Interview by The Times,
The call went out to comedy’s superheroes. Armando Iannucci, the political satirist, was assembling a team. He wanted to make a film about Stalin and political machinations in the Communist Party; and he wanted to make it funny.
Steve Buscemi would play Nikita Khrushchev as a court jester whose wife writes down his jokes each night, recording which gags amused Stalin and which did not. Michael Palin would be Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s former protégé, clinging valiantly to the ideology of a man who jailed his wife. Jeffrey Tambor would be Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s terrified deputy, and Simon Russell Beale was Lavrentiy Beria, the sadistic head of the NKVD secret police. Paul Whitehouse would be Anastas Mikoyan, Stalin’s sometime foreign minister.
And who did Iannucci get for Stalin’s son, Vasily? For that he turned to a fellow who has never made anyone die laughing. Rupert Friend is better known for committing extrajudicial killings as the CIA paramilitary agent Peter Quinn in Homeland, striding about in dark collared shirts with the top buttons undone in the service of America.
Friend played the bounder Mr Wickham in the 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice, the rascally young lover of Michelle Pfeiffer in Chéri, and an awkward and endearing Prince Albert in The Young Victoria. Friend’s always quite endearing on screen, even when he is busy stabbing, shooting and bludgeoning his way through a crowd.
When he first strides into a pub where I’m meeting him on Shelter Island, on the eastern tip of Long Island in New York, he is accosted by a heavyset man who looks like the bouncer. Friend is out here doing some work on a friend’s house and the big guy is one of the builders. They have what I imagine to be a rather manly chat about plumbing or plastering, then Friend buys two beers, tips the barmaid, and we walk out onto a white deck.
Friend, 36, is dressed like a builder, too, in a blue and navy striped jumper, heavy dark trousers bearing white smudges of plaster and worn brown boots. A gorsy beard is forming on his jaw. Just sitting near him, I can feel my sperm count rising.
He is a dashing, drunken and chaotic presence in The Death of Stalin. “Hairy monsters in white coats have scooped out my father’s brain and sent it to America,” Vasily bellows at one point, and Friend really sells it.
“What I loved about the process is that Armando is not a stickler for script,” he says. “It’s like, ‘ “Hairy monsters in white coats” is great, but what else have we got?’ ” Iannucci’s longtime collaborator, Peter Fellows, was on set to generate fresh one-liners. “We’d huddle down and he’d be like: ‘Let’s try, you know, “clattering fannies”. ’ ”
We first see Vasily beside an ice rink dressed as a Red Air Force officer, gulping down vodka and issuing warnings to his comrades not to mention the fact that the ice-hockey team he was in charge of was killed in a plane crash. He is hurriedly training up replacements, hoping his father will never hear of it. As anxiety and vodka overcome him, he takes to the ice himself. “I was never supposed to go on the ice and do all that,” says Friend. But the director thought he should. Iannucci followed him with a camera, encouraging Friend to flounder and crash into players as they whirled past.
Preparing for the role, he happened to speak with a friend in New York whose parents had emigrated from Russia in the Fifties. “He says, ‘You know my father went to school with Vasily Stalin?’ ” The father, Victor Levenstein, who is now in his late nineties, had been interrogated by the KGB in his teens and survived five years in a gulag. But before all that, he had known Stalin’s son.
“I phoned Victor and he was this incredible storyteller, telling me about this guy … with flaming red hair, who turns up at school in full uniform, aged 15. This is a guy who had never served, barely got an education.” And he did indeed preside over a hockey team that was killed in an air crash.
Friend was born in Cambridge, the eldest of two children. When he was eight, the family moved to a small village in Oxfordshire – “not hammer and nails rural, but definitely grow your own potatoes rural, muddy walks all the time and the same pair of trousers”.
Young Friend wanted adventure. “What was on my mind was the idea that you could make wine and build a table and throw a plate and sew a jumper,” he says. A school careers adviser, who presumably struggled with this request, “turned the Amstrad around to face me and it said, ‘There are no careers that are suitable for this candidate,’ ” he recalls.
Ideally, he wanted to be dispatched on a mission into an unknown part of the world. In his late teens, however, a friend of his parents did dispatch him to a foreign land. She owned a cottage on an Italian hilltop, which faced across a valley to another cottage, occupied by her lover. “She said, ‘We would look at each other and sort of moon over each other,’ ” Friend says. Thirty years had passed since then, and, “She said, ‘I’ll give you £200 if you go and report back to me on the state of the cottage.’ I was like, ‘I’m in an F Scott Fitzgerald novel. This is it!’
“I found the place. I had to walk up a mountain. It was four roof beams … with some bits of wall. But I was never to be deterred, because I was at that point reading Ayn Rand and I was reading, you know, anything to do with temerity.”
So Friend went off to find local builders and an architect, learnt the Italian for “roof beam” and “foundation”, and worked out that the whole thing would cost around 200,000. “Meantime,” he says, “bear in mind I have never picked up a hammer in my life, but I was thinking, ‘I’ll camp here and I’ll do it.’ ”
When he got back to England, his patron told him that she had bought the house for the equivalent of 5,000 and did not think it worth the effort. But, “I was just like, ‘This is exactly the kind of adventure I want.’ ”
The following year, having secured a place at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London, he took a gap year and travelled to the Cook Islands, in the South Pacific: “I wanted to go as far away from home as I could.”
When he arrived, he ran up against a rule that local businesses could only hire locals. The owner of a bar took him to the embassy of New Zealand and told an official, “‘This young man went to Oxford,’ ” Friend says. “Which I have; I just never went to Oxford University.” He went to school there. “I never lied,” he says. “The embassy guy was like, ‘Good enough for me.’ ”
A fortnight later, as he was starting to work up a cocktail menu, he was in a serious motorbike accident. He recalls waking “in an island hospital, half my face ripped off, every bone in my ankle shattered, lacerated spleen, colon and lung, lizards crawling on the floor, dogs barking and the nurse coming”, he says. “I said, ‘I’m in so much pain, you’re going to have to give me some morphine.’ She said, ‘The boat didn’t come.’ ”
When the island doctor, who was on holiday, returned, she immediately ordered that he be airlifted to New Zealand. “She was an absolute sweetheart,” he says. As they flew to New Zealand, the doctor pointed out that they were in the first-class cabin. “She was like, ‘So, should we have champagne?’ ” he says. “I was having gas and air, my feet were up and I was like, ‘Yeah!’ ”
“You want more beers?” says the barmaid.
“Always,” says Friend. “Two more, thank you.”
In the hospital in Auckland, the surgeon told him he would have to have his foot amputated, and to abandon all hope of being an actor. “He was like, ‘You’re never going to walk again, let alone do whatever else you need to do at acting school.’ Right then I thought, ‘You’re wrong.’ ” He wonders now if the doctor told him that to stiffen his resolve, “or whether he was just a dickhead. I don’t know to this day.”
The barmaid brings us the beers: another lager for me in a tall glass, which I worry looks rather unmanly next to his tankard of ale.
“It was a formative thing,” he continues. “I was 19 and lying in a hospital bed in a big ward. If you wanted a TV it was $2 a day, which I didn’t have. I wore at the time contact lenses, which had obviously fallen out, so everything was swimming. So I would lie in bed and look at this one square of the ceiling for 20 hours a day. I couldn’t go to the toilet, I couldn’t do anything. It was a very call-to-arms moment, about never being bored again.”
Eventually, a girl from his home village came travelling through Auckland and learnt of his predicament. She got word back to his parents. “My dad is not a rich guy, so he couldn’t come,” he says. “He was an art historian in the middle of summer-school teaching, and my mum couldn’t come, either.”
Dad arrived eventually. “He’d come once a day and we’d play Scrabble, which is why Scrabble is very important to me now, because there was a time when I could concentrate on it in a way that I couldn’t on books or TV.”
We spend a long time, Friend and I, discussing his injuries, because there is really nothing better when you are in a pub with a man than repeating gory details like this. He talks of how they drained his thoracic cavity of fluid by inserting a pipe between his ribs. “When they take that pipe out, you have to work with them on the breathing, so you have to do it without anaesthetic,” he says.
To cut a long story short, he kept his foot and started drama school on crutches. Maybe it helped him, as an actor, having to adapt to a limitation?
“I think maybe it is more to do with the fact of not giving up,” he says. “It all sounds like awful T-shirt slogans, and I hate that.”
While still finishing drama school, Friend was cast in the film The Libertine, alongside Johnny Depp – a period drama set in the era of Charles II. It was intense. “Your first kind of out-of-the-blocks run at it and you’re going to be bathed in puke and mud and shit, making out with Johnny Depp, smoking a pipe, being run through with a spear,” he says.
Friend loved the fact that the producers brought in tonnes of horse manure, lining the streets with three and a half feet of the stuff. “You’re dirty to here,” he says, pointing to his thigh. He liked the story, too. “I read from the age of two. I was voracious,” he says. Growing up, he read a lot of Roald Dahl. “To me he was and in a way still is the very expression of limitless imagination,” he says.
Dahl “had a beat-up shed, which I am actually cultivating right now”, he says. “And an old rocker. He put a plank of wood over his lap and a blanket over his knees and a crappy, like, three-bar electric heater, and he called it the cockpit … He didn’t get a three-windowed corner suite off Hyde Park. He didn’t get some white-walled American Psycho office. He knew that it happened here [Friend taps his forehead].” It made him want to write and act and keep doing different things, he says. “I want to be, like, ‘Yeah, I wrote a story about a peach and now I’m doing one about an elevator.’ ”
He wouldn’t want to create a brand and stick with it, “à la Arnold Schwarzenegger”, he says. Wait a moment, I say. What about James Bond? Would you do that? It must have occurred to you.
“I don’t really think about it, to be honest,” he says. Friend was actually approached about playing Bond. Interviewed on Radio 4 a few years ago, Debbie McWilliams, who does casting for the Bond films, said that Friend was someone “I met while they were still in drama school and I knew in my bones that they were going to do really well”.
It was post-Pierce Brosnan and the Bond producers wanted to start afresh.
“They were looking for a young actor to literally make the leap from boyhood to manhood,” McWilliams said. “So everyone got very excited when I introduced [Friend]. He actually, to give him great credit, said, ‘I’m not experienced. I couldn’t possibly take on something like that,’ and he withdrew himself from the decision.” And then they abandoned the idea and found Daniel Craig. Poor old Craig: who knew he was beholden to this young blade?
It seems odd, in retrospect, that Friend doesn’t mention this. Possibly it is now drilled into all male actors of a certain cast that they must never talk about Bond, until they are called to serve.
I ask him about being in Pride & Prejudice alongside Keira Knightley, who became his girlfriend. Making this sweeping period drama with her and then dating her – I imagine it was tremendously romantic.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Pride & Prejudice was quite a compartmentalised film, the way it was made. Everyone was kept very apart.
“The simple answer to your question is no. That’s the best place to leave it, I think,” he says. “I can see that you’ve been told to ask this question.”
I haven’t, I say. We all live vicariously through our actors and sometimes, when we’ve had a few, we get carried away. But let us leap forward to 2012, when Friend was single once more, and broke.
“Not just broke,” he says. Friend had bought part of an old shoe factory in east London and was attempting to turn it into a home. “I employed some builders and very quickly ran out of money to pay them, because at the time I was doing an off-off-West End play for 300 quid a week and suddenly these bills for thousands of pounds were coming in.”
In the first week, “I said, ‘OK, fire the labourer. I’m the labourer.’ ” Not long after that, he had to fire everyone else. They had knocked down a few walls by this point, and the shoe factory was now worth even less than he had paid for it. It was “basically uninhabitable. I was sleeping in it in a sleeping bag. I had no skills and no money and was in debt to the bank to some six figures.”
But when the going gets tough, the tough get grouting. “I was like, ‘This is where you learn how to plumb and … lay floors, and you learn how to weld.’ So I did, and I loved it.”
By night, he walked the boards; by day, he laid them. In the midst of these labours, his agent called, asking him to shoot a brief video audition for the producers of Homeland. “I set up a stack of books and a little point-and-click camera and I filmed myself,” he says. The producers kept responding with requests for additional footage. His younger sister, who is a photographer, played the show’s heroine, Carrie Mathison, in one of these tapes. He also got a friend of his, a carpenter, to play her. And, “A guy from round the corner read with me,” he says. “By the seventh one I was like, ‘F*** this. You clearly don’t know what you’re doing, so good luck to you.’ ”
He had no real idea of the part he was supposed to be playing, and he is not sure the producers did either. “I got to North Carolina with exactly the same amount of information,” he says. “One scene, no script, and here we are five years later.”
His financial problems were solved in short order. But what would he have done if he hadn’t got Homeland?
“You’ve known me for about an hour,” he replies. “Do you think I would have given up?”
Well, no. But some people never give up and never get out of the shoe factory.
“Listen, there are lots of actors who are not working today who are way better than the ones who are,” says Friend. “Eighty per cent of it is, when you get that ‘no’ back, you can’t give up. Because the number of times I’ve heard ‘no’, you would not believe.”
Meanwhile, Friend has directed a short film starring Colin Firth and written the lyrics to a jazz album. He says he’s also written, and is preparing to direct, a film about the legendary boxing trainer Cus D’Amato, starring Anthony Hopkins and Liv Ullmann. They’re going to shoot it next year in the Catskill Mountains, he says. And he hasn’t entirely abandoned plumbing and plastering, either. “With the help of YouTube I have just taught myself Venetian plastering, which is the sort of thing that sounds terrifying,” he says. “Now I sort of run my hand on it and I’m like, ‘You can do it.’ ”
Doesn’t Paul Whitehouse plaster? This is all I can contribute to a plastering conversation.
“Yeah,” he says. “Paul is one of the reasons I did The Death of Stalin.”
He drops into an impression of Ralph from The Fast Show, the awkward English aristocrat in love with his Irish gardener: “The thing is, Ted, I just wanted to see you naked.” Growing up, Whitehouse “was a comedy hero of mine, because of the versatility”, he says.
When Friend arrived at the large manor house where Iannucci and all the other comic geniuses had mustered, “They’d been doing it for a week or two,” he says. On his first day, he was to shoot a scene in which Stalin’s son addresses a grieving multitude in Red Square.
“Paul comes up to my trailer and knocks,” he recalls. “He goes, ‘Everyone’s been doing very well. Yeah, they’ve all been knocking it out of the park. Comedy legends every one. And you’re not known for comedy, are you?’ I said, ‘No, not really.’ He goes, ‘Must be scary, eh? It’s your day today.’ ” Then Whitehouse clapped his hands together, grinned and said, “Anyway, good luck.”
What a bastard.
“It basically set the tone,” Friend says. “I hadn’t been doing anything in England for a little while and that’s what I actually miss: that the way you say ‘I love you’ in England is to f*** with somebody. Whereas Americans are more sincere, and while they’ll eventually get there, they would never dream of doing it from the outset because they’d be afraid of throwing you off.”
Friend is now married to Aimee Mullins, a retired American Paralympic athlete, model, actress and inspirational speaker. They wed last year, in “a compost shed” behind a restaurant in upstate New York. The shed “smelt like all my favourite memories”, he says. “I love the smell of compost and I love silage as well.” It probably reminded him of Johnny Depp.
They were married by his oldest friend from back home, a chap named Ed Atkins. The careers adviser who couldn’t find a job for Friend told Atkins he ought to be a fishmonger. Instead, he became a very successful video artist. “He was opening a show of his own in the city … and he extended his stay, ordained himself as a minister online and wrote the most beautiful love letter, which he read to us as our wedding blessing,” Friend says. The maître d’ of the restaurant snapped pictures on her iPhone, and the best woman, a designer named Betony Vernon, made the rings.
“These rings come apart,” he says, showing me his. I can see grooves in the band. “They were forged as one piece, so Aimee’s is the same.” They can be joined together again.
The sky is darkening now and the moon has risen above the trees. From where I’m sitting, it’s just above Friend’s head. His hair sticks up a little in places, which makes me think he has ridden here with no helmet on a motorbike. Or possibly bareback on a wild stallion. I can absolutely imagine that. “Bareback wild-stallion riding sounds terrifying,” he would say, with a rakish smile. “But with the help of YouTube, I have worked it out.”
But then his phone rings and it turns out he has someone coming to collect him. As he gathers himself, I ask if he ever finds it hard to be married to Mullins, who is a TED-Talk giver and an inspiration to millions. I mean, how do you live up to that, on a daily basis?
Of course, he has no idea what I’m talking about. Why would anyone find that difficult, he asks. “Why wouldn’t you want a woman that was as awesome as you are?”
Then he bids me goodbye and strides out of the pub: part man, part T-shirt slogan. But you have to admit, he wears it awfully well.