Interview: Rupert Friend, actor

Posted by The Scotsman. September 11, 2010

There are some images you’ll never forget. The Kid, arriving in cinemas next week, provides them in abundance – heartbreaking scenes of a boy called Kevin Lewis being relentlessly brutalised by his parents, and in particular, his mother.

He is starved, beaten, locked in a filthy room, and never spoken to if shouting is an option. At school, classmates bully Lewis for being a misfit and mock the vivid bruises and scars that give mute testimony to his suffering – information that many teachers, and the authorities, would just as soon ignore.

The story is all the more tragic for being true.

Lewis is famous for two memoirs, The Kid and The Kid Moves On, and as the best selling author of crime novels such as Kaitlyn, Frankie, and Fallen Angel. One trademark of his books is their gritty realism, drawn from his grim childhood on a tough South London council estate.

He bounced in and out of care, and twice nearly escaped the chaos for good, but bad luck and bad choices combined to drag him down again. By 17, Lewis was stuck in the criminal underworld’s web. Cornered by those he naively believed to be friends, he was forced into bare-knuckle fighting to clear his debts.

For the film, directed by Nick Moran, Lewis is played by three actors: William Finn Miller is the child, Augustus Prew the teenager, and Rupert Friend portrays him as an adult.

Friend is tall, slim as a sheet of paper and so ethereally beautiful that he looks unlikely to survive a strong wind. So he might seem an odd choice, but he brings an interesting spin to the role, investing it with quiet dignity, and a “first day on earth” sense of bewilderment that underscores the effects of Lewis’s damaged childhood, emphasising how remarkable it is that he found a happy ending.

Friend, who will be 29 next month, went to the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Arts, and has worked with the creme de la creme. He made his debut as Johnny Depp’s lover in The Libertine.

He was Mr Wickham in the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice, which starred Keira Knightley, and since then has appeared opposite Michelle Pfeiffer as the eponymous Cheri, and Joan Plowright in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. He was Emily Blunt’s Prince Albert, in Young Victoria, and appeared with David Thewlis in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, playing a Nazi. Impressive as even this truncated CV is, Friend, the actor, is often overlooked in favour of Friend the boyfriend – of Keira Knightley. It is not something he will discuss, nor can I blame him, though I’m bemused by his handlers’ repeated warnings not to so much as utter the K-word.

I was already worried, having read interviews where he and the journalist didn’t entirely get on, but my trepidations were unnecessary. Though guarded, Friend is sweetly well mannered, and evinces a genuine curiosity about the world. When the script for The Kid came through, Friend was compelled to read the book, as well, and leapt at the chance to tackle the role. “It was deeply traumatic, but I was very inspired by what the man had managed to achieve, in terms of breaking the cycles of abuse and poverty and neglect.

The script had one of the biggest swings of emotion: despair at the beginning and at the end you think: if he can end up where he is now, with a beautiful family and a career he loves, then anyone can do anything.”

To prepare for the fight scenes, he trained with boxers for nine months. Was it to learn how to be both self-protective and aggressive? “It’s that, but also I’d never really been in a situation where I had that much crap beaten out of me,” he explains. “I needed to feel what it was like to be hit, a lot – and they really did hit me during training! That way I could feel what it was like to feel the trigger, where Kevin would take a beating up to a certain point and then he would just flip – the animal would come out and he would lash out.”

Rupert Friend as Kevin Lewis, The Kid

Rupert Friend as Kevin Lewis, The Kid

So it was a training of the mind, because your instinct is saying ‘Run away! Run away! Run away!’ but your survival instinct has to learn to say ‘fight back’, at a certain point, and it’s not natural for me.

He also studied Lewis himself. “Kevin was incredibly generous and gave me unlimited access to him. It’s the only time I’ve ever played somebody who is still alive, and it’s a rare resource to have, and he was so generous with it.

Some actors take the opposite tack, insisting that knowing the person they’re portraying is too distracting. Not Friend. “I felt I was playing him, rather than the other way around, and kind of needed to know what he was like rather than my ego taking over. He’s a very loving man, who’s been through experiences that most of us can only imagine, and has managed to come out the other side a fully formed human being, which is testament to his fortitude.”

As a kid himself, growing up in a small Oxfordshire village, Friend was bullied physically, emotionally and verbally at his local comprehensive. He never told his parents at the time, but has spoken about it publicly since. “I had one huge advantage over Kevin. I went home to a loving family every night. I cannot imagine dealing with what he had to at home.

The actor says it’s made him resilient, willing to fight to achieve his goals, because he’s not afraid of getting knocked back. He identifies with that same quality in Lewis. “Perhaps, oddly, Kevin’s experiences galvanised him into becoming the man that he is today and achieving all that he has. I think he feels he can withstand any kind of persecution and believes that he can do anything he sets his mind to.

Equally determined, Friend applied to drama school in secret, keen to avoid the monotony of a traditional career path. “At my school, as for most kids, one was asked to select a subject to read at university or at A-level, which one is expected to study for three years exclusively, and then pursue a job for the next 60 years in that specific field.”

That terrified me. I thought, how can I possibly know at 16 what it is I want to do when I’m 70? I started to cast about for a job that would change every day, and allow me not to make that decision, basically. Lawyer or boxer? Both!

Nor are you in the same place all the time. I tell him that Richard Coyle, his co-star in Georgia, the Renny Harlin thriller scheduled for release next year, regaled me with tales of drunken state dinners, and am rewarded with a big, twinkly grin.

He’s like my older brother. My first picture was The Libertine, and he took me under his wing – which makes him sound like some old uncle. We got drunk together, basically. He’s a great friend. I’d been longing to work with him again ever since, and there’s a real friendship at the core of Georgia, which is about this cameraman and journalist’s journey. So we had this friendship on screen and off, because we were on this crazy trip, taking turns to put the other one to bed when they’d drunk too much.” Georgia, he admits, wasn’t on his list of places to visit, but living there during the shoot was an experience he now treasures. “We were in bombed-out villages and in medieval villages and also in the middle of very beautiful countryside. And last year I did a movie in Saskatchewan. There, the topography of the land doesn’t alter for thousands of miles – it’s flat and snowy for further than my whole country. Keep going, keep going, keep going, and it’s still the same. That sense of space and silence was pretty extraordinary.

Then I discover he’s a huge fan of Scotland, and cherishes that strand of his DNA. “Edinburgh is so cultural and such a beautiful place to walk around. I played the Festival, when I was in drama school, and did Hogmanay at the millennium. I had a girlfriend in Scotland for two years, and I’ve been walking in the Highlands many times, so I know it quite well. I am very drawn to Scotland.”

At this point, I am proud to report, I bite my tongue, knowing that “She Who Will Not Be Named” is the daughter of the Glasgow-born playwright Sharman Macdonald.

My great grandparents are Scottish,” he continues, “and I have this very tenuous connection which I try and bump up whenever I can, because I’d much rather be Scottish than English. My grandfather, who is English, was a member of a gentleman’s club called the Caledonian, which you can only be a member of if you have Scottish lineage. He said, and I hope this really is true, that even though I am so diluted, I might be allowed to go there. I’d feel very proud, in a way that I certainly don’t feel about Englishness.”

That’s a pretty strong sentiment, what’s behind it? “I would never shout about (being English]. I find the English flag – the cross – quite frightening; it has very bad symbolism for me. Not just football hooligans but supremacists and the BNP. What I do love is the old stuff, like the legends about St George and the Dragon or King Arthur and his knights.

And Scots appeal to him why? “I like Scottish people because they feel very true. They’re always level and straight. They get a reputation for being hardened because of it, but I find them to be scrupulously honest people. Whereas in London, particularly, most people are playing three games at once, trying to go round the back as well as flatter you and also pull the rug out from under you. It makes me tired. Even if it’s a bit blunt, I really appreciate somebody being straight with you.

His favourite performances, the ones he finds most inspiring, are those that surprise him, when an actor is unrecognisable. “Seeing, say, My Left Foot, and The Last of the Mohicans. How is that the same person? Or people like Johnny Depp, who can play Jack Sparrow and Edward Scissorhands. I am so interested in the transformation, in not knowing anything about them and watching somebody create a character. I’m not really interested in personalities.”

There are some great actors I don’t want to meet because I don’t want to know how they did it.” Or if they’re unpleasant? “I don’t want to know anything about their personal life, and the illusion, or whatever it is, the shape-shiftery magic stuff that they do, which is my joy.

He’s so devoted to the medium that instead of a television, Friend invested in a projector, in order to view films – and DVDs of shows such as The Wire – on the big screen, “in exactly perfect circumstances“.

As we get up to part company, Friend stops and with a shy downward glance, hands me a piece of paper. “They gave this to me as I was coming in. I’m not sure what it is or what I was supposed to do – read it to you?” It’s a fact sheet about the NSPCC’s support of The Kid. They are promoting it to their staff and volunteers and will help host the UK premiere.

Other interviewers may come away thinking him tetchy and uncooperative, but not this one. I came away with my interest piqued, quite curious to see what Rupert Friend will do next – and how.

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