Rufus Sewell makes beautiful music

February 6, 2008 11:40:19 AM PST
Attention all casting directors: Please put Rufus Sewell in a comedy! The man is seriously funny - and he'll never get to show it if you keep thinking of him as a brooding bad boy.

Now on Broadway as Jan, Tom Stoppard's alter-ego in "Rock 'n' Roll," Sewell tackles 22 years in the life of an accidental Czech dissident. It's a role that won him Evening Standard and Olivier awards for best actor during the show's acclaimed London run. New York critics have been effusive, calling his performance "flawless," "masterly" and "perfection." During a dressing room interview at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, Sewell, 40, talks about how exciting the Broadway transfer has been. Dressed casually but neatly in a black V-neck sweater, jeans and black oxford shoes, Sewell says that in returning to the part after a year, he just wanted to see what had remained.

"It's quite a scary thing," he says, "to see if it's gestated in any way, to see what's happened in the interim. Luckily, it was still dimly there."

Performing for American audiences has its own set of challenges.

"They get some things in a much quicker way; they get other things in a slower way," he says. "It's just a slightly different sensibility."

According to the actor, some jokes get a laugh on a different beat, for example, but "you try not to factor in a pause for a laugh, because, aside from being phony as hell, it's asking for trouble on a cold matinee morning."

In London, Sewell noticed an audience migration throughout the show's run. At first, the real Stoppard aficionados come, he says. But after a while, you get people who've been sent by their concierge when "Mamma Mia!" is sold out. "Then you get slightly bemused Eastern Europeans wondering why there wasn't a higher Queen song per act average."

"Rock 'n' Roll" is studded with classic songs from 1968-1990 - including the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and Velvet Underground and many others. "Some of it I'm very familiar with," Sewell says, "and I remember when we started rehearsals thinking, 'What a shame, because by the end of this I'm going to be really sick of this music.' But it hasn't worked out that way. What I am sure about is that certain songs will be forever associated for me with 'Rock 'n' Roll."'

As for Sewell's personal musical tastes, he says his first musical crush was Elvis and that he was "into the Velvet Underground, very heavily, at around 16 or 17." Currently, he's listening to indie-pop artist Feist, along with "a lot of jazz and classical."

He's always listened to many different kinds of music at the same time, he says. "I've prided myself on having very eclectic tastes, which I still do. But I always draw the line at power ballads and achy-breaky country and Western."

Sewell applies the same all-embracing attitude to his career.

"I don't feel any limitations that I would impress upon myself. I like to be surprised. That doesn't mean everything is going to be a great success, but that's not the point. It's about keeping yourself interested, keeping yourself awake. And hopefully if you keep yourself awake, the people watching will be kept awake, too."

Probably best known for his role as the villainous Count Adhemar in 2001's "A Knight's Tale," which starred Heath Ledger, and as the no-good boyfriend Jasper in 2006's "The Holiday," a movie that starred Cameron Diaz and Jude Law.

But Sewell has more interest in the diverse roles offered by independent films. Casting procedures for the smaller movies were initially mystifying, though.

"The independent films are harder to get into than the non-independent films. I ended up playing baddies in big-budget movies because I couldn't get into the tiny, unpaid, bring-your-own sandwich-movies that I wanted to do," he says.

Sewell has recently filmed two independent movies, however: "Vinyan," with Emmanuelle Beart, and "Downloading Nancy" with Maria Bello, which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. He'll also be playing Alexander Hamilton in "John Adams," an HBO miniseries that's due to air in March.

There's no great master plan for his career, he says, "because when I've tried to have one, it hasn't worked out for me, so what's the point? There's nothing that I'm sniffy about. I certainly wouldn't do anything obvious and cliched. If it was something that was very, very interesting to me, I wouldn't care if was on stage, TV, film, whatever."

The first time he thought about acting, Sewell says, was when he was very young and he saw Charles Laughton as Quasimodo in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" on TV. He remembers thinking, "I could do that." He attended the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, which, he says, allowed him to fail spectacularly in a safe environment.

He was first noticed by Stoppard in a West End production of "Making It Better," playing a Czech hustler involved with an older woman. Stoppard and director Trevor Nunn were casting "Arcadia" at the time and asked him to audition.

Stoppard says that his heart leapt when Nunn told him he'd cast Sewell as Septimus Hodge and calls him a remarkable actor. "It was just a strange coincidence that he was playing a Czech character who spoke English," the playwright says. "So you can see why he was my first choice for 'Rock 'n' Roll."'

Sinead Cusack, who portrays Eleanor and the older Esme in the show, says that Sewell is extraordinary and a revelation as an actor. "Most astonishing about him is his ability to completely inhabit a character from the first minute," she says. "At the first read-through, he was Jan."

Doing "Rock 'n' Roll" has reminded Sewell of the joys of doing live theater and how much he loves it; only doing a play every five or six years is not enough.

"I've never wanted to be a theater actor or a film actor or a television actor, I've always just wanted to be an actor. I've always wanted to be into everything," he says.

As for those comic roles: bring 'em on.

"I'm a comic actor, that's what I actually am. Everything else is a stretch."

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