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1997 - When You're Called Rupert Graves You Can't Lose.

Author: Valerie Grove.
Publication: Tbc.


"There is a lot of snobbery in acting," Rupert Graves says, "and being called Rupert doesn't hurt." For a while, after his film debut as Helena Bonham Carter's sweet younger brother Freddie in A Room With A View, the cachet bestowed by "Rupert" brought stiff invitations to Sloaney parties in Fulham.

People assumed he must be a scion of the poet Robert Graves's family. "I believe my brother was with you at Ampleforth," they would say. Whereupon Graves would remind them that he was at Wyvern Comprehensive, Weston-super-Mare. The lad has done awfully well since he left there at the age of 15 with one grade C in sociology. (So much for the contemporary insistence that there is no future for anyone without a fistful of grade As.) At least the school took him on a theatre trip to Bath, where he saw Warren Mitchell in Death of A Salesman, and thought, an actor's life for me.

He is having a great success in Peter Hall's first Old Vic rep season, in Hurlyburly, David Rabe's 1984 Broadway hit, a Mamet-like piece ­ fast, violent, funny, wisecracking. The opening night was theatrically historic. Eighteen minutes from the final curtain, Graves was in mid-speech when the stage manager rushed on stage and called the performance to a halt. The Old Vic was evacuated by a bomb scare. (Was this because the title Hurlyburly came from the Scottish play, Benedict Nightingale wondered.) The audience gathered, agog to know how it ended, on the grotty, wino-ridden Waterloo Road scrubland. So the cast bravely continued performing in the al fresco chill, sans props, shouting over the roar of passing buses. They deserved their standing ovation.

"It was bizarre, surreal," Graves says. He has been fighting flu ever since.

He is a gamin figure, his chin stubbled from "exhaustion and laziness". A pack of Camels reposes on the table. Graves had cut down to six a day until this play, but Eddie ­ a man fuelled by alcohol and cocaine ­ is a heavy smoking part: "A consuming part, in every sense." Never tried coke himself? "God, no!" he shouts.

As a boy he learnt comic music-hall monologues (from his musician father, who taught piano) and hung out with a punk crowd on the less genteel side of the seaside town. At school he was "useless, inattentive, resisting, tired. I just found growing up very tiring. I was a moony boy, day-dreaming, often ill ­ glandular fever, lots of colds."

The local jobcentre had no acting jobs to offer. The nearest thing was a YTS apprenticeship with a small, old-fashioned travelling circus which had come to town and lost its clown. "I became Weedy the Clown in a purple suit. I used to hate circus clowns as a kid ­ silly, painful, overgrown fools." He said he has tried to write about his circus experience but "there aren't many personal dynamics in a circus: everyone just huddled in their caravans every night".

To go from the circus, via Butlin's at Skegness, to a leading role at the King's Head Theatre in Islington seems a fantastic leap of luck. But the director Dan Crawford remembers that when 18-year-old Graves arrived to audition as Kenneth Grahame's unhappy son (who put his head on the railway track) in The Killing of Mr Toad, "he was leagues ahead of all the others".

Natural aptitude, and brown-eyed charm, took him swiftly into the West End, and the National, and into roles such as the highly strung poet Marchbanks in Shaw's Candida. When Celestia Fox cast him as Freddie Honeychurch in A Room With a View, he says he blushed with terror throughout and they had to dub out the Somerset ("hote-w-l", for hotel) in his accent.

"I thought I was so bad, I said to James Ivory: 'I'm so sorry, I've messed the whole film up,' and he said: 'It's all right, your part's not big enough to mess the whole thing up.' "

In another E.M. Forster film, Maurice, he played Scudder the gamekeeper, who climbs into Maurice's bedroom and seduces him. He seemed to be habitually offered sexually ambiguous roles ­ because of being pretty? "I think there was a fashion for gay roles," he says, "and once I'd done Maurice and Torch Song Trilogy ­ well, people are very unimaginative, aren't they?"

At 33, he enjoys domestic contentment in a small rented flat in Stoke Newington with his girlfriend Yvonne, a mature student reading history. "When I'm in a play she turns into an orphan. I just crash out or say 'be quiet, I'm learning my lines'." He said he was a loafer by nature. "I loaf in the local park with my greyhound Roland, as in Rat [he was named by the RSPCA]. We loaf together."

A busy sort of loafer. Ever since 1982 he has popped up all over the place: in the mud as Lysander in Robert LePage's extraordinary Midsummer Night's Dream; as sexy Otto in Sean Matthias's Design for Living; as the loyal equerry Greville in The Madness of King George; as the transvestite David/Davina in the televised drama of the Stephen Waldorf shootings; as the wretched son of Jeremy Irons in Louis Malle's Damage.

Last year alone, he was brilliantly cast against type as Huntingdon in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, appeared with the RSC in Les Enfants du Paradis, and also made five films, three still awaiting release. I asked what they were about. He laughed. "Dangerous question. Actors always say: 'It's about me. I'm this butler . . .' "

In Intimate Relations, he is Harold Guppy, a violent, spineless lodger involved with his landlady, Julie Walters. In Different For Girls, he's a wastrel motorbike messenger who takes up with an old schoolfriend who has changed sex. In Mrs Dalloway he is the shell-shocked Warren Septimus Smith. "I'd never read any Virginia Woolf before, but the more I looked into her life the more I loved her. A dot on the wallpaper can open up whole worlds."

His diffidence about discussing roles in literary terms ­ "I shy away; I feel so uneducated" ­ makes the intelligence of his performances the more striking. In Hurlyburly he plays Eddie, a casting director "whose house in the Hollywood Hills has become a viper-pit of dysfunctional divorced men who bitch about women, play power games and behave very badly. Eddie watches his friendships disintegrate, which of course sends him batty. But the themes are so neatly woven, it's like trying to explain an embroidered shawl."

He now wants to write a short film, the kind that wins awards and gets bought by French television and makes money. He keeps working for minimal wages, or "deferred payments" in films. He is so un-self-absorbed, he has not even read his notices. They are very good.
"It is worth crawling over broken glass to get to this production," said Kaleidoscope.

©1997 Valerie Grove.


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