Posted by femalefirst.co.uk. Interview by Helen Earnshaw. September 24th, 2009.
Nominated for Most Promising Newcomer at the British Independent Film Awards 2005 for his role in The Libertine, Rupert Friend has subsequently more than justified that faith.
He has since appeared as Mr. Wickham in Joe Wright’s celebrated take on Pride and Prejudice, in Nick Love’s contemporary thriller Outlaw and as a Nazi lieutenant in Mark Herman’s The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas.
Yet the 27 year-old actor, who hails from Oxfordshire, takes his biggest role to date in Stephen Frears’ Chéri.
Based on the Paris-set novel by Colette, Friend plays the title character a spoilt member of the Belle Epoque who falls for the much older courtesan, Léa de Lonval (Michelle Pfieffer). Below, Friend talks about what it meant to play Chéri, what it was like to do a sex scene with Michelle Pfieffer and why he’s not afraid to play in more costume dramas.
What first drew you to Chéri ?
Primarily, it was a very complicated and well-drawn relationship, which dealt very well with love and time and beauty. I was really intrigued because of that.
What made you connect to your character?
I didn’t at first, largely because he didn’t seem to have a character. As Léa says, one of the weird things about him is that he’s this blank page with no opinions or desires or wants. So it’s very hard to know how you play it, because there’s no character. So the great challenge for me over the time I was preparing it was to unearth that vulnerable little boy who’s hiding behind that little charade you see.
Aside from this, what did you think about Chéri as a person?
I think it was the idea of somebody who has everything they could possibly want, and none of it means a thing. What happens when you’ve got the lot? When you can have any woman you want, when you can have any clothes, any possessions, go anywhere, do anything?
What happens when there are no challenges, when there’s no boundaries and no struggle? What happens is you become almost removed from your own life, which I think we see in Chéri. You become so apathetic, you are heading for some kind of crash. There is nothing to engage you with the fabric of your life, and that’s a terrifying thought.
Were the books by Colette useful?
Very. I didn’t read The Last of Chéri, because I didn’t want to know what happened. But the book that’s called Chéri was my Bible all the time. The thing about Colette is that she has written characters that have a perfect, smooth veneer, but each one has tiny fissure cracks, and there’s only three or four in each of them, but they run so deep.
It was a help for me to read that, because you see this guy who seems to have got it sorted, and nothing can phase him, but you just see the desperate loneliness, and the desperate need for something, which is almost nameless. It broke my heart when I read it.
How do you think the film reflects the book?
The book? The reason why Stephen was the perfect director for it is that he and Colette have a similar sensibility. On the surface, it’s quite frivolous and light and dry, but underneath, there’s so many layers of subtlety and complexity and intelligence that can be mined if you only try.
For that reason alone, the combination was irresistible, and Christopher Hampton was intrinsic to that process. The wit of Colette is so enjoyed by Christopher and Stephen that it infected the set.
Did shooting in Paris also help?
Yeah. A lot of stuff hasn’t changed. The eating habits are the same. The rigorously enforced hour lunch, with cheese board and wine was every single day! People that enjoy food, and enjoy the conversation over food, and enjoy drink even starting every day with croissants weirdly helped.
Does the story say something about our time?
I don’t know really. We were just telling a story. We weren’t trying to make a comment about anything other than that.
We were trying to look at a specific time in a specific place. The Belle Epoque is so unique, and such a little bubble in our history, in society terms, it was a very unique group of outlaws who were sexually and financially completely separate from the rest of society. And I wouldn’t know whether that was something we still have or not. I’m sure it still exists.
Did you feel the Belle Epoque period related to any British period of history?
Well, in a funny sort of way it relates to the period about nine months ago in Britain, when everyone spent money like it was growing on trees and earned money even faster than that. And it was never going to end and suddenly boom! The whole thing bursts because it’s built on false promises. Weirdly, the Belle Epoque was a pocket of opulence and decadence.
I suppose the 1980s had a degree of that. The other time would be Charles II frivolity, theatre, music, dance, ballet, clothes, drink, food, sex. Not work or diligence not the Victorian age of hard graft. Much more of a frivolous age.
How was it to do with the sex scene with Michelle?
It was one of the perks of the job, I suppose. She’s an amazingly beautiful woman and a very talented actor, and those two things made it not a chore if that’s a sentence! She was absolutely committed to this story and this project, in a very encouraging way.I didn’t know what to expect with a great legend of cinema and an Oscar-nominated actress. But she was very down-to-earth and very committed to making the best thing that we could. So the atmosphere on set was very playful, very trusting we had lunch together every day, so it was really nice.
Stephen, Michelle and Christopher all worked together before. Did you feel like an outsider?
Well, it had been twenty years since they’d been together as a trio, and Michelle was starting out really when she did Dangerous Liaisons. So there was a sense that they’d all done their own thing, grown up, but then enjoyed getting back together and playing again. There was a kind of playground feel, which was cool. They were very inclusive to me and there wasn’t a sense of ‘you’re the new-boy, you can sit on your own’. It wasn’t that at all.
What does it mean to you to play in period costume?
Well, I spent a lot of the film without any clothes on! So in a funny sort of way, it was less of a costume drama and more of a skin flick for me!
Does it help the character, though?
Of course, my work begins long before the cameras start to roll. My work is not separate from Consolata Boyle, who did the costumes, or Daniel Phillips, who did the make-up. For me, the character has to choose their clothes, because I choose my clothes. The way they choose their clothes is intrinsic. If I turned up and someone just said, ‘This is what you’re wearing’, it wouldn’t work.
It would be somebody wearing a costume; it wouldn’t look like the real thing. So being involved in every aspect of the creation of a real person is vital to me, and I wouldn’t know how to do it any other way.
You’ve also made The Young Victoria. Which came first?
Victoria was 2007, and this one we did last year. They’ve caught up with each other. There was additional photography that they wanted to do on Victoria, so it took longer than anticipated, but it’s nice.
Before that, I was this Nazi [in The Boy With The Striped Pyjamas], so to come from that to this incredibly good, honest man with a lot of integrity, that was Prince Albert, and then from that to this absolutely spoilt brat was great.
Are you afraid of being considered a costume drama actor?
Well, you’re always wearing a costume! Even if it’s contemporary, as soon as you make it, it’s not contemporary. If I make a film about now, the minute it was done, it wouldn’t be about now, it’d be about then. It’s a weird thing it’s a phrase that’s been coined now, ‘period drama’. I did once ask somebody, who was deadly serious that it was a genuine grouping term, ‘When does period finish?’
And they said, ‘It finishes in 1970!’ The most contemporary film I can think of is your standard romantic comedy, but the minute you make them, they already look so aged. Look at the ones from the Eighties, they’re already dated. Whereas Chéri will always be set when it’s set.
Can you talk about the shooting process on Chéri?
Stephen doesn’t like auditions or read-thrus or rehearsals. And nor do I. I don’t like any of those things. Obviously auditions are necessary, but I think read-thrus are a waste of time. It’s hard to explain. I don’t think either of us saw the worth of sitting in a modern hotel room and practising. It’s not really like that for me, anyway.
How did you find Frears? David Hare calls him ‘Mr. Grumpy’!
Yeah, he’s wonderfully grumpy! He’s like the grumpy uncle, but that’s so Colette. That’s just a front for the most warm, affectionate, caring, sensitive man that I’ve worked with really. His direction is so subtle.
He has no time for humiliation or for dictatorialism or puppeteering he is interested only in supporting. He was like my boxing trainer. He was in my corner and there for me every step of the way, which was so necessary in a director. The fact that he’s a grumpy old bastard as well is absolutely brilliant.
It just means there’s no sycophancy, and there’s no small talk and there’s no blowing smoke up people’s arses. There’s just an incredibly caustic wit and a very dry sense of humour, which undercuts any of the crap that goes on with a lot of the filming process. He just doesn’t have time for it.
All the time-wasting flapping about there can be quite a lot of that in films, and he just gets straight to the heart of it. That’s why he’s a pleasure to work with. You just do it. You just get on with it.
The film obviously deals with beauty. Do you consider your own beauty a blessing or a curse?
I don’t know really. The thing with Chéri is that we wanted to play up his attraction he seems to be able to get any woman he wants. That’s his thing and we didn’t want to play that down. They shone the light in my eyes quite a lot, which apparently helps.
Have you shot anything else or are you taking a break?
I’ve had a break, but I’m about to do a film Lullaby For Pi which is contemporary! A New York piano player, who loses his wife and thus his reason for playing. He grieves for his wife in a hotel room, and one day, a girl bursts into his hotel room, locks herself in the bathroom, refuses to come out, without explaining why, and they conduct a relationship through the closed door, without ever seeing each other. So it’s contemporary, American, full of music and Clémence Poésy.
Anything after that?
Yeah, I’m doing a British indie called The Kid. It’s a true story about a guy from a South London council estate who was abused by his parents, and in trying to escape the poverty trap, fell into petty theft and then, at one point, bare-knuckle fighting. And then eventually he became a successful author, so it’s a redemption-salvation-survival story, set in the Eighties and Nineties.
Where did you grow up? And where did you start acting?
Oxfordshire. I went to a drama club when I was little, but it was more of an excuse to flirt with girls, than anything else. We never put on plays. It was really about play and it gave me the desire to continue exploring other people’s lives and worlds, and not to be content with just living one life.
That must be the reason for any actor to do the job?
Some are in it for the money, which is fine. Some of them are in it to be a movie star that’s another reason. Some actors and this I never understand will only play likeable characters. And if they’re not likeable, they change them to be heroic.
What ambitions do you have outside of acting? Do you envisage starting a production company, say?
I’ve actually already done that. It’s very small. Last year, we made a short film, called The Continuing and Lamentable Saga of the Suicide Brothers. It’s a very dark, comic, Gothic fairytale, so it’s set in a dark house, in a dark, snowy wood, and it’s about two brothers that every day, at the same time, try and kill themselves and fail.
They’ve got a fairy Godmother who watches over them, and is incredibly frustrated by their very idiotic failures. They don’t fail for any real reason. It’s a very inept pair of people, and it’s utterly surreal and ridiculous. And it was great. We got so many great people to help us.
So what’s your actual involvement in it?
I co-wrote it, and starred in it with the other writer, and produced it. I got these two fantastic directors called the Brownlee Brothers, who I think are like the next Coen Brothers. They’re Canadian and they’ve done some award winning music videos and storyboards for every film you’ve ever heard of.
They’re fantastic storyboard artists. And our costume designer just won a Bafta, so that helps, and the make-up guy did Chéri. They loved the premise. There was no money, and it was just for passion and just for fun.
Would you like to write a feature script?
Yeah. I have toyed with that, and it’s something I would like to do. At the moment, I haven’t really got time. But at some point I think it could be good.