Rupert Friend on The Young Victoria, Emily Blunt, and British Accents

Posted by movieline.com. Interview by Kyle Buchanan. Dec. 10th, 2009

Rupert Friend knows a thing or two about being treated like royalty. Since he first began dating Keira Knightley when they met on the set of the 2005 film Pride & Prejudice, the British press has covered the two as though they were a glamorous king and queen — with all the scrutiny that entails.

He’s one half of a different British supercouple in Jean-Marc Vallee’s The Young Victoria, where he plays the young Prince Albert of Belgium, who married Queen Victoria (Emily Blunt) in the mid-1800’s. In a chat with Movieline, the 28-year-old actor talked about the time travel aspects of moviemaking, the tyranny of British regionalism, and the Rolling Stones.

I enjoyed you in The Young Victoria and in Cheri earlier this year, but I wonder: Do you ever get frustrated with the fact that directors always want to put you in a waistcoat and stick you in a period piece?
[Laughs] I think there probably have been some modern-day films I’ve been in that didn’t come over to the States. I actually just got back from shooting a movie in the country of Georgia in which I play a U.S. war correspondent. I suppose that’s moving towards something!

Renny Harlin’s directing that. Is it an action film, a war movie, a drama…?
I hope it’s going to be a bit of everything. There are going to be elements of war in it, but it’s not following one side fighting the other side. It’s following this journalists and his cameraman who get caught up in this war, captured by militia, and accused of being spies. It focuses on the damage that’s done to civilians by war — there are hundreds of thousands of refugees from that fight. It’s less of a political film and more of a humanitarian one.

The Young Victoria is very focused on the beginning of Victoria and Albert’s romance, even though a lot of juicy stuff comes later. What do you think is gained by that very specific timeline?
I think the story really is about this young girl who’s being handed the biggest responsibility in the world at the age of 18. It really is the transition from girlhood to womanhood, from princess to empress, and it’s that changeover that this picture is focusing on. You’re completely right, there’s another movie to be had out of their twenty years of marriage, but I think that would have been rather squeezed to get that all into one picture.

I was happy that your character had a German accent, because so often in these movies, everyone speaks with a British accent whether they’re British or not.
It definitely had to be there from my point of view because one of the key things about Albert was that he was a foreigner in a country that didn’t accept him. He was married to a woman whose family and politicians didn’t trust him, and a lot of that had to do with xenophobia, and it was very important to me to make him so that he didn’t quite fit in. Especially in England, that has a lot to do with accents, whether they’re foreign or just regional. They key for me, though, was that instead of playing him as German and “not from here,” I played, “I want to sound English. I want to fit in.” In a way, I had to learn German and then try to speak English after.

That really is something I notice whenever I go to London. I mean, they can cut each other down to size on those accents. They know what street you grew up on and everything.
There’s that famous quote by Bernard Shaw: “An Englishman betrays himself when he opens his mouth.” I think that’s true of England specifically more than France or certainly the States, because it’s so large. The accent in England can change literally from street to street, and people have this sort of feudal tribalism whereby you an identify somebody’s provenance by their voice. Although it’s never been like this for me, it does seem to play a huge part in how people interact in England.

I appreciated that the film didn’t simply make Albert a saint — we saw the ways that he sometimes bristles in his role. Was it important to you to show those sides of him?
I’ll tell you, there’s no goodies and baddies in the world, there’s just people with intentions that sometimes clash. Victoria and Albert were a very real, lively young couple and he had a lot of ambition. Had he not married Victoria, he would have been king of his country, and I think that his drive coupled with her ambition and forcefulness inevitably would lead to a clash. What was extraordinary about it is that every time they did have arguments — and they argued a hell of a lot — they did make up, and I think it made them stronger. They didn’t give up, and I was inspired by that.

What is it about Emily that makes her such a good scene partner?
She’s got a really great balance between being committed to the work and making it absolutely as good as it can be, and being great fun. She’s not dull, she’s incredibly excited by her work and everyone else’s work, and she feeds off other people’s passion, laughter, and excitement. It’s infectious, and she set the tone for the whole cast and crew: We were going to work hard and play hard, to use the worst cliche. She’s a joy to work with.

Victoria’s story is well-known, but as an Englishman, did you know Albert’s story before you made this film?
No, I had no idea, only that his name was often paired with hers and that he had buildings and statues and monuments erected to him all over London. I didn’t know of the man at all, and I sort of went on this massive journey of discovery where I found out just how much he did that we don’t give him credit for. I think because he died so young, and she continued to reign, it’s often forgotten how many contributions he made to the marriage and the monarchy.

You’ve made so many period films, but I’m curious whether Jean-Marc was able to bring something new to the table.
To be honest, they’ve all been as different from one another as I could have hoped for. Each period is so vastly different — the Restoration is worlds away from the Belle Epoque, for example. I’ve enjoyed the time-travel elements certainly, but Jean-Marc has very much of a rock attitude to filmmaking, which I loved. He’s very big on music and we had music on the set all the time to use in scenes you might not have expected — where you’d normally expect to find soaring strings, he’d play the Rolling Stones. I found that very refreshing. The way he thinks about scenes, he has this irreverent attitude. The truth is that this is about two teenagers who’ve never had a relationship before — probably never even been kissed — and they’re trying to figure out their feelings for one another. The fact that they’re kings and queens is simply another layer.

Jean-Marc may be irreverent, but the screenwriter Julian Fellowes is something else entirely.
Julian is very excited by newness, while having one foot very firmly in the past. His research is exhaustive and his knowledge is incredible — it’s absolutely encyclopedic. It’s extraordinary! Julian was there, but we also had the real-life queen’s adviser there every day, the man who tells the queen how to use a knife and fork. We had this combination of Jean-Marc trying to get at the truth of everything and Julian making sure everything was true to form the way it had to be. Behind closed doors, we just don’t know what they did. We have so many resources for the public face of these people, so we wanted to make sure that side was accurate, but for the private side, we hoped to get at some truth.

Was it stunning to be in some of those locations?
Growing up in England, you’re sort of spoiled, in a way. You sort of take it for granted that within a half-hour’s drive, you could be walking around a stately home from the 1700s. It’s not very hard to do — in California, you’ve got to take a flight! My father is an art historian, so I was taken to some of these places when I was young — admittedly, somewhat unwittingly. There’s a great sense of history that lies in those stones.

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