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1997 - An Intimate Look At English Actor Rupert Graves.

Author: Joshua Mooney.
Publication: Entertainment Newswire.

Hollywood -- What's in a name? Plenty, according to Rupert Graves.

The English actor, who has starred in a string of sumptuous, well-regarded costume dramas in his native land, credits his initial screen success to his first name. "I don't know about here in America,'' he says, "but in England, Rupert is a very posh name. When I first became an actor, people just assumed I was upper-class.''

The reality, says Graves, was worlds apart from the perception."I came from absolutely nowhere: Weston-Super-Mare, which is in English hick country.'' On top of that, his initial acting experiences were culled from his stint as a clown in a small traveling circus.

But onscreen, Graves was all upper-crust. On the strength of his name and his physical resemblance to actress Helena Bonham Carter, he says, he landed his first major film role in the 1986 hit "A Room With a View,'' playing Bonham Carter's wealthy, foppish brother. After "Room'' came "Maurice,'' which was also a tony cinematic adaptation of an E.M. Forster novel by the Merchant/Ivory team.

Although his success in those early roles suggests that Graves had the acting chops to pull off a class deception in a country where class is king, he finds the whole thing rather amusing now. "People just assumed I was someone I wasn't,'' he says. "I kept getting these scripts sent to me -- I was pigeonholed as a floppy-haired English schoolboy.'' Graves went on to appear in several films in a similar vein, including "A Handful of Dust,'' "Where Angels Fear To Tread'' and "The Madness Of King George.''

Now, more than a decade after his film debut, Graves is making waves for a pair of films that are decidedly not costume dramas. In "Different For Girls,'' he plays a thirty-ish punk rock fan who falls in love with a woman who used to be a man. "Girls'' won the Best Film award at last year's Toronto Film Festival, where Graves himself picked up the Best Actor award for "Intimate Relations,'' a dark comedy about murder which is all the darker for its being based on a true story.

"Intimate Relations,'' which opens in America this month, has already garnered good reviews in England. "But,'' notes Graves, "some people who liked the film thought it was quite nasty.'' And indeed it is. "Relations'' is based on a true story that shocked Great Britain in the mid-'50s. When Marjorie, a repressed English housewife, takes a border into the home she shares with her husband and teenage daughter, the stage is set for sex and death.

The Beasley family lives a typical post-war English life of false optimism, domesticity and repression. Enter Harold Guppy the border (Graves) who stirs things up immediately. He excites the passions of Marjorie (Julie Walters), and the imagination of the daughter. When Marjorie seduces Harold, who turns out to be a ticking time bomb of anger and violence, they find themselves blackmailed by the daughter.

None of which sounds like the framework for a comedy. But "Intimate Relations,'' much like the Coen brothers' "Fargo,'' wrests plenty of humor from the absurdity of the situation and the all-too-realistic behavior of the characters involved. "Some people have had trouble with the humor of the film,'' Graves says. "They don't quite know where it comes from. But surprisingly, a lot of the comedy is based on what really happened. It's taken from verbatim court transcripts of the murder case.''

It wouldn't be very sporting to say who kills whom in the movie, but suffice it to say that more than one character ends up dead. Graves says the script, by writer/director Philip Goodhew, an actor Graves has known for many years, immediately attracted him because of what it said about the dark side of U.K. life. "It's a quintessential English story, in that much of what happens is largely due to embarrassment.

They're all embarrassed about their feelings. The wife's embarrassed about wanting sex from her husband. People just aren't saying what they should be saying, but still they've got emotions thundering away inside of them.''

There's a lot less repression at work in "Different For Girls,'' which is part farce, part exploration of sexual identity that is reminiscent of "The Crying Game.'' Graves plays Paul, a 34-year-old Londoner still obsessed with the punk music of his teenage years. It's his only real passion until he crosses paths with the reserved yet somehow seductive Kim (played by Steven Mackintosh).

But the adamantly straight Paul soon realizes that Kim was formerly his best buddy at their all-male grade school and is now trying to adapt to life as a transsexual. Even more shocking to Paul is his growing realization that he's attracted to this woman who was formerly a man.

"I liked Paul's dilemma,'' Graves says. "It's the story of innate sexuality versus what's socially acceptable. Society tells us, `You're this, and you're that.' When he meets Kim, Paul gets a little wake-up bomb about his own sexuality.'' The film is a comedy which manages to resist all -- or at least most -- of the easy gags. It opts for an incisive psychological approach to its portrait of a very mismatched yet ultimately compatible pair. In doing so, says Graves, it paints a low-key, realistic portrait of the transsexual lifestyle.

"When you see transsexuals on the Tube in London, they're dressed to blend in -- not show off like drag queens. They're not rejoicing in their femininity or using it as peacock feathers. It's much deeper than that. And so it becomes for Paul as well.''

Although Graves' teenage years suggest plenty of adventure -- he left home at 15 and joined the circus -- the actor sounds apologetic as he recounts the tepid reality of those days. "It was ridiculously dull,'' he insists. "It was a very small circus -- calling it a `circus' is aggrandizing it, really. It was like a five-man traveling troupe. Nothing much.

I remember a very moody guy who did the dog act -- these little yapping dogs running around the ring, trying to jump over hurdles and crapping all over the place. People laughed -- they thought that was supposed to be funny, but it wasn't.''

In time, Graves ended up in London, and landed small stage roles until "A Room With a View'' paved the way for his screen career. Although he's well known for recent stage roles in such prestigious venues as the National Theatre, Graves says that stage work in England doesn't strike him as much more thrilling than his circus non-escapades.

"I find theatergoing normally beyond tedious,'' he says. "English theater acting is just boring. There're some new people coming along now, but a lot of it is just really bourgeois: a step down from going to the opera -- just a bit cheaper. "

Graves' passions seem to be stirred most by his stateside experiences, limited as they've been. "Years ago I did a tour of `Macbeth' in the American Midwest,'' Graves says. "The audiences were far more informed about English playwrights than most English audiences are.''

For films, Graves says, Hollywood is the place to be, especially if you're British. "A strange thing happens in England if you come over here and do American films,'' he says. "You're more respected as an English actor. And a lot more interesting films are being made here. It's the center of the industry.''

©1997 Entertainment Newswire.