Matthew Rhys: 'We'd troll off to LA and try to nick jobs off the Americans'

Matthew Rhys might be a proudly Welsh-speaking member of LA’s ‘Tafia’, but he can act more Santa Monica than the natives. Now, he tells Gerard Gilbert,  he’s swapping a quintessential US melodrama for a classic British costume drama.

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The Independent Online

There’s an amusing TV series to be written about the 200,000-strong British expat community working in and around the entertainment business in Los Angeles – Episodes meets Entourage, or that sort of thing. Or perhaps it would only make a half-decent radio play.

Either way, Welsh actor Matthew Rhys, who for five years played gay lawyer Kevin Walker in ABC’s prime-time drama Brothers & Sisters, belongs to a Celtic sub-section of this population, one dubbed the ‘LA Tafia’ - showbiz types from the Principality, such as Michael Sheen and Ioan Gruffudd, who gather to chin-wag in their mother tongue, to dream of good fish and chips (impossible to find apparently in Santa Monica) and to watch rugby.

“We do have a little Tafia thing and it’s not just actors, but every walk of life,” says Rhys in his  mellifluous South Wales accent – Richard Burton without the 40-a-day basso profundo or alcoholic drawl. “I was shocked by the amount of Welsh people in LA. We’d go to this British pub to watch the Six Nations early in the morning and I remember the first time I walked in it was just a sea of red.”

Brothers & Sisters was cancelled in 2011, since when Rhys has been reminding that section of the British audience which never watched the show (more than two million did – on Channel 4) of what they’ve been missing. At Christmas he was wonderfully dark and febrile as the schoolgirl-obsessed choirmaster in the BBC’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’s unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and, this weekend (it’s why we’re meeting atop the ITV tower on London’s South Bank), he’s in an excellent version of the Daphne du Maurier novel, The Scapegoat.

Last filmed in 1958 with Alec Guinness in the twin roles, Rhys plays John Standing, a kindly prep-school master at the time of the Queen’s coronation, who happens to be the spitting image of Johnny Spence, a fast and feckless bastard of a millionaire rapidly sinking his family business. Standing and Spence meet by chance in a hotel bar and, having been awoken in Spence’s bedroom by the now vanished plutocrat’s chauffeur, he is whisked off into the bosom of his  doppelganger’s aristocratic family.

Beautifully adapted and directed by Charles  Sturridge, the man behind the celebrated 1981 ITV version of Brideshead Revisited, it co-stars Eileen Atkins as Spence’s opium-addicted mother (the role played in the original by Bette Davis), Phoebe Nicholls (Cordelia Flyte in Brideshead and Sturridge’s wife) and Andrew Scott (Moriarty in BBC1’s Sherlock). But The Scapegoat stands or falls on Rhys, who must give two contrasting performances as Nice John and Nasty Johnny – not an easy job considering that he is either throwing a lookalike actor around the set in intricately choreographed fight scenes or acting to strips of blue tape on the floor – scenes to be later subjected to magic digital trickery. “It messes with your head,” he says, “or it did with mine.”

The Scapegoat, which is well worth a Sunday evening of anybody’s life and which will also be released in cinemas, isn’t Rhys’s first experience of doppelgangers. Or, rather, he has lived a remarkably parallel life to another darkly handsome Welsh actor, his best friend Ioan Gruffudd. Both men’s parents were teachers from Glamorgan and the actors went to the same schools in Cardiff, while Rhys followed Gruffudd to Rada. “He was a year older than I was, but we went through the same primary school and high school and chapel,” says Rhys. “When Ioan went to Rada I thought, ‘Oh… so you can do that [acting] for a living… maybe you don’t have to work’. Ioan paved the way and I followed.”

They have played a gay couple on stage (in Sara Sugarman’s Very Annie Mary) and for 10 years they shared a home in Kilburn, north London, speaking Welsh together – sometimes as a secret language. “It backfired on me once,” says Rhys. “Ioan and I were on a train in London and a woman got on. He had his back to her and I was describing her to him in great detail in Welsh – flatteringly if overly descriptively – and her phone rang and she answered it and began speaking in Welsh.”

Rhys grew up more interested in rugby and farming than drama, while his headmaster father (“not at my school, thank God”) never played the stern pedagogue at home with young Matthew and his older sister Rachel (now a TV producer). “He was good like that,” says Rhys. “He spent all day and every day being the disciplinarian; by the time he came home he enjoyed being more of the fun dad.”

On Sundays there was chapel, where his mother would play the organ. Has any of the Methodist upbringing stuck? Rhys shakes his head with a trademark twinkle in his eyes – these peepers being his most distinctive feature; they can dance kindly but also penetrate demonically, attributes well showcased in The Scapegoat. Anyway, did he rebel against religion? “I didn’t, my sister rebelled a lot more,” he says. “It didn’t offend me. In some ways we were lucky at Sundayf  school – there were a lot of liberal-thinking teachers there… very open in its discussion of everything.”

Keen on rugby, Cambrian of tongue and chapel-going, Rhys’s almost parodic Welsh upbringing was completed by regular visits to the National  Eisteddfod (he made his judging debut at this year’s event, and since 2008 has been a member of the druidic order of the Gorsedd of the Bards), home life being full of poetry reading and song, some of which obviously rubbed off, because when Rhys decided to follow  Gruffudd to Rada, he won the prestigious Patricia  Rothermere Scholarship (Maxine Peake was a later  recipient). Matthew Macfadyen was a contemporary.

“Rada was a slap in the face,” he says. “The work rate there is big. I had friends at university and they were doing six hours of lectures every week and you’re doing 12 hours a day sometimes and worked Saturdays as well. It wasn’t this wild, raucous drinking, having a good time I thought it might have been. But the training is phenomenal, so it’s a trade-off.”

After what he describes as “pootling about” in stage roles at the National Theatre, the Old Vic and opposite Paul Bettany at the Royal Court, Rhys picked up his American agent, who encouraged him to join the annual post-Christmas emigration of  British actors to Hollywood for what is known in LA as the ‘television pilot season’. “A number of us would go out in January when it’s quiet over here and we wanted to party,” he says. “We’d troll off and try and nick jobs off the Americans.”

One of those jobs included, rather wonderfully,  the final ever episode of Columbo (“Now there’s a pub quiz question for you”), but in the event Hollywood came to Rhys – or rather to London – in the shape of Kathleen Turner, Mrs Robinson to his Benjamin Braddock in Terry Johnson’s hit West End adaptation of the 1967 Dustin Hoffman movie The Graduate. In 2000, the 45-year-old star bared all each night at the Gielgud Theatre in the famous seduction scene – but the then-26-year-old Rhys could not share the sell-out audiences’ taste for onstage nudity. “I was just embarrassed,” he says. “It ran for six months and I can honestly say I didn’t look at her once when she was naked. I always thought that a) I can’t look at her because she’s going to think ‘You little perv’ and b) I didn’t want to because of… Welsh nerves. I hope she didn’t take it badly.

“A bit of box-ticking in the West End, with a big Hollywood star… it certainly helped,” he adds. “And you get all those celebrities coming to see her.

“I’d get a knock on my door from her dresser… ‘Come down for a glass of champagne.’ ‘Who’s in?’ ‘Tom Hanks.’ It all seemed quite glamorous to me.”

To the delight of journalists, simultaneous to being seduced by an older woman on stage, Rhys was also dating a more mature woman off it – Jude Law’s  publicity agent, Ciara Parkes – the last time that Rhys has been associated with a named girlfriend. Yes, there was tabloid tittle-tattle about a supposed fling with Sienna Miller (he declines to comment) during the filming of the 2008 Dylan Thomas biopic, The Edge of Love, but Rhys remembers this time mostly for his baptism by paparazzi fire, as the snappers pursued Miller (who played Thomas’s wife, Caitlin) and co-star Keira Knightley across various locations in the Welsh countryside.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says. “The military precision… they had camo [camouflage] netting – it was a real eye-opener as to how those girls live their lives. And there’s something very strange about large groups of men following girls around photographing them.”

Rhys is currently single and fancy-free – not an unenviable position for a relatively young man (he’s 37) at large on the West Coast. “My mother’s despairing,” he says. “In the last year-and-a-half I haven’t been in the same place for more than six months… but, yeah, I do enjoy the single life. Also I haven’t met her yet, so… until then…” The subject is terminated with the twinkly-eyed thing. Not that it’s a particularly wild existence in Santa Monica, with no Welsh hell-raising in the tradition of Richard Burton or the younger, pre-teetotal Anthony Hopkins. “We’ve all calmed down a lot now,” he says. “A lot of boys are happily married with children now.” The ‘boys’ don’t include Rhys Ifans, another native Welsh speaker, who apparently only ever visits Hollywood in order to work, and therefore doesn’t qualify as a member of the Tafia. “But I’ve had a few nights with Rhys outside of LA. I know his capabilities.”

Rhys moved to Santa Monica full-time in 2006, when he won the role of Kevin Walker in the ABC drama about an upper-middle-class Californian family, Brothers & Sisters, part of an ensemble cast led by Sally Field, Rachel Griffiths, Calista Flockhart and Rob Lowe. Kevin was a gay lawyer – although his sexuality was, groundbreakingly, not an issue. “The creator, Jon Robin Baitz, was very clear he didn’t want campness about him,” says Rhys. “He didn’t want a coming-out story, in fact he wanted it as inconsequential as possible – the lawyer who’s the brother who happens to be gay. That was the brief.”

Did he have any qualms about playing a gay man? Or, to put it another way, were American actors scared of what such a part might do to their reputation in a still homophobic Hollywood, where openly gay performers are as rare as easy-going publicists or vocal critics of Scientology? “I think so,” replies Rhys. “I was surprised by the volume of American actors who weren’t going to do it. What people actually said was, ‘Aren’t you scared of being typecast?’ I thought ‘Oh, it’s a part… like any other’. I’ve done it [played gay men] on stage and TV before.”

Typecasting certainly hasn’t prevented Rhys from being hired for another long-running American TV series. In October he will be moving to New York (where he has already spent the first part of the year, playing Jimmy Porter in a Broadway revival of Look Back in Anger), after the FX cable drama The Americans was recently commissioned for a full 12-part run. “It’s set in 1981,” he explains, “and it’s loosely based on the truth about the KGB in Washington at the height of the Cold War, when they were trying to infiltrate the FBI with these sleeper cells – agents posing as Americans and adopting American lifestyles. I suppose I can relate to that, being Welsh pretending to be American.”

‘The Scapegoat’ is on ITV1 tomorrow at 9pm