Caroline Bishop finds Life Is A Dream actor Rupert Evans to be a man with more than one thing on his mind…
“It’s quite hard with apple trees,” says Rupert Evans, deadpan, “because you have to cross pollinate.” We are talking about whether he should replace his garden’s 100-year-old greengage tree, which fell down earlier this year leaving the actor “heartbroken”, with two apple trees. I am not quite sure why we are talking about this. Neither, I think, is he. This is just one of several tangents that our conversation takes during the course of our meeting during rehearsals for his latest play.
It is that play – Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s Life Is A Dream – that we are meant to be discussing. But Evans keeps getting distracted; by his salad, by my Dictaphone and by topics as diverse as the rise of capitalism in Lithuania and the politics of shopping in Tescos. There is something about these random conversational detours, coupled with the playful twinkle in his eyes and his boyish, affable charm, that makes Evans seem very, very English.
But he is currently playing a Russian in Poland in an English translation of a Spanish play. “Funnily enough what’s so very weird about this is that I am trying to learn Spanish at the moment,” he tells me, before we veer back to the topic in hand.
Calderon was a Spanish contemporary of Shakespeare’s and, like the Bard often did, used a country far removed from his own in which to set his play, in this case Poland. “The idea is that [audiences] are being taken to a different world, so the themes of the play are more important than the place really,” says Evans.
Known as the Spanish Hamlet, Life Is A Dream is a philosophical drama which explores the idea that our lives are just preparation for the next, after we die. It is, says Evans, a “big” play, wordy and with several subplots, which has made it challenging to work on during the five-week rehearsal period. The main storyline centres on the King’s son, Segismundo, played by Dominic West, who has been disinherited and banished by his father to live his life in isolation. “I think it also deals with fate and whether or not you have any control over your destiny, which I think in this day and age we are kind of interested in,” says Evans. “We are all about self-determination and we are in control of our lives and religion is falling away isn’t it, particularly in the cosmopolitan cities, amongst the young. Very few of my age go to church any more. So it’s interesting to come across a play that offers up a point of view from both sides.”
“Being a Hollywood film star does not interest me at all, it sounds like far too much hard work”
Evans plays a power-hungry young Russian who arrives in Poland to convince the ageing King that he, Astolfo, should marry Lithuanian royalty and succeed the monarch on the Polish throne. In doing so he dishonours the woman he had promised to marry back home in Russia. “So she follows me to Poland to reclaim her honour: either to kill me or to get me to marry her. One of the two,” says Evans, tucking into his tuna niçoise.
He looks the part of a heartbreaker. The 32-year-old has the sort of dark good looks that could make him a romantic leading man, should he so wish to take that route, though he looks embarrassed and skirts around the subject when it comes up. So far, he has dabbled; his CV includes playing Romeo for the Royal Shakespeare Company – in a case of life imitating art he met his girlfriend, actress Morven Christie, when she played his Juliet – the rakish royal King Richard in ITV series The Palace, and no fewer than five costume dramas. This autumn he will play another heartbreaker, Frank Churchill, in the BBC’s latest adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma.
“I don’t know why I love them,” he says of his penchant for period pieces; he has also appeared in Fingersmith, North And South and Sons And Lovers. “Maybe it’s just I love getting the britches on and riding on horses that secretly I love. I think it’s horse-riding I love actually, any excuse to ride a horse.”
And he is off on one of his tangents, telling me about learning to ride bareback in Malta for three months for the film Agora, a historical drama, which is due for release later this year. “You get off and you waddle for about a week. My inner thighs were pretty serious by the end of it, I was quite impressed!”
His love of costume dramas, horse-riding and gardening equates with his background as a country boy; he grew up on a farm in rural Staffordshire, near Stoke-On-Trent. Acting piqued his interest at school, though he initially thought it was something he would grow out of. After a “Mickey Mouse” degree in Media and Business, he still hadn’t, so he decided to apply for drama school and got into the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, graduating in 2001. “My first job was in My Family, I’ll never forget it, 10 days after I left drama school. I had two words – “I’m Tom” – that was it. I was on it for about seven seconds. I was terrified.”
Since then the work has been steady and varied, with stage roles including Breathing Corpses at the Royal Court, Kiss Of The Spider Woman at the Donmar Warehouse and that RSC season, which he describes as an “extraordinary experience” and one which he would like to repeat “because I didn’t feel I really embraced it as much as I could”. He made his big screen debut in comic creation Hellboy, but although that film raised his celluloid profile, Evans is not yet a household name. The Palace, which was sold to him as a West Wing-type series and on paper looked to be a potentially popular new drama, did not take off as it might and was not recommissioned. Did he think it would be more successful than it was? “One never knows and I never question it when I’m working, because if I question it when I’m working then I’ll start questioning it when I’m actually acting in it. You can’t do that, you have to just commit, and afterwards you can in hindsight look back. It’s a shame, because again I think it was a fantastic idea. It’s not my area of expertise, one could go through a hundred reasons why it wasn’t as successful as I think they hoped it would be, but you know, we did the best job we could as actors in the time given.”
“Maybe it’s just I love getting the britches on and riding on horses that secretly I love”
He seems philosophical about commercial success and does not aspire to the cult of celebrity. He would like to work more in the US, and yet, “Being a Hollywood film star does not interest me at all, it sounds like far too much hard work, which I think it is. To sustain a level of celebrity over there you have to work incredibly hard, it’s like a job in itself. People don’t realise it actually. The odd so-called celebrity I’ve spent any time with in terms of work, it shocks me how much time and effort they have to put in, to maintain a profile. I think if one is a celebrity I think one’s work choices are dictated in part not by the work but by the fact that you are a celebrity and therefore certain roles have to sustain your profile rather than the work itself.”
Right now Evans seems more concerned with spearing a cherry tomato with a plastic fork than conquering America. I get the impression he is an optimistic, innately contented sort who would make the most of whatever direction his career were to take. This year, for example, having filmed Emma in the UK and now working for the Donmar, he has enjoyed living at home in Hackney after several years of spending large chunks of time filming abroad; Agora in Malta, The Palace in Lithuania.
“I think I’ve been very lucky,” he says of his working life to date. “I love working and I’ve worked, so I can’t complain, you know. It’s very weird being self-employed. It takes a certain type of person I think, and it’s a bit weird because you sort of never know when you’re next going to work. After November I may not work for months, but I kind of love it.”
I doubt he will be out of work when Life Is A Dream ends its run, but if he is, there is always the garden. “You can get a three-variety tree,” he tells me with a smile tugging at his mouth, “so it pollinates itself…”