It’s been nearly seven years since Rufus Sewell created the role of a Czech grad student in Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, a performance that earned him an Olivier Award and later a Tony nomination. Since then, he has starred in a short-lived American TV series (Eleventh Hour), played Alexander Hamilton in the hit miniseries John Adams and tackled a variety of film roles. Now, Sewell is back on the London stage as the riveting center of Old Times, the oblique yet alluring 1971 Harold Pinter play in which Lia Williams and Kristin Scott Thomas alternate playing his wife and her best friend. The engaging and articulate actor recently chatted with Broadway.com about plays that require singing, role swaps, and the fact that men do ripple.
What’s it been like to headline this acclaimed revival of Old Times?
It’s been wonderful. I have never done a Pinter play before, so I tried not to worry too much about a Pinter “style” and just act as natural as possible while at the same time paying attention to the pauses and the rhythms. And, of course, there’s been the effect of the changeover between the two girls. There are not only two different versions of the play, but each of those versions also changes. A line that gets shouted one night might suddenly be whispered the next. This isn’t a pin-down-able play for the audience—or for us as actors, either.
The production must keep all three of you tantalizingly on your toes.
Because we’ve had to watch each other like hawks, we haven’t been able to settle into the safe rhythms you often get with a play. It’s like knowing your enemy [laughs]. You have to have a beady eye on each other all the time because whatever changes has a ripple effect.
I’m glad you said “ripple effect,” since your character has a great line during a conversation about ripples made by stones on the water: “Do men ripple too?” Do you think you “ripple”?
[Laughs.] One does what one can. I’ve been known to ripple twice on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Scholars and critics have written reams about Old Times, and about Pinter in general. Is any of that stuff helpful to you?
It is important to have an awareness and an understanding of the academic side of it. Let’s say you are doing a Shakespeare: It’s good to be aware of the contrary historical documentation that you’re ignoring [laughs]. I have my own intellectual reaction to this play, and it’s not like I haven’t thought about it and read about it, but I really feel as if the best way I can serve the author’s intention is to play it as humanly as possible.
Some may be surprised to find that the script calls upon you to sing snippets from the popular songbook.
Well, I had thought I’d always been able to sing, but as we’ve got into the run, my voice has constricted more and more so that now the audience is probably only aware of what a dreadful, dreadful singer Deeley is [laughs]!
Are you implying that we won’t be seeing you in a Broadway musical any time soon?
I think New York can rest easy. I actually like old musicals, but I’m not really a fan of modern musicals per se —the kind where a housewife is humming to herself and out comes this Broadway-honed vibrato. I’m not a fan of very “theater-y” voices, but I can always change my mind!
Would you be interested in bringing Old Times to Broadway? Or joining Roundabout's forthcoming Broadway revival of Stoppard's The Real Thing?
I would love to go to New York with [Old Times] but there’s not been any talk of that that I know of. The Real Thing does obviously interest me. I read about it and thought “What fucker’s doing that, then?”—with, of course, immediate reparations and apologies sent to the marvelous person who may well be playing it.
On the Stoppard front, it’s difficult to believe that 20 years has passed since you opened at the National Theatre as Septimus in Arcadia, the play that launched your career.
And it’s strange that 20 years is a crucial period of time in the play we’re doing now, as well. But when I think back on my past 20 years, it feels far more recent, as if it was more like seven years ago—which points, if anything, to the fact that I’m an old fuck [laughs]!
A lot has happened in that time, including the fact that you are now a parent. Has your son seen Old Times?
It’s interesting: Ian [Rickson, the director] and Lia and Kristin and I all have children, largely of a similar age, and at one point Ian said in rehearsal, “Do you think we should bring our kids to see the show?” My feeling was, “If we get this right, absolutely not.” By that, I meant that it’s the kind of territory that if we’re doing it correctly should be too disturbing and strange for kids, though they might not know why. [My son] Billy is 10, and he comes backstage sometimes and plays with his iPad. Luckily the show is only 85 minutes long, so I’m not gone for very long!
Your absence from the theater has allowed you to do a lot of forthcoming films.
Yes, I’ve done a film of John Banville’s wonderful book The Sea with a first-time director [Stephen Brown] that was shot in Wexford [Ireland], and a small but wonderful film called I’ll Follow You Down, in which I play the father of a grown-up Haley Joel Osment. And there’s All Things To All Men, with Gabriel Byrne, which comes out [in the UK] about the same time our play closes. It’s a gangster film in which I play a crooked cop and get to act more “London” than I am normally cast.
Sounds good, but let’s hope it’s not seven years before your next London play.
I don’t want that either! But what I don’t want to do are what you might call “success roles,” where you’re opening in the West End in this or that celebrity play. Old Times might sound like that, but to me, it felt like a genuine risk, and that’s what I like. I’m happy to fail, as long as I fail with an open heart. Having said that, I’d rather not fail; I’m not an idiot!