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Cast As Brooding Leads, Rufus Sewell Says His Real Talent Is Comedy

Jan 28, 2017
Originally published on January 28, 2017 12:26 pm

People are seeing a lot of Rufus Sewell these days.

He's starring in the play Art at the Old Vic theater in London. On PBS, he's playing Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria's first Prime Minister — and perhaps prime minister indeed, if you catch my drift.

And he's also receiving raves for his role as John Smith, the Nazi leader of America, in the alternate universe of Amazon's The Man in the High Castle, which has been renewed for a third season.

The series is increasingly loosely based on Phillip K. Dick's 1962 novel in which the Nazis win World War II, America is occupied, and many Americans seem happy with that. Sewell tells NPR's Scott Simon that recently, a fan of the show tried to give him a Nazi salute through a coffee-shop window. "And he was not, you know, the usual suspect, kind of alt-right looking fellow. He was a kind of beardy Hollywood hipster," Sewell says, "and it didn't occur to him that I might be a slightly inappropriate thing to do ... people do it to me sometimes, but luckily they don't appear to be believers."


Interview Highlights

On bringing life to John Smith

The Nazi ideology is loathsome, but people essentially are not ... Admittedly in Season 1 he seemed like a relatively one-dimensional character, and I wasn't interested until I saw episode 2, which was already written, where it became a bit more confusing — you saw him with his family — and I would describe him as a person with an alternate history inside him, you know, a person who has turned out one way, who had history gone a different way would seemingly be a different person entirely.

The way you do it, or the way I've tried to do it, is try to get as familiar as I can with what happens to people, and how they create a narrative for themselves in which they're the good guys ... and I think that's what Philip K. Dick was writing about — he was writing about what people do in order to get on.

On why he got into theater

I failed all my auditions for films for a very long time. I say that half-jokingly, but I do have a resistance to people assuming, as they like to with British actors, that theater is my first love. I've had that statement made on my behalf by strangers many many times ... Actually, no, it was watching Antony Hopkins on TV when I was young that made me want to be an actor, and then I discovered a love for theater through doing it at college and stuff, but it was always films I wanted to do — but I've kind of changed my mind ... I prefer theater now to film, certainly, because I get much better roles.

On whether he'd ever do a mindless comedy

If I had one thing I was good at, it would be comedy. I mean, beware of what actors say they like doing, obviously — it's not always a pleasure to watch people in their dream roles — but for me, it's the one thing that I like doing the most, and I'm probably the best at ... So yes, actually, it's my bag completely, I just don't get to do it very often. Possibly because of my bone structure and hair coloring and previous casting.

On his brooding looks

That's more to do with self-consciousness ... about your smile in the early years that kind of sets into habit, and the influence of '80s album covers. I would call it my kind of mid-'80s Depeche Mode face, which just happens on instinct. In reality I am possibly one of the least brooding people you will meet. You can see people's disappointment sometimes, when I don't come out of the stage door brooding and silent. I'm a bit of a chatterer, as this interview will attest.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

People see a lot of Rufus Sewell these days. He's starring in the play "Art" at the Old Vic in London. On PBS, he plays Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria's first prime minister - and perhaps prime minister indeed, if you catch my drift. And Rufus Sewell is receiving raves for his role as John Smith, the Nazi leader of America in Amazon's alternative universe in "The Man In The High Castle."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) John, I don't know what it is you think I've done.

RUFUS SEWELL: (As Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith) What I know you've done is withhold information from me, despite the fact that I welcomed you into the Reich, into my home, into the life of my family.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I would never do anything to harm your family.

SEWELL: (As Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith) If you keep secrets from me, you place my family in danger.

SIMON: The series is increasingly loosely based on Philip K. Dick's 1962 novel in which the Nazis win, America is occupied and many Americans seem happily so. Rufus Sewell joins us from the Old Vic in London. Thanks so much for being with us.

SEWELL: My pleasure.

SIMON: I understand, Mr. Sewell, that when some people see you now, meaning only to tell you that they love your work, they give you a sign.

SEWELL: Well, it's only happened the once actually. Yeah, someone tried to Sieg Heil me through a coffee shop window relatively recently, which came as something of a shock. And strangely enough, when I turned away - because I was holding my 3-year-old girl at the time - he thought the problem was I hadn't - he hadn't Sieg Heiled with sufficient clarity. So he came out to tap me on the shoulder and do it again. And this was not, you know, the usual suspects, kind of alt-right-looking fellow. He was a kind of beardy Hollywood hipster who happened to be a fan of the show. It didn't occur to him that it might be a slightly inappropriate thing to do.

SIMON: How do you - how do you put life into such a loathsome character?

SEWELL: Well, I don't know. I mean, for a start, I would object to even what you just said. I mean, there are certain things that are loathsome, I would say. The Nazi ideology is loathsome, but people essentially are not. I think he's a kind of mixture. And what drew me to him - I would describe him as a person with an alternate history inside him. You know, a person who's turned out one way who had history on a different way would seemingly be a different person entirely, someone with good and bad in him like everyone to greater or lesser extent, someone to who the worst parts of him have been eked out because of a morally corrupt system that he's having to exist in.

And I think the way you do it, or the way I've tried to do it, is try to get as familiar as I can with what happens to people and how they create a narrative for themselves in which they're the good guy, which is what people tend to be. So I read as much as I could about how Nazism took hold of ostensibly normal people in Germany. I mean, certainly particular historic circumstances that made it possible, but the idea that all of the most evil people in the world existed in a particular period in a particular country only might be a very comforting to us as humans. But it's dangerously misleading to think that because the potential is there for us to accept any kind of monstrosity. It can be turned into normality if we can be sufficiently distracted with our own nonsense. I mean, we see evidence of that all the time.

SIMON: To clue some of our audience in who perhaps haven't seen it and not to give away too much at the same time, this year John Smith faces a personal crisis. He truly loves his family. Then he gets terrible news from the family doctor that his son has muscular dystrophy. Here's that clip.

SEWELL: That's right.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE")

KEVIN MCNULTY: (As Doctor Adler) I sat on this not just because of who you are but because Helen and Alice are friends.

SEWELL: (As Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith) I appreciate that.

MCNULTY: (As Doctor Adler) I understand. It's hard, the hardest thing a father could ever do. My heart aches for you. It really does. But the boy is defective.

SIMON: And how do they see defects in the Reich?

SEWELL: Well, there's a hideous phrase that was actually used at the time, which comes up in the series, which is used to describe someone who is taking up valuable resources to no great end because they are - they have a limited lifespan. And they're called useless eaters. And it's one of the most chilling phrases, but it's part of their language. And he discovers that effectively his son is what the Nazis would describe as a useless eater. It comes from his family because his - it turns out he has a brother who died who suffered from the same thing. So the terrible irony of it is that someone who was originally an American soldier who - when it turned into a civil war between the people who wanted to capitulate to the Nazis and the people who wanted to keep on fighting, he picked the right side because he wanted to protect his family.

SIMON: Yeah.

SEWELL: And that machine that he's hitched his wagon to now wants to devour one of his own sons. I was aware of this potential story point when I accepted the job, and it was that - it's that conflict, and it chimes in with what I call the alternate history that he keeps a dialogue with inside him. That's, for me, the attraction of the part, and it's the horror of it.

SIMON: I have read in interviews, Mr. Sewell, that - I have read that you say you were a difficult teenager and...

SEWELL: No, it's not really...

SIMON: Yeah.

SEWELL: I would - I'd say that actually - this is why I try to actually avoid doing printed interviews these days, especially in England, because normally the things that I've said would be a reaction against some preposterous question. But of course they didn't print the preposterous question, so it seems like I've waltzed into the room and made all these outlandish statements. I think when I first said that, it's because of a - I think I was talking to someone who had an assumption about the kind of teenager I was, and that's because I was playing relatively upstanding romantic leads in period dramas. So I felt the need somehow to push against a stereotype I was being placed into. So my childhood, my teenage childhood, was a perfectly normal tearaway '80s British childhood that involved alcohol and smoking and shoplifting and all the natural, healthy things the people I knew did (laughter). And I'm not entirely ashamed of it. You know, I came out the other end.

SIMON: Yeah. How - what led you to the theater, do you think?

SEWELL: I failed all my auditions for films for a very long time. I say that half jokingly, but I do have a resistance to people assuming, as they like to with British actors, that theater is my first love. I've had that statement made on my behalf by strangers many, many times. People will say, well, of course, theater is your first love, and something in me wants to rebel against that. Well, actually, no, it was - it was watching Anthony Hopkins on TV when I was young that made me want to be an actor. And then I discovered a love for theater through doing it at college and stuff.

But it was always really - it was films I wanted to do, and I've kind of changed my mind because I ended up doing a lot of theater because those are the jobs that I got when I left drama school and developing a real love for it. And also, to be perfectly honest still, not so much with television, but I prefer theater now to film certainly because I get much better roles. If I got the kind of roles in films that I got in theater, then it might - there might be a bit more competition, but at the moment, there's none.

SIMON: Do you ever want to play in a mindless comedy?

SEWELL: Oh, absolutely. You know, when I was at drama school, my fear was that I would be trapped in the only thing that I was really comfortable in, which was comedy. I mean, I'm doing comedy now. I wouldn't say it's mindless.

SIMON: Oh, "Art" - yeah, "Art's" a very smart show, yeah.

SEWELL: Yeah, but it's very funny. Yes, I would say, for me, if I had one thing I was good at, it would be comedy. I mean, beware of what actors say they like doing, obviously. I mean, it's not always a pleasure to watch people in their dream roles, but for me, it's the one thing that I like doing the most and I'm probably the best at. And the successes I've had in England at least have normally been more comedic. So yes, actually, it's my bag completely. I just don't get to do it very often, possibly because of my bone structure and my, you know, hair coloring and previous casting I guess.

SIMON: Well, I got to tell you, before the interview began, we had a bunch of producers staring at your picture saying, brooding.

SEWELL: (Laughter) Yeah. Well, I don't know. That's more to do about self-consciousness, self-consciousness about your smile in the early years that kind of sets into habit and the influence of kind of '80s album covers. I would call it my kind of mid-'80s Depeche Mode face, which just happens on instinct (laughter). But in reality, I'm possibly one of the least brooding people you will meet. You can see people's disappointment sometimes that I don't come out the stage door brooding and silent. I'm a bit of a chatterer if anything.

SIMON: (Laughter).

SEWELL: As this interview will attest.

SIMON: Rufus Sewell, who seems to be starring in just about everything these days - "Art" in London, "Victoria" on PBS and Amazon's "The Man In The High Castle." Well, a delight, Mr. Sewell, thanks so much.

SEWELL: (Laughter) Lovely to speak to you, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.