THERE’S a game we play, journalists and celebrities. It’s a sometimes uneasy mix of false intimacy and healthy disdain, affecting an air of cynicism on the one hand while accepting our symbiotic need on the other.
The crocodile and the plover, if you like. So we go through the motions, act all chummy, charming each other to get what we need. Which is, for the star, publicity for whatever product they are trying to sell and, for the journalist, a nice story that might entertain, move or in some small way engage the reader.
Poor Rufus Sewell. He can’t really win. He’s done the schmoozing, done the chat. He’s talked about the death of his illustrator father (he was ten at the time), the poverty-stricken childhood (“we were arty but poor – we were on free school dinners”), the wayward teens (“I’d be late for school and because I couldn’t work out a good excuse I’d bunk off – it was pretty standard stuff”), the fear of being typecast. Lord, he’s done it all. Now all journalists want to hear is the same old stuff, regurgitated in a slightly different combination of words. It must get a little boring.
So when he voices his frustration – “lazy journalists, they’ll read stuff and get a quote then ask the same question again hoping I’ll say a similar thing; it’s very tiresome” – I’m immediately on my guard and a conversation that was trotting along rather nicely becomes stilted. Which is a shame because, actually, when I listen to the tape the following day, he comes across as a decent bloke, with a ready chuckle and a nice line in self-deprecating wit, and is refreshingly honest about the reality of being an out-of-work actor. Still, it’s clear he’s not entirely comfortable with the fakery of the journalist/celebrity relationship.
Most recently seen on stage alongside Kristen Scott Thomas in Harold Pinter’s Old Times and, before that, in the television adaptation of William Boyd’s spy drama Restless, Sewell is probably still best known for playing Will Ladislaw in the BBC’s adaptation of Middlemarch. Then came, most notably, classic bad guy roles in the likes of A Knight’s Tale and The Legend of Zorro, hard-done-by Tom Builder in medieval mini-series The Pillars of the Earth and a short-lived run as stylish Italian detective Aurelio Zen.
It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that he is now relishing the opportunity to play a contemporary Londoner in stylish British crime thriller All Things to All Men. The directorial debut of Kidulthood producer George Isaac, the film casts him as Parker, head of a maverick police unit who has crime lord Joseph Corso (Gabriel Byrne) in his sights. To add to the mix, professional thief (an impossibly threatening Toby Stephens) gets embroiled in the plot and the line between good and bad grows increasingly blurred. Make no mistake. Parker is a sociopathic shit.
“No, I’m not terribly nice,” laughs Sewell. But he refuses to file this role alongside the rest of his back catalogue of bad boys. “The fact that this film is modern and I’m playing a Londoner feels far removed from anything I’ve ever played. If you play a couple of bad guys it’s easy for people to see you that way, but this role was in the middle of seven or eight things that were not bad guys so, for me, I don’t care. I’m quite happy as long there’s a wide range of stuff. I really liked this part when I read it, just because it was kind of shocking.” And he laughs amiably. But I’m conscious we’re already hurtling towards that typecasting territory he’s so bored with. Oh dear.
At drama school (he studied at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama) he was cast mainly in comedies – something that, to a lazy journalist, might seem at odds with that steely gaze and those brooding good looks (and, my goodness, he is handsome, even more so in the flesh than on film) – and he would like to do more of the genre. “I do as much comedy as I possibly can but I’m basically limited by the imagination of the secretaries who make the decisions,” he says. “I think it’s changing now though.”
All Things to All Men is part of that sea change. “It’s a chance for me to be in a British independent film playing a Londoner in modern times for the first time since the 1990s,” he says. “In fact, it’s the first time I’ve been in any British film since the 1990s. That’s not by choice. If I could just work in British films doing independent movies I would – as a good guy, a bad guy, whatever. The fact it was a decent script with some good actors and they were interested in me made me take it very, very seriously right from the start.”
Filming in London – he was brought up in Twickenham and his 11-year-old son Billy (to scriptwriter Amy Gardner) lives in the capital – was a bonus. “It’s all I want to do,” he says simply. But, until his circumstances change, he is based in LA instead, and has been since around 2008, when he shifted across the Atlantic to play a biophysicist/FBI advisor in the series Eleventh Hour. “I’m only based in LA because I couldn’t get any work in England,” he says. “After I did a play in the UK [Tom Stoppard’s Rock ’n’ Roll], I got offered a job in America so went to do that. At the end of this job, which lasted about a year, I had a girlfriend and I had rented a house – I didn’t have a house anywhere else – so I kind of stayed.”
Although it received credible viewing figures, Eleventh Hour was not commissioned for a second series, much to Sewell’s relief. “As soon as I was in it I felt trapped so I was delighted when it got cancelled,” he says. “I’d had almost a year of struggling with something that was the opposite of what I’d been promised. The people I was working with I liked very much but I very quickly realised it wasn’t for me. Then it was a matter of trying to make the best of it – to no great effect – while secretly praying in the nicest possible way that it didn’t go any further.
“It was almost popular enough – that was the danger I hadn’t foreseen. So by the end of that series I considered I’d been given a blessing; I’d been given the opportunity to learn without having to sacrifice seven years doing something I never wanted to do. But if you’re vulnerable, you’re unemployed, no-one else wants you, it’s quite difficult to turn it down.
“It wasn’t even about the rent,” he adds, “it was just about wanting to work, to show people what you can do. I’ve never been someone – possibly to my detriment – who works on the basis of rent. I’ve always been – possibly in a foolhardy way – more wide-eyed than that.”
Since he made the move to the US, perversely, he’s found himself more in demand for work in the UK than ever. If the industry thinks he’s playing hard to get, it’s working. “I’m quite happy with that perverse arrangement, if that’s what it takes. I now go to Hollywood in between jobs to get away from my career, to get away from the industry.
“It’s all bollocks anyway. I have meetings in Hollywood and I do them on Skype. When they ask me where I am I say London, because it works the other way too.”
So, for now, he has his “really nice little flat”, his girlfriend (one report has her as a hairdresser but Sewell doesn’t elaborate) and he is back and forth to the UK all the time for work and to spend time with Billy. “I don’t really have a sense of living anywhere,” he says. “I live where my career is, which takes me all over the place.”
He tends to eschew the red carpet scene and is rarely papped at celebrity parties. “I’m not anti any of it,” he adds hastily. “I don’t have any moral objection to it – you know, I like it once in a while. It can actually be quite fun. It’s a novelty but it’s not what my normal life is like. Generally my life is quite quiet. I don’t want to overstate it because then it tends to have a hint of bollocks about it, but we don’t go out very much, I don’t really party, I go for runs, we go out for coffees, we watch box sets.” He laughs at the inanity of it all.
“Then every once in a while I’ll go out to the Chateau Marmont or some other posh place and I’ll see famous people.”
Sometimes he’s recognised on the street – more in the US than the UK – but does he ever feel that fame has rather passed him by? “Yeah, I guess. It’s knocked on my door many times but whenever I’ve got to the door there’s been a gate swinging in the wind. I’ve never walked away from it; it’s just the way it’s happened.”
However, he adds, “I think it’s certainly true that one of the frustrations of my career has also been one of the best things that has happened to me.” By that he means that he has turned “making the best of what has come my way” into something of an art form. “I’ve developed and I’ve got better,” he says. “I never saw myself as one type of actor. I always saw myself as a character actor, someone who could be in so many different types of roles, so many different types of genre and medium. I think, maybe, it’s going to take me a long time to get to that kind of actor. I still think in rather puppy-like terms of my best work still being ahead of me.”
His career, though, is not the one he’d like. “The reason I like doing plays and, actually, television more is because I get a chance to play roles that are a challenge to me, whereas that’s very rare in films. If I read a part and, by page ten, it’s still really interesting, my heart sinks because I know I might not get picked. So I have to be quite canny in terms of seeing opportunities other people might miss.”
Having said that, a few years ago he decided it was time to stop trying to prove himself to other people. Whatever roles might have made the point he was that talented, versatile actor, he’d done them and they’d made little difference. “So f*** it. I’ve spent years frustrated. As far as I’m concerned I’m just going to live my life, do the best work I can and not worry about reaching some kind of imagined level. These things are never what you want them to be anyway.
“That doesn’t mean I don’t care about what I do, I just do what I can do and don’t worry about what I can’t do anything about.”
And anyway, he has quite enough fame for the moment. “I don’t need or want any more than I’ve got. However, I have been around long enough to realise the barrier between me and the kind of work I want to do may well be a certain degree of fame that I don’t have. So it’s a difficult one to play. And it’s something that’s very difficult to manage anyway.”
He remains proudest of his performance of the poem 9/11 Out of the Blue, his theatre work, “bits of television and bits of film. As far as I’m concerned, a lot of the film work I’ve done has been making the best of things that have come my way rather than getting the kind of roles I’d like to be doing; trying to find nuances in period drama bad guys, whereas there would probably be three or four parts in each of those scripts that I would rather see myself playing.”
And, despite his disappointment with Eleventh Hour, he maintains he’s not ashamed of any of his work. “I will make mistakes but if I make my mistakes for the right reasons there’s no shame in it. There’s certainly some work I’ve done that I’m embarrassed about and there probably will be in the future, but I’m not ashamed of my reasons for doing the job. I’m guilty of foolhardiness rather than cynicism,” he chuckles.
As a human being, he says he’s proud of having developed, “maybe becoming a bit more balanced and a little bit more honest”.
Regrets? “It’s become very fashionable for people to say, ‘Never regret anything’. That’s all bollocks. Yeah, bearing in mind that you cannot go back in time, then it’s pointless regretting things. But if I could, there are plenty things I’d have done differently.”
But, on balance, he adds, “That series, which was a very difficult experience, the way that worked out ended up being one of the most valuable experiences I’ve ever had. I think I learned more from that than anything else I’ve ever done. So I think that’s probably true of most of the bad things I’ve done; I don’t know who I’d be if that wasn’t the case.”
After a well-documented period of enjoying life’s excesses, he’s given up the fags and the booze and is now, sitting opposite me, glowing with health. “There’s wasn’t a particular wake-up call – just still being alive.” He recently passed the momentous stage in life where his son was the same age he was when his father died, though he refuses to make any more of it than that. “I suppose ‘live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse’ is not quite how it works out. You live fast, then you live slower. Then you get into your late 30s and the prospect just gets a bit boring.
“I exercise a lot. I was a kind of fat teenager, or at least thought of myself in that way, and one of the advantages of smoking was that I thought it was keeping my weight down. So one of the things I did when I gave up smoking was to start running. I’m quite happy to transfer an addiction to those things into running and keeping fit.”
He runs three or four times a week and eats healthily, aware of his mortality after all. “The fact that my father died when I was ten ... it’s probably in my genes. It doesn’t make you feel invincible.”
He’s also reigned in his spending since those early days when he blew cash on stuff he promptly lost then replaced then lost again. “I don’t think I grew up particularly materialistic, but my lack of materialism led to the opposite for a while. When I first started to earn money it had never been my desire; it wasn’t one of my ambitions to be rich but I suddenly started to get money and because I had nothing I wanted to spend it on, it was just money; I just spent it on rubbish and it slipped through my fingers.
“I’ve had the experience now of losing it all and starting again and realising a respect for money probably means I’ll be less in thrall to it. My lack of respect for money left me in money troubles – not in any great way. But if I pay more attention to it, it has less power over me. I probably have less money now than I had ten or 15 years ago but I don’t own anything anymore.
“One of the great things about the series stopping, for example, is that I could move into a smaller place and live a simple life and try to engineer it so my lifestyle was relatively inexpensive. This means I could wait for the things that did have an effect on my happiness rather than being under pressure to accept second-rate work. I think I’m better than that.”
The work he has signed up for includes teaming up again with lookalike Ian McShane (the pair worked together on The Pillars of the Earth), this time on Hercules: The Thracian Wars, due for release next year. “It’ll be my second time working with him and still not playing my dad, which doesn’t seem to make any sense,” he laughs. The impressive cast list also includes John Hurt, Joseph Fiennes and The Rock. “I’m playing his mate – it’s unusual for me to get a film like this and not be playing the bad guy.” But, hang on. Big, muscular, built like a barn dude The Rock? Isn’t he a little intimidated? Physically, I mean. “Well, I’ve been doing the odd press-up,” he reasons. “But the pressure is off. If you’re standing next to the Rock, what the f*** are you supposed to do?”
He has also just finished filming an adaptation of John Banville’s Booker-winning novel The Sea in Ireland with Charlotte Rampling, Sinead Cusack, Ciaran Hinds and Natascha McElhone. “The part I love – it’s a very unusual part. It was a lovely experience, the script was wonderful – that’s the kind of thing I just love to do. I always wanted to play really different, disparate parts in little films and, this last year, that seems to have happened.”
Perhaps, at last, Sewell is getting the kind of career he craves.
• All Things To All Men is on general release from Friday