Rupert Graves Online.
1997 - Acting Across The Class Divide.
Author: Sarah Lyall.
The New York Times, Sunday, September 28, 1997.
No, Rupert Graves is not Rupert Everett, and he did not appear in My Best Friend's Wedding (please don't ask).
For one thing, he has been an enormous hit here recently in a revival of the David Rabe play Hurlyburly. ("It is worth crawling over broken glass to get to this production," concluded the radio arts program Kaleidoscope.)
At the same time, Mr. Graves is in three films - each wildly different from the others - that are in theaters now or opening soon.
In Intimate Relations, which opened last weekend and is based on the events leading to a real-life murder trial in 1956, he plays the hapless lodger Harold Guppy, whose twisted relationship with a mother and her daughter, combined with a tendency to violence, leads to tragedy all around.
And in a film version of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway that is to open in the US early next year, starring Vanessa Redgrave, he plays Septimus Warren Smith, the shellshocked veteran of World War I whose downward spiral into suicidal madness forms the moral center of the story.
For the last few months, though, Mr. Graves' mind has been on Hurlyburly, Mr. Rabe's punishing play about Hollywood (he plays Eddie, the cruel and manipulative casting director). A midrun series of rehearsals for the play, on the occasion of its moving to the West End from the Old Vic, all but exhausted the intense, brown-eyed actor, who during a conversation recently looked pale, tired and far more delicate than he appears on screen. When he opened his mouth, however, his voluble energy was apparent.
"If I look haggard, it's because of this play," he explained. "I'm absolutely sawn off at the knees. It's a huge, monstrous, unwieldy play. You don't play it; you wrestle it. Sometimes the play wins, and sometimes you win."
In Britain, accent often gives away a person's background right away, but Mr. Graves, who is 34, has a strangely hard-to-pin-down voice, the result of elocution lessons he took long ago to cure a chidish stutter. His real accent, he says, is pure West Country, with the nasal vowels and slurred-together words that are prevalent among lower-middle-class families in his hometown, Weston-Super-Mare.
It was there that he sang in a punk band called A New Lumbago and worked at his first jobs: as a dishwasher in a fish-and-chip shop and as a clown named Tomato in a circus. At the age is 18, he auditioned for and won his first part on the London stage, playing the unhappy son of Kenneth Grahame, the author of The Wind in the Willows, in The Killing of Mr. Toad.
Mr. Graves's real accent was most definitely one he could not employ for his memorable performance as the sweet and vaguely off-the-wall Freddie Honeychurch in A Room With a View, a film he fell into because its casting director saw him in Mr. Toad. "I had the same kind of eyebrows that Helena Bonham Carter had," Mr. Graves explained, "and they wanted a slight wild card to play the part."
His success in that part resulted in the typecasting of Mr. Graves as something he decidedly is not: a toff from a posh background. His name, with the hint of upper-class prosperity, has never helped either. But he has fought valiantly against this typecasting, and a startling array of roles has followed, on stage and on screen.
Among other things, he has played the seductive gamekeeper in the movie Maurice; Anthony Sher's boyfriend in Torch Song Trilogy on the West End; Jeremy Iron's son in the film Damage, and Greville, the king's equerry, in the film The Madness of King George. Speaking of his character in Intimate Relations, whose infuriated passivity lands him in the most serious kind of trouble, Mr. Graves said he had sought to portray Harold, whose violent nature is triggered by imbalances in his blood super levels, sympathetically, but only up to a point.
"I worried that I was too sympathetic,: he said. "Here is a person who has no ability to think on his own and can't pursue his will. I wanted to show that his violence isn't a machismo; it really is a monstrous thing. People who have monsters inside themselves hate it; they want to say, 'I'm a good person, and I'm going to be good.' But they're not, especially if they have the kind of illness he does."
The film is effective in re-creating the Britain of the 1950's, when the country was still in post-war shock. "England was in a terrible state, and there was a kind of weird feeling in the air," said Mr. Graves.
"Whole towns had been raised; everybody knew somebody who'd been maimed or killed; everyone was bankrupt, and everybody was saying 'Everything's fine, everything's fine.'" Though the film had mixed reviews here and in America, Mr. Graves' performance came in for praise, The Sunday Telegraph calling him "one of the dishiest and most exciting English actors today."
Mrs. Dalloway, too, is set in post-war England, this time after WWI, when Mr. Graves' character comes home with thousands of other soldiers and finds that he cannot shake off the horrors he has apparently survived. At first, Mr. Graves found this character a tortured cipher.
"When I read the screenplay, I thought, 'I just don't understand my part; I don't know how to play this,'" Mr. Graves said. "And then I began to read a lot of Virginia Woolf, and I was struck by how much of her own private psychosis and neurosis went into this male character of Septimus".
So intent was Mr. Graves on getting it just right, said Marleen Gorris, the director of Mrs. Dalloway, that he appeared to live and breathe the character off camera, wearing Septimus' heavy brown coat between takes, for instance, even though it was the middle of a particularly hot summer. "One thing that struck me about Rupert was that he doesn't leave his character," said Ms. Gorris. "Even when he was sitting around and talking to people, it seemed as if he was going inward."
"The funny thing," she continued, "is that when you work with him you don't notice how much work he's doing outside the actual rehearsals. He's very concentrated, and he doesn't flaunt his knowledge."
Different for Girls, with its contemporary setting, called for a completely different approach. Mr. Graves plays an ageing punk who finds himself falling in love, awkwardly and unexpectedly, with a transsexual. And Steven Mackintosh, the actor who plays Kim, the friend and eventual lover, said Mr. Graves had made what could have been an extremely awkward situation delightful.
"It could have been a nightmare if it weren't for the fact that Rupert had a really good sense of humor," he said. "When we were in mid-embrace and I was wearing my skirt, he was making jokes. It diffused any kind of tension there could have been.
He was aware of all of the sensitive issues in the film - he's a highly intelligent guy - but the great thing about him, for me, is that he can see the funny side of things too. And since Rupert had played gay men and transvestites, he was able to bring his knowledge of that to provide me with a lot of reassurance."
With his long experience, Mr. Graves is quite sure what he does and doesn't want in the way of work.
One thing he does not want to do is act in more movies like The Sheltering Desert a work unreleased in the US in which he played a draft-dodging German in Namibia whose job was to "go around in a jeep, basically, and fire at other Germans," and which he regards as the nadir of his career. Like many other British actors, Mr. Graves is for the most part immune to the exigencies (and the paychecks) of a Hollywood-based career - a healthy state of affairs, he feels.
"I'm not very good at hustling," he said. "I don't know what the rules are, and I think there's enough trash in the world without my having to add to it. I hate sounding like I'm taking the moral high ground, but it really is true that some things interest me and other things I won't do because they don't. And I'm not very good at things I don't want to do."
©1997 The New York Times.