Rupert Graves Online.
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1997 - The Graves Situation.

Author: John Anderson.
Publication: Newsday Magazine.

Former circus boy Rupert Graves is more than just a Brit player.
A head-banging bike messenger in a prolonged punk adolescence, romantically involved with a postoperative transsexual.

An ex-British Navy man with a homicidal blood-sugar disorder, engages in an ill-fated affair with a man-eating matron.
A shell-shocked World War I vet who hears birds speaking Greek.

Such is the autumn itinerary of Rupert Graves, the young English actor best known here for playing upper-crusty Brits, usually in E.M. Forster adaptations--A Room With a View (he was Helena Bonham Carter's piano-torturing, skinny-dipping brother); Where Angels Fear to Tread (twitty smugness personified, again with Bonham Carter), and opposite Hugh Grant in Maurice. He was a court politician in The Madness of King George with that "other Rupert"--Julia Roberts' pal, Everett ("I've been shadowing him my whole career," Graves says with a smile).

When he played a homeless alcoholic in the recent Innocent Sleep, planets spun out of their orbits. The cosmos trembled.

But Graves, 34, who actually ran off to join the circus when he was a boy, will be seen soon in three very different films that he made over the course of about two years--and which, through the miraculous morass of film distribution, are opening here over the course of about two months.

One is Intimate Relations (opening Sept. 19),which is based on a real-life English murder case involving a lonely, malleable ex-seaman (Graves) and his voracious, manipulating landlady (Julie Walters). The other is the adaptation of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway being directed by Marleen Gorris of Antonia's Line and slated for November; Graves will play Septimus, whose shattered psyche is the tragic child of trench warfare.

First up, however, is Different for Girls (opening Friday), the askew London comedy about the aforementioned messenger, Paul Prentice, who happens one day upon his old school chum, Karl, who is now Kim. Like Mike Leigh's current Career Girls, it's about old friends who meet transformed, and circle each other warily.

"Of course, it's a little more extreme, since one is a postoperative transsexual," Graves says. "And they're falling in love, not just meeting."

Prentice and Kim (Stephen Mackintosh) have a troubled reunion that involves cops, courts and unarticulated affection. But does that mean they're in love? "That's a questions that's raised," Graves says, "and not resolved. If I can put myself in the place of...what do you call a single person in an audience? An audient? I think it's up to the individual to figure it out. I suppose it does bring up the whole thing about human sexuality, the soul versus what society would like you to be."

Finding the soul of character is his job, one that has been aided often by either what's on the page of a book or the headline in a newspaper. It would seem logical, l therefore, for Graves to create his own history for Prentice, just as a tool for himself as an actor. And so he did.

"He's a blue-collar guy who didn't come from London initially; he moved when he was thirteen or something, so he's always a little bit out, not quite part of it all. I found it useful to use that kind of thing so you could draw on his punk background, find reason for that. And while he's kind of blue collar, he's not really working class, more lower-middle class. I think his dad probably had a very small garage somewhere, a petrol station or something..."

"I don't think Paul Prentice ever considered himself homosexual, or bisexual, either," Graves added, during a morning interview in Manhattan. "I think he's quite moral. I think that's why he had a kind of epiphany in the punk era, back in 1976-77, he grew out of that. He kind of understands that society demands huge compromises, that he's not prepared to do it, that there's no real place for him in it.

And that's a kind of morality, too. He sticks up for Karl when he's an effeminate boy in the showers at school, being picked on. He's brave enough, and it is a very brave thing to do."

It would be coy to draw a parallel between a character's courage and the career choices of an actor, especially when that actor claims to operate on "whimsy" rather than any strategic initiative. Possessed of a handsome boyishness, and a boyish handsomeness, Graves is in fact playing characters now that are a lot closer to his own roots than any he's played in a Merchant-Ivory movie. But none of it, he says, is part of a master scheme.

"I don't plan," he said. " I don't think, 'I have to do this kind of part 'cause I've done that kind of part.' I'm not a very good planner. I'm entirely uneducated. I went to public school--public in the American sense--a blue-collar, working-class school. I never got a scholarship, I left when I was 15, never did any exams. I never went to acting school.

I started in the circus, music hall, I was in a group, did kids' bits. I've always had this kind of insecurity being uneducated. I drifted into acting and I've drifted into my career and I've never been guided by anything particularly concrete."
And yet these upper-crusty roles he pulls off so...well, it's all just acting, isn't it?

"Right. I don't know really." He pauses. "My name doesn't hurt. There's a lot of snobbery in English film, and a lot of good stories in our Edwardian literature to raid, and the people writing it are usually upper class.

"But being called Rupert, which is an upper-class name--my mom grew up in a working-class village and there was a boy she used to fancy named Rupert, which is why I got called Rupert--and Graves. It sounds like a poet--Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke, or something. It's always assumed that I'm part of that class. And my accent I lost early--I had a stammer as a kid and had to take elocution lessons. so I learned to speak properly and with my name well, there it is."

Sitting in a zippered sweatshirt, analyzing Virginia Woolf and Hemingway's heroic ethos, talking about Greek tragedy and the charms of African cinema and the subtleties of post-traumatic stress disorder and the gifts of Julie Walters, Rupert Graves exudes his own brand of self-made nobility, no apologies necessary. In a perfect world, he'd be American.

©1997 Newsday Magazine.