Rupert Graves Online.
2002 - Rupert Bared.
Author: Emma Brockes.
Rupert Graves found fame portraying public schoolboys - and in The Forsyte Saga he plays a bohemian toff. But Emma Brockes discovers a very different man behind the screen image.
Bleary and unshaven, Rupert Graves drags himself to a hotel on the banks of the Thames. It is end-of-the-world weather and his mood suits it. Last night, he partied till three in the morning and the over-lit hotel room aggravates his hangover. Jangling with brittle energy, he presents himself mockingly, contemptuous of the need to look pretty and talk nice for the journalist. "Look," he says, with a sarcastic leer, "a hole in my jumper."
Graves' routine this morning is a response to his image as a soft, mannered public schoolboy. He is often confused with Rupert Everett, who lives more plausibly up to the first name by being posh and slightly neurotic-looking, like a rare breed of hound. Graves can look rarefied too - he has played enough floppy-fringed toffs to provoke the occasional "I think my brother was at Ampleforth with you" encounter, but in reality, he attended Wyvern comprehensive in Weston-super-Mare; his dad is a teacher, his mother a housewife, and his brother a lorry driver. Still, there is something about his baleful brown eyes that people insist looks privileged. Graves says: "I think they mean girly," and slumps dejectedly into a chair.
The actor lives modestly in north London with his girlfriend, Yvonne, a mature student, and only does interviews because he has to. "It's just very dull," he sighs. "Talking about yourself and about something that you've got less interest in than you had, because you've always moved on to something else. But you have a contractual obligation."
Today's contractual obligation is to ITV1, in whose remake of the 1967 drama series The Forsyte Saga he is appearing on Sunday nights. With polite enthusiasm, he talks up the production. "It's a saga of a family, the intricacies of a family tree that are woven into one big, old story. I read the first book and I thought, 'Oh Christ, it's so pompous.' And then you realise that he's being ironic. It's beautifully written. It's worth telling again." His eyes begin to bend out of focus.
Graves became famous when he was 22 and played Freddy Honeychurch, Helena Bonham Carter's brother in Merchant Ivory's A Room with a View. His co-stars were Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Daniel Day-Lewis. It was his first film and the one he is remembered for, by girls at least, because of a tennis scene in which he flopped exquisitely about in white flannels on a perfect summer evening. That was 16 years ago - he is 37 now, incredibly - but when I mention to friends that I am meeting Rupert Graves, they gasp and say immediately, "Freddy!"
Graves went from unknown stage actor to the boy girls screamed at in the street. "I expected it," he says. "It was the first film role I did and everything I'd read about people who appeared in films indicated that this is what happened. I suppose, in my innocence, I would have been gutted if it hadn't. I thought, you make a film, then people come and scream at you."
Viewers assumed that Graves shared Freddy's background - he looked at ease on the terrace. But at the time of filming, he had a strong west country accent and had to dub poshly over a lot of mispronounced lines. He spent the shoot in a state of almost constant mortification. "My first scene was with Denholm Elliott and Simon Callow. I just kept my back to camera because I was so embarrassed. I was red and ashamed of myself. I thought, 'What am I doing here?'" Were they kind to him? "Yes, very. If you get a young bag of bones turning up and floundering around, you'd have to be a bit of a bastard to pick on him."
After A Room with a View came out, Graves was offered copious public schoolboy roles and literary adaptations. He appeared in the EM Forster biopic, Maurice; The Madness of King George; and Mrs Dalloway. I was surprised, I say, not to see him in Gosford Park. "Yeah," he says. "I was too. I kept expecting myself to pop out. I was asked to go and audition, but I couldn't because I was doing The Forsyte Saga."
His name almost certainly contributed to his typecasting. People assumed that he was related to the writer Robert Graves and the Rupert bit didn't help either. As a child, he hated it. "My mum called me it because there was a man called Billy Wright who used to be England captain and apparently he knew someone called Rupert who used to kick a ball against my grandad's house in Shropshire years ago. She thought he was a bit dangerous, a bit racy. I'm named after him. I always liked the name Michael, but I never got round to doing anything about it."
He isn't ambitious but he always wanted to act. His teachers thought he was arrogant, a fact he still finds strange as he remembers himself as an anxious child. "I was concerned about doing the right thing when I was a kid. I suppose as a child, you're a massive egomaniac and you think that everything you do is going to affect the world. Not being anxious requires a level of humility, doesn't it? It does, I think. It's not all about you." Graves can still recall the moment the anxiety lifted, the moment the world became less mysterious to him. "There's a thing I think children realise at a certain age, which is that if their parents say, 'Don't do it', and they go ahead and do it, they're still not going to die. And I think that's what it is: that no matter what you do, you're not going to die."
At 16, he won a place on a youth training scheme as a clown in a travelling circus. At 18, he moved to London. He sought out theatre roles, chasing the feeling he got when he read a good script, which he compares to a flame in a boiler firing up. He is, he says, deeply competitive, although not about work. "It manifests itself in table tennis. It's true. Or, if I'm having an argument with somebody, I really like them to disagree strongly. I want to beat them and I'll do everything I can. But if I'm trounced, I'll still enjoy the struggle. I don't have to win."
He doesn't argue about politics. "I'm left. I'm cynical about politics. I saw Tony Blair the other night at the [London] Evening Standard awards and he looked more made-up and bouffanted than any of the actors. How odd. He was giving an award and he looked very nervous. But I thought he came across as quite a sweet man." Politics only fascinates him dramatically. Graves loves the line in Albert Camus' play, Caligula, when, at the end of his life, the emperor is asked: "Do you have any emotions left?" And he says: "Yes, one: scorn." Graves says: "That's great, isn't it? Scorn."
Talking about death and deliverance has cheered Graves up considerably.
©2002 Guardian Newspapers, Guardian Unlimited.