Rufus Sewell: Facing up to leading-man roles

Since the start of his career, he's resisted the leading-man roles that his smouldering good looks have landed him. But you can't buck the system for ever, he tells Charlotte Cripps
Click to follow

It is 9.30am, and Rufus Sewell is eating toast outside a café in Soho when someone yells, "Pride and Prejudice!" in his direction, mistaking the actor for his fellow leading man Colin Firth. With his unusually large, light-green eyes and his dark, wild hair Sewell looks - in his thick black overcoat - more like the living incarnation of Heathcliff. "The chances are that when I get sent scripts, a few pages in, it is going to have a lone figure on a horse," says Sewell wryly.

For now, Sewell is horseless and starring in Tom Stoppard's new play for the Royal Court. Directed by Trevor Nunn, who has just exited the café with the playwright, Rock'n'Roll flits between Prague and Cambridge, from the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 to 1989's Velvet Revolution. Sewell plays Jan, student, rock music fan and the playwright's surrogate,alongside Sinead Cusack and Brian Cox.

Back in 1993, when the actor's career was just taking off, Sewell starred in Stoppard's Arcadia at the National Theatre. Directed by Nunn, he played the tutor, Septimus Hodge, and was nominated for an Olivier Award. "To be asked to work with someone again is extraordinary," he says, though characteristically he adds the caveat: "No matter how good an experience you have working with people, you are always left with the feeling that they would rather not repeat the experience."

The 38-year-old has not acted in a play since his acclaimed performance in the revival of John Osborne's Luther at the National in 2001. "I was offered a couple of ecclesiastical and romantic roles in the West End," he says. "This is the first time that a stage part that has excited me has coincided with the possibility of me doing it."

It would be fair to say that the actor's career is on the up. His role as a modern-day Petruchio, opposite Shirley Henderson as a wonderfully bad-tempered Kate, in the BBC adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew last year, brought the actor a Bafta nomination for Best Actor in March. Sewell confesses to mild exasperation that his adept comic turn should have come as a surprise to some people.

"What can you do if people don't see the humour in you?" he asks, adding that he had "to do a tap dance" to get the part of Petruchio. "They were concerned as to whether I was funny. I did everything I could to convince them that I was." It has been eight years since his last comic role, in the film Martha, Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence as Frank, the "embittered piss-head" former child actor. "Considering I am a comic actor, it's been a pain in the arse," he says.

Rufus Frederick Sewell was born on 29 October 1967 in Twickenham. His father, an Australian animator who worked on The Beatles' Yellow Submarine, died when Sewell was 10. He trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, and Dame Judi Dench, who directed him in a play, helped him to get an agent.

He made his big-screen debut in Twenty-One in 1991 as Patsy Kensit's drug-addict boyfriend, Bobby, gaining mainstream recognition in 1994 as the young and idealistic Will Ladislaw in the BBC adaptation of George Eliot's Middlemarch. He also gave a notable performance as the lustful, Trilby-wearing, aspiring movie star Seth Starkadder in the 1995 adaptation of Stella Gibbons' parodic novel Cold Comfort Farm. Less memorable, perhaps, was his performance as Macbeth in 1999 at London's Queen's Theatre.

Sewell has acted in a number of period and romantic dramas (Carrington, The Woodlanders, Dangerous Beauty), had several stints as the villain of the piece (A Knight's Tale, The Legend of Zorro), and played royalty (Charles II: The Power & the Passion television mini series).

The actor won't admit to a particular attachment to any of the roles he's played, but says of his breakthrough part: "When I played Will Ladislaw in Middlemarch, it was secretly a big experiment for me to see if I could play a young romantic my own age who didn't have a limp or a Latvian accent - and who wasn't a male prostitute. But after that, I was fighting not to play those roles for the rest of my life."

Frustrated at being pigeonholed ("but at least it has been a different pigeonhole every few years"), the only method Sewell has found to avoid being typecast is "wilful unemployment". But he acknowledges that such a course of action is liable to backfire. "You can wait so long for the right part that you can end up in a far more desperate situation, having to do something worse than you have been turning down," he says. "The trick is to try to keep life as simple as possible, so that you don't have so much to lose by waiting. But that's a difficult thing to do." For Sewell, a success in his chosen profession is a mixed blessing. "I have never really been able to reap the rewards of those successful roles because what I want is variety," he admits.

Sewell has diversified lately. There are a couple of films awaiting release. In The Illusionist, set in early 1900s Vienna, he plays opposite Edward Norton's sinister magician as Crown Prince Leopold, whom he characterises with relish as "a fiercely ambitious, jealous, paranoiac, tragic figure". For Amazing Grace, the story of the English abolitionist William Wilberforce, he is "a lank-haired anti-slavery campaigner" in a cast that includes Ioan Gruffudd, Albert Finney and Michael Gambon.

And the actor has just returned from Los Angeles, where he has been filming the romantic comedy The Holiday with Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet and Jude Law. "I play a very charming tosser who Kate Winslet's character is trying to get away from," says Sewell blithely.

Sewell characterises the LA experience as very "in and out", claiming that his strongest memories of filming The Holiday were of his hotel room at the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard. "I was there for six weeks, working one day a week," he recalls. "With a tighter budget, it would have been a week's work. But you can't really do anything in case they change the schedule."

He says he lived as frugally as possible, given that "eating and drinking when you are hungry can set you back $6,000 a week in that hotel. I made my own breakfast with my own coffee machine, loaf of brown bread and toaster, as if I was in a bedsit." He adds: "I try to avoid using my earnings to pay back the hotel bill. I went on set even when I was not working merely for the catering, and came back laden with cakes." He was back in England in the nick of time for the rehearsals for Rock'n'Roll in the backstreets of Soho.

Sewell lives in west London. Other than his relationship with William, his son by his former partner, the main focus of his life now is his acting career. Despite feeling "showbiz-knackered", he feels closer than ever to the career he has always wanted, though aware that it can be fleeting. "I am just enjoying it for the moment," he says.

The actor, who claims to be very regimented these days, characterises himself as "organised, sensible, and I make sure I get a proper night's sleep" - in contrast to how he sometimes deported himself as a young actor. "I could get away with reading the script on the way in on the Tube in the morning and getting no sleep," he says.

He's aware he has to be on top of his game for Rock'n'Roll. "With a Stoppard play, you read it, you think you have an understanding of it, then you realise you only picked up the surface and there is so much more going on," he says. "It is quite edifying, but you can't help feeling like an idiot. Part of the privilege of doing it is that it is like yoga for the synapses - the way Tom's mind works and the way his characters make this free association, but with lightening speed, with complete understanding. To play people that sharp, bright and eloquent is an honour."

The big Hollywood films, meanwhile, serve, to a certain extent, as a means to an end, Sewell admits. "Unless you get into that club, it can be quite hard," he says. "To have a certain amount of Hollywood success does mean you have more scope. I want to play more interesting parts in independent films. The same accountants run those films half the time. If they feel that your name means anything commercially, they won't panic about you being in a film."

Such realism aside, he claims never to have taken a role "without an open heart" - even in The Legend of Zorro, in which he was as surprised as anyone to find himself playing at sword-fighting on top of a moving train. "The trouble is, the more commercial a film is, the more likely that the parts that come my way are baddies," he says. For now, though, the fact that he is "still playing with the big boys" is what matters.

"It is wonderful that I am still in the game," he says. "That it wasn't all just a flash of success."

'Rock'n'Roll', Royal Court Theatre, London SW1 (020-7565 5000; to 15 July