Rupert Graves Online.
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1996 - Room To Experiment.

Author: Simon Fanshawe.
Publication: Tbc.


He made an ideal Edwardian schoolboy, but Rupert Graves will not be typecast. Even if he hasn't, Rupert Graves always looks as if he's his shirt-tail hanging out.

He seems to have about his person the kind of chaos you find in your younger brother's room. You just expect him to have ink on his fingers or a dirty hankie dropping out of his pocket. But he doesn't. He is vague, though.

Recently he threw the Indian takeaway man a loop by telling him that he lived at No 142, when actually for two and a half years he and his girlfriend have lived at 158.

He is rather more ungainly than you'd think, with a perfectly shaped upper physique attached to slightly flat feet and a consequently shambolic way of running. And he is shaved, but in an unshaven sort of way.

However, he scrubs up pretty well. He'd clearly had his hair brushed properly by Merchant Ivory when he played Helena Bonham Carter's bumptious young brother. Freddie, in his first film. A Room with a View. And his tender portrayal of the duty and loyalty of George III's equerry, Greville, in the film of Alan Bennett's play, was not just deeply touching but also positively clean-cut.

He is a sprite, ill-defined and impish and funny. He is also, according to the director of one of his next films, Different for Girls, ''absolutely precise in front of the camera''. It's this combination of bagginess and dexterity, of chaos and precision, that makes him an irresistible actor to watch when director and script capture his spirit, and a slightly distracting one when they don't.

It is what has led his career thus far along the route of interest and experimentation, rather than ambition and Hollywood. To some extent it is what has led him to his current reinvention of the Jean-Louis Barrault role as the ''great mime'' Baptiste, in Simon Callow's adaptation of Les Enfants du Paradis for the RSC.

And it is certainly the palpable ambiguity about him, combined with an innocence born of wonder about the world, that draws people towards his performances and has made his choice of work idiosyncratic. Although, as he says:' 'It's not necessarily choice. You do what you're offered.'' Yes. but you're also offered what you do.

To start with, what he did was floppy-haired Edwardian youths. Or so everybody thought after three E M Foster films in a row. But most people conveniently failed to notice that in the middle one he played not ''the gentleman'' but Scudder, a junior version of D H Lawrence's Mellors the gamekeeper, and he seduced, not Lady Chatterley, but James Wilby's Maurice. Graves was then, and is now, much more the sexually open West Country boy than he ever was the strait-laced public-school Henry.

''I used to be invited to Hooray parties in Fulham because of being called Rupert and being in a couple of Merchant Ivory films, and people would be bitterly disappointed because they'd ask me where I went to school, expecting Marlborough or Eton, and I'd say 'Wyvern Comprehensive'.''
He was born and brought up in Weston-Super-Mare, Southwest of Bristol, and his accent is mid-M4,with a strong Somerset burr underlining the London in his voice.

Was he a solitary child? ''I wasn't basically happy...'' he says tentatively. ''I was difficult. I had three or four good friends, but I don't think I was terribly popular. I was sort of thin and ill... glandular fever and colds and things...and I was quite frightened. I think that I knew that when I was older, I'd feel happier. I was bored as a child and quite sad.''

He also had some characteristically left-field and charming ambitions. ''When I was very young I wanted to be a nun. I was about five and didn't just say it. I really wanted to be a nun.'' Julie Andrews? ''No, the nuns at school.'' Did he ever want to be an actor? ''I remember as a kid doing very strange movements to the Wombles and Abba records and eventually making sort of mime stories out of them.'' Well, that's a start.

He is a bit of a lad and was a bit of a rebel at school.' 'But not in a James Dean sort of way.'' Pause for thought.' 'More in an Arthur Askey sort of way.'' At this point he did write off to an agent he saw in The Stage. He got one. Then in 1983 he got an audition and he was given the part.

He was the title role in The Killing of Mr Toad, at the King's Head pub theatre in north London. The following year he was in Dennis Potter's Sufficient Carbohydrate, which transferred to the West End, and by the end of 1985 he was co-starring as Anthony Sher's boyfriend in Torch Song Trilogy and had shot his first film.

Since then he has not made the predictable career choices of the conventionally pretty Hugh Grant school of one-trick acting. Instead, he's pursued a variegated career of sweet punk rebellion. Deliberately turning away from the Edwardian, he played a crazed chocoholic in Philip Ridley's play The Pitchfork Disney, at the Bush theatre; he was riveting as the transvestite David Martin in a TV drama about the Stephen Waldorf shootings, deftly turned the cuckolded son in Damage into a tragic character, sparked with sexiness as one of the two men in Coward's ménage a trois, Design for Living, in the West End, and will soon be seen with Julie Walters, as his landlady and his lover behind the sexual net curtains of the 1950s,in the film Intimate Relations.

Much of what he has chosen to do has been about exploring sexuality. ''I've been very aware ever since I was a child how futile it was to start categorising. I know that sexually I am a lot more drawn to women than I am to men. But I do find it hard to define myself, because as soon as you state one thing, you deny everything else.''

This is not about bisexuality as much as it is about the question of identity in a wider sense. As Baptiste in Les Enfants, he was drawn to the relationship between romantic love and sexuality. ''The separation between love and sex is a very interesting place to be, isn't it?'' Yes it is. And he's an interesting person to explore it, because, as so many people who have worked with him say, he really does take risks.

They're not always successful ones, but that's the way with messy people. They do messy things and consequently life with them is full of serendipity. ''Some people know exactly who they are and what they want to do. I don't have that. I feel wider...not deeper or cleverer or anything, just wider...''

Which is why he is unlikely to go the Hollywood route and end up face down on Sunset Boulevard ,and more likely to continue doing sometimes odd but usually intriguing things for as long as his bank manager and agent will allow.

©1996 Simon Fanshawe.


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