A Rupert Friend indeed

After years of being known as Keira's beau, Rupert Friend is taking his place in the limelight, with starring roles in two new films, writes Stephen Applebaum

Rupert Friend seemingly has a life to envy. Yet the young rising star says that a huge part of how he chooses his roles is "down to my very perverse kind of curiosity that wants to live everybody's life except for my own."

This is not to say that the mild-mannered 27-year-old would always like to be his characters, or even come anywhere near them in real life. Lieutenant Kotler, the menacing Nazi officer in last year's harrowing child-focused Holocaust film The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, for instance, would presumably come under the heading of someone "I wouldn't like to meet" – which can be as much of a draw for the actor as someone he would. Nevertheless, his revelation about apparently wanting to live these other, imaginary, lives rather than his own is strange and unexpected. It is "a weird thing to say, maybe," he admits.

Indeed, being Rupert Friend cannot be all that bad. Career-wise he is in the ascendant, while in his personal life he has been steadily dating his Pride & Prejudice co-star, Keira Knightley, for years. Tall and handsome, his black T-shirt, brown jeans, distressed leather boots and slightly spiked-up hair give him the look of a front man for an indie band the day we meet, and women clearly adore him. According to Emily Blunt, who plays Queen Victoria to his Prince Albert in The Young Victoria, Friend is the very "definition of a real man". Harriet Walter, meanwhile, has confessed that she "fell in love" with him during the making of the romantic drama. "I wished I'd been 20 years younger and Rupert Friend was a possibility," she reportedly quipped.

If Kotler had been a study in Teutonic evil, then Albert, also a German, was the total opposite: a man so admired for his goodness that he was actually known as Albert the Good in some quarters. "My first question when I read that script," says Friend, "was, 'What makes a woman, after her husband has died, lay out hot shaving water in his room every single day for the next 40 years? What makes her never take the black off? What makes her unable to speak about him without crying?' I just thought, 'That's one of the most moving, posthumous declarations of love that I have ever come across.'"

The actor says he spent a lot of time hanging around Albert's statue in Hyde Park, London - "which sounds weird," he laughs – just thinking about what kind of man would inspire such a memorial. "The idea that you would build that monument – how great was this guy? I just found him one of the most unsung heroes that I have found in history or literature."

The problem for Friend, however, was making Albert a rounded character; he had to get beyond Victoria's tears and weeds and find the man. "It's tricky because you're playing a good guy; it could be nauseating. So you've got to find what the dark side is," he explains. "And the dark side is he was quite a take-over kind of guy. You see that in the film. He'd occasionally tread on [Victoria's] toes a bit in public. He was a king without a crown. He basically said, 'In marrying this woman I will never be the king.' And that for a man who was already going to be the prince of his province is a big deal, I think. But I was full of admiration for him."

I want to ask if he identified with Albert, as the partner of the more-famous Knightley, but Friend has made it a rule never to talk about their relationship to journalists. In any case, he is fast becoming a star in his own right following roles in The Libertine, opposite Johnny Depp, Pride & Prejudice, and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, among others. In May he will be seen playing Michelle Pfeiffer's louche young lover in Stephen Frears' and Christopher Hampton's frothy Colette adaptation, Cheri. "It was terrifying," he says, recalling his feelings before meeting Pfeiffer. "I mean, this is Cat Woman we're talking about here."

If Friend's rise through the ranks to leading man since leaving London's Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art seems to have been effortless and struggle free, the actor says looks are deceiving. He has been "really, really lucky", he admits, and "worked with some fascinating, wonderful people. But if I'm honest, and I'm not doing a 'pity me' act, there were some huge swathes of depression in the middle of that."

His packed-looking CV actually represents five years' work, "and in every one of those years, without fail, I was unemployed for six months." These were difficult periods, he says, because he did not know what to do with himself. "Do I go and learn a new skill? Then I'm sort of giving up. Do I work in a bar? Then I'm probably going to be all tired out and won't be any good at auditions. Or do I just try and eke out the money from the last job, and how do you deal with yourself when someone isn't telling you what to do?"

I suggest that what Friend is essentially describing is the vicissitudinous life of a freelancer, something I completely understand. "Absolutely," he says. "My father started his own business and before that was a freelance lecturer, and my friends are artists and musicians, they don't have real jobs, none of us have real jobs," he laughs, "and it's really a process of trying to realise that it's not dead time, it's time that you can use to do the things that you don't do when you're working." Which would be what in his case? "I'd always wanted to work with wood, so a big thing for me was thinking, like, 'Okay, then instead of thinking I'm unemployed, I can try and do something with wood.'"

Friend gives a surprised laugh when I tell him that Jake Gyllenhaal also once told me that he enjoys doing carpentry when he is not filming. "Ah, maybe we can get together and make a bench," he chuckles. "I'm not very good, though. So I will be shown up in a big way."

One thing he will not be making is a cross for his own back, metaphorically speaking, of course, by putting himself in a position where he becomes a fixture in the gossip mags. "I only do the press for the work," he says. "I don't have a publicist. I don't go to events or self-promote, or endorse things, or whatever it is people are meant to do in that world. It's great to sit and talk about the films and the people I work with, rather than where I buy my socks or whatever."

His private life is so off limits in fact that when I suggest that having a partner who is also in the movie business must make his life easier because she presumably understands the pressures of a film actor's life, Friend completely ignores the implied reference to Knightley.

"This industry is too bonkers to understand," he says simply. "Every single part is completely different. I've never got a part in the same way twice. I've never prepared the same way. I've never experienced the filming the process the same way. So I think it's almost impossible to make a rule for it."

Friend cannot evade the paparazzi's lenses as easily as the meaning of my question, however. And while he seems reluctant to complain about them on his own behalf, he gallantly steps up on behalf of actresses. Friend must have been a first-hand witness to their impact on Knightley's life, but he keeps his comments general.

"It's particularly distressing to me to observe that we're fine with these young women, who it normally is, who are chased, stalked, put under siege by battalions of strange men who sleep in their car and follow them and take pictures up their skirts, and when they throw the dummy out or whatever, everyone thinks they've gone mad," he says. "I would defy anyone not to be affected by what is, I think, harassment really. I just think it's slightly below a moral code that I have as a man or as a human being. To chase people, it just seems very bestial."

It's easy to see why the ladies love Rupert Friend.

'The Young Victoria' is released 6 March; 'Cheri' will open 8 May