several weeks of read-throughs and much questioning and learning before he understood all the political content of the play and its era. “When you read it, it’s kind of gob-smacking and you’re confronted with your own ignorance on so many subjects,” he says, “but luckily it’s quite an emotional thing too even if you don’t understand any of the politics. But I think the thing is, it’s not that an audience comes out feeling stupid, they come out feeling energised by it and people buy the play because there are so many things that it’s touched on that tickle your fancy that you want to know more about.”
"I find it quite liberating to play someone who is in context more like a real person"
It’s the second time he’s been in a Stoppard play, the first one being Arcadia, at the National’s Lyttelton in 1993, which got him a Laurence Olivier Award nomination. Twelve years later the 38-year-old has the benefit of experience working with the same “potentially quite intimidating” duo – Stoppard, and director Trevor Nunn. Nunn in particular is a great person to work with on such a complex play, feels Sewell, because “he’s such an incredibly bright, astute man, he has total confidence in saying that he’s stupid. He’ll say ‘I don’t get this’ in a way that actors are slightly intimidated to do. With me, after admitting that I don’t understand two things, when it comes to the third thing I want to pretend I understand. It’s like with books – people [mention] three books in a row, I always say I’ve read the third one,” he laughs at himself.
What he says about Nunn, Sewell could equally apply to himself, in the way that he also has the confidence to admit his shortcomings, and it doesn’t seem like false-modesty, rather he comes across as a genuine guy who’s as comfortable with his flaws as he is with his talents. He finds explaining the plot of Rock ‘N’ Roll “slightly beyond my capacity – otherwise I’d be as clever as Tom Stoppard”. He’s trying to avoid his old bad habit of turning up late for performances. Has it happened this time? “No… well, yes, once.” He’s also honest about being nervous before performances, saying: “To tell you the truth I always feel a little bit awkward about going from the rehearsal room to the theatre.”
He’s not worried, however, about the transfer to the Duke Of York’s, and the weight of expectation that comes with it, given the good reviews the play received at the Royal Court. Expectation, he says, is possibly a good thing. “The advantage of that is that you get a confident audience at the beginning of the play, rather than what we had to start off with – not really until after the interval being able to laugh; they’ve had a good chat and a couple of drinks and decided they like you. [In] the first couple of performances there was a kind of hesitancy.” In fact he likes the feeling of expectation “because I think it [the play] is really good and I’m really proud of it, so I’m not worried”.
"It's such a vividly written play, even if, like me, you don’t understand most of it"
Being worried, however, seems to be something Sewell thrives on – the reason he accepted the role of Macbeth in a production that ran at the Queen’s theatre in 1999, was because “I was offered it and it scared me so I said yes. It’s a good policy and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t!”
That particular play turned out to be one he didn’t feel particularly comfortable with, because the production he’d envisaged as small and funky, became “the Queen’s theatre with my name above it”. He felt uncomfortable with it as “somehow this feeling seemed to pervade that it was something I’d organised”. He’d rather, he says, be a company member with the freedom to experiment and fail, than be set up as a leading actor.
It all seems to add up to Sewell’s career philosophy – that is, that he wants variety, roles that really interest him and the chance to experiment. His fear, he says, is “of doing the same thing. I’ve always been really unsettled by security. Luckily I haven’t had much of it,” he laughs.
This philosophy is evident in Sewell’s choice of varied roles both in the theatre and on screen, where his credits include Martha Meet Frank Daniel and Laurence, Cold Comfort Farm and the TV serial Charles II: The Power And The Passion. It’s why he played the cross-dressing Petruchio in the modern TV adaptation of The Taming Of The Shrew, and why he hasn’t been on stage since Luther at the National in 2001, until now. “I would rather wait for something like this than play the same kind of part two or three parts in a row,” he says.
“I went through a stage of being frustrated about being offered the same kind of parts on television and film because people thought that was the kind of acting [I do] which really p**sed me off,” he says, his anti-pigeonholing rant gathering momentum. “And that started to happen with plays as well. I’ve never just decided not to do plays, except I’d been offered parts that I didn’t want to do and this is the first one I wanted to do.”
He admits it’s tricky to keep to his principles in Hollywood, where “the chances are if they’re going to offer me a part, it’s as a baddie,” which may explain ‘baddie’ roles in The Legend Of Zorro and A Knight’s Tale. It’s why Sewell is determined to choose the right roles in the theatre. “I’ll be damned if I’ll do that on stage, because that’s not what it’s for and why should I? The joy of being on stage is to actually be allowed to be the kind of actor you are. There’s no reason why I should have to play those kinds of parts that they give to English actors. The stage should be where I get the chance to play the roles I really want to play.”
"I’ve always been really unsettled by security. Luckily I haven’t had much of it"
He’s not just being picky for the sake of it, or disparaging certain roles because he thinks he’s too good for them, rather, this bee in Sewell’s bonnet stems from the desire to be a good actor and the awareness that he isn’t if he sticks to the same thing. “I just need the variety, it’s when I think I’m at my best,” he says. “That’s why I suppose I’m so neurotic and sensitive about the idea of being stuck in one kind of part, because I think that way I’ll be a mediocre actor and otherwise I’m probably not.”
The only way to stop being typecast is, unfortunately, “a bit of self-enforced unemployment”. Being Rufus Sewell, however, this doesn’t seem to bother him too much. Problems, he says, “make your life interesting. As long as there’s excitement then I’m quite happy with things not happening. I’d rather have the possibility followed by the upset of it not happening than none of it.”
Still, quite a lot has happened recently, and Sewell has found some roles that interest him as he has several new films coming out. In one, The Holiday, opposite Kate Winslet, he doesn’t play the typical English baddie. “No, I’m branching out, I play w****rs now!” he laughs. “Actors are under pressure to talk up their roles so no one gets upset, but I’m basically playing a t**t. It’s quite fun, quite liberating!” In an entirely different vein (naturally), Sewell is also in the forthcoming 18th century historical drama Amazing Grace, in which he plays an anti-slavery campaigner. “Basically he’s a baddie but it’s a fantastic part,” he says.
He also loves doing comedy, but says he doesn’t get offered good comic roles very often. When he does, “I bloody well make sure I do them,” such as The Taming Of The Shrew for the BBC last year. “I loved doing that because that is actually closer to my natural energy than any other thing I’ve done,” says Sewell. The role also involved him dressing in women’s clothes and putting on make-up, which was “Great fun. It wasn’t that much different to the way I dressed when I was a boy. I was well into that when I was about 14. If I was that way inclined that’s the kind of gear I would wear.” He pauses, “I did say if I was that way inclined!”
Unsurprisingly, Sewell will not be pinned down as to the kind of role he’d like to do next, as it would “probably be quoted back at me in three years’ time when it’s no longer true”. What is true, is that he doesn’t view any job as a stepping stone to anything else, nor does he have any ambition to rise up a career ladder. He’s most happy in the here and now, pick ‘n’ mixing his jobs to create the perfectly balanced assortment. He’s going to continue doing what he’s doing, and, just as importantly, what he’s not doing, and to live by his career philosophy: “Just keep being interested, keep being challenged and keep being frightened of f**king it up.”