Posted by telegraph.co.uk. Interview by Horatia Harrod. Sept 14th, 2010
He was plucked from drama school to star opposite Johnny Depp; a year later he was dating Keira Knightley. Rupert Friend talks about paparazzi ‘punching’ fantasies, childhood bullying and why he’ll only take a role ‘if it’s nothing like me’.
Rupert Friend looks unseasonably well on the dismal August morning we meet in east London. No need to ask why. I know that he picked up a tan in the south of France.
He certainly looks better than he did earlier this year but he’s had plenty of time to recover since then.
Friend is an actor, and a versatile one at that. He was in his second year of drama school when a casting director spotted him in a production of The Laramie Project. Friend was playing three parts: a 60-year-old Wyoming mechanic, a Baptist minister and the father of a murdered gay man.
The casting director plucked Friend off the stage for his first film role, appearing opposite Johnny Depp in The Libertine. He went on to play a Nazi guard in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Prince Albert in The Young Victoria and Michelle Pfeiffer’s youthful lover in Chéri.
He is also, you may have gathered, Keira Knightley’s boyfriend, and as such a prime target for gossip columns, websites and paparazzi. Needless to say Friend – who refuses to answer questions about his relationship in interviews – doesn’t spend much time Googling himself. ‘I don’t really use the internet or the newspapers to find out about people,’ he says.
In person he looks robust, dressed in a decorous variation on work wear: blue-checked shirt, grubby sky-blue jeans and giant, black biker boots. He is tall and wiry, his face taut over perfect bone structure. Beneath glowering eyebrows his eyes are a glacial blue.
He considers me wryly when I ask if he understands people’s interest in his personal life. ‘I don’t condemn it,’ he says. A pause. ‘If you like that stuff then great. But it’s not something I seek out. Largely because when I watch a film I don’t want to be thinking about the actor’s divorce, I want to be transported into another world.’
His latest film, The Kid, is transporting in its way, but no flight of fantasy. The script was written by Kevin Lewis, based on his autobiography, a bestseller that is part misery memoir, part triumph over tragedy. Abused by his mother and his peers, pushed from a grim south London estate to foster homes and care homes, and later to bare-knuckle fighting and low-level criminality, Lewis eventually wrote his life story and came good. He now makes a living writing thrillers set in the London underworld, is a co-producer on the film of his life and – final proof of respectability – lives in Surrey.
Friend, who approaches his work with Method-like intensity, hung out with Lewis as much as possible before filming started. ‘I didn’t want him to feel like I was an emotional vampire,’ he says, ‘and I didn’t want to be Jeremy Paxman, but I did have to understand him as a person. He found it very hard to talk about the more harrowing aspects of his life, so I had to try to skirt those while allowing him to say what he wanted to say.’
Lewis also introduced Friend to a south London gym to get him into shape, physically and psychologically, for the film’s scenes of illicit street fighting. ‘When you first walk into a boxing gym you see the ring in the middle and there’s this, “holy s—” moment: that’s the danger zone, I’ll stay over here. But the trainer was insistent every day that you have to make the ring your home, and outside scary.’
When Friend went to New York and Canada he located suitable gyms to keep up his regime. In Brooklyn he was pummeled ‘like a piñata’ by the two brothers who ran the gym, and he spent hours running up and down stairs carrying tractor tyres.
He relished this initiation into a new, frightening craft. Although he is a close listener and always weighs his answers deliberately, he claims to have a short attention span. ‘I’m only really interested in taking a part if it’s nothing like me,’ he says. ‘I like exploring people that I don’t know. My auditions for drama school were miserable, but one thing I had on my side, although I had no experience or skill or training, was that I wanted to learn everything.’
His restlessness took hold in childhood. He grew up comfortably in Stonesfield, a small village in Oxfordshire, his mother a solicitor, his father an art historian. Friend grappled with suffocating boredom. ‘I grew up in the countryside in the middle of nowhere in England,’ he pauses, ‘and got out as soon as I could!’
It was when he got to secondary school that the trouble started. ‘It was quite a rough local comprehensive, the sort of school that takes kids that every other school has kicked out three times. I had a tough time until I was a bit older and bigger.’ What was he picked on for? ‘The wrong haircut, the wrong shirt, the wrong glasses, all of which were true.’ He deflects the question. ‘What about you?’ he asks. ‘Was there bullying at your school?’
Later, he speaks more directly. ‘Nothing’s as frightening as being held down and having cigarettes put out on you.’ Which happened to you? ‘Yeah. That’s really frightening. Not so much the pain. More frightening, the held down bit, because you can’t escape.’
In recent years – roughly the five years since he met Knightley on the set of Pride and Prejudice and they started to date – he’s been reminded of that feeling of pursuit and entrapment. ‘You see it in paparazzi chases,’ he says. ‘As soon as there’s a group, suddenly it becomes a competition: who can push the limit of what you can do?’
In the past he’s talked about fantasising about hitting the photographers who doorstep him, but his general bent is towards pacifism. He tries to avoid trouble by steering clear of ‘London, fashion-y’ events.
Emily Blunt, his co-star in The Young Victoria, describes Friend as the ‘definition of a real man’. His interests are indeed both gentle and manly. ‘Wood is weirdly a big passion of mine,’ he says. ‘I really love it, all the way from trees to a finished table. The fact that it was alive and that each piece is different.’ He loves to cook, but in a dashing, devil-may-care way: ‘I’ve never got on with recipes. Free yourself, throw them out!’
Friend tries to watch every film he can get his hands on. He dislikes ‘films starring animated dogs’ but loves Terrence Malick: ‘I’m always intrigued by people who work infrequently, because I think it tends to be that they wait for the desire, rather than spewing them out.’ That must be harder to do as an actor, I suggest – doesn’t he feel he needs to keep himself out there? ‘No. I have to be absolutely drawn to the project. If you’re ashamed or bored by it at the beginning it’s going to be a pretty nightmarish thing.’
The week after The Kid is released, a short film written by and starring Friend and Tom Mison, one of his pals from drama school, will make its debut on iTunes. In The Continuing and Lamentable Saga of the Suicide Brothers, the pair wear matching lederhosen and lacquered hair, and Knightley appears as a fairy. They developed it from an exercise they did about clowns – the Continental, existential sort rather than the ones with red noses and revolving bow ties.
‘It’s actually about showing your fundamental truest self,’ Friend says. What, I lean in excitedly, did that entail? ‘Ours were both quite pathetic, incapable. His thing was futile rage at his ineptitude and mine… mine was sort of plaintive hopelessness.’ He looks at me ironically and laughs.