Pyjamas star Friend earns his stripes

Posted by independent.ie. Interview by Evan Fanning. Sept 21th, 2008

I’d read that upon being asked questions he didn’t like, Rupert Friend would respond with an icy stare. It’s a stare that he puts to excellent use in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, the film adaptation of John Boyne’s novel, in which he plays Kotler, the zealous young Nazi officer.

And it’s a stare I am forewarned not to provoke by asking about his private life or any other film projects. “He’s just here to talk about The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.”

Friend arrives, courteous but radiating caution, with a lady who announces with a laugh that she’s his “handler”. Hilarious, except she’s going to sit in on the interview. It’s not hard to understand his media reticence, he has been known as Keira Knightley’s boyfriend since they met on the set of Pride & Prejudice in 2005. Knightley is pursued relentlessly by the British press, only last week one front page pondered how breasts as small as hers supported a strapless dress. By extension he’s getting papped on trips out to buy pints of milk, too.

Although he has said that being the lesser known half of the relationship doesn’t faze him, he has also said that he can understand people who punch paparazzi. He told The Telegraph, “I have absolute respect for anyone who manages to knock one of them out.

Perhaps Friend is going to have to develop a thicker skin, because his own star is on the ascendant. Since graduating from the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in 2004, he has had a steady succession of well-regarded supporting roles, Mr Wickham in the 2005 adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, opposite Johnny Depp in The Libertine and he won an Outstanding New Talent award for his role in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is based around Bruno (Asa Butterfield), the eight-year-old son of a Nazi officer (David Thewlis) who is bored in his new home in “Out-With” and strikes up a secret friendship with Schmuel (Jack Scanlon), an eight-year-old who lives in the “farm” out at the back, where everyone wears striped pyjamas.

Friend was initially reluctant to accept the role of Kotler but hopes his change of heart bears out his role-choosing criterion that his characters be as “far removed from me as possible. The story, the period, the plot but particularly the character, if it’s a long way away from me then I’m much more interested.

For the role his hair had to be dyed blond. “I think people thought that I looked like someone from a slightly ropey boy band,” he says. He has modelled and is undeniably good-looking, does the notion of being a pretty boy annoy him? “Nobody ever says that to me.” But they don’t feel sorry for your ugliness, either. “I guess it’s up to the eye of the beholder,” he says, laughing.

Rupert Friend at The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

He suggests that looks get in the way of roles for women more than for men. “Look at how many women are in this film? One. How many women are in the average film? Probably one. And they’re probably the love interest and they’re probably young and they’re probably very attractive.”

He has just worked with Stephen Frears playing the title role in Cheri, where he plays “a serial shagger” and Michelle Pfeiffer’s lover. Pfeiffer is an example of an actress who has opted for dowdier roles to avoid being pigeon-holed for their looks. He agrees in one way. “Isn’t that funny? Gritty means it’s always raining and everyone’s grey. I don’t really think there should be any rules about any of it, it should be about the acting.” Although he is quick to add “Wait ’til you see Michelle in Cheri. She’s gorgeous.”

The Holocaust is such an emotive subject, was he wary? “It’s very difficult because you don’t want to be accused of exploiting a situation and at the same time, in order to perpetuate the memory of something, you sometimes have to exploit it. If you don’t make films, sing songs about it, then it goes away and that would be awful.

He is also quite adamant that such a thing could happen again. “You’ve only got to open a newspaper to see that we’re still committing terrible atrocities, and I think that the main message of this film, if there is one, is that that’s not the only race of people that could behave in that way. We’re all capable.”

Apart from the subject matter, the character is horrible. At one point Kotler screams at Bruno and Schmuel. It’s only a film, but Friend did have to scream at two small boys. “That was difficult,” he says. He didn’t forewarn them.

I don’t think they would have thanked me in the long run because their performances are so true and wonderful and part of what Mark [Herman, the writer/director who also did Brassed Off and Little Voice] did that was so good was to allow them to feel things for real which is why you get so much genuine emotion and response from the kids.

In Kotler he has managed to portray a mix of appeal and chill, “I think the challenge is to make sure it’s not just a bad guy, or just a Nazi, but I think it’s more interesting to try to figure out why somebody would behave like that.

I run the risk of an icy stare to ask about his troubled teenagerhood. The only son of a solicitor mother and an academic father, Friend grew up in a small Oxfordshire village which he found so boring that he asked his parents if he could start drinking in the local pub at 11 rather than sit at home. He has described himself as a nerdy teenager, he was creative, he wore glasses and his hair was cut by his mother, he stuck out at the local comprehensive school and was bullied and beaten up as a result.

He delivers the icy stare. But isn’t it good now to have moved on? “What? Is it good not to be difficult?” he laughs. I presume once difficult, always difficult, part of the charm. He laughs again, “You might have to ask other people that.” But then he relents. “I remember thinking school was very unenjoyable because I didn’t have a way of relating to it, I didn’t enjoy it, I wasn’t part of the group, I was not part of that and I always wanted to do things my own way. Stubborn, I guess you could say.”

It’s great to be able to say to someone who is being bullied it gets better, you come out the other side. This film has bullying in it, my character’s a bully and playing it is not very nice. I don’t recommend it but I do know what it’s like.”

Do you know what? It’s very nice working with kids on this film and meeting kids after and remembering what it was like being a kid. Kids seem to respond to it and I hope that gives people a way into talking about history or the Holocaust.”

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