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2003 - Theatregoer Magazine Interview.

Author: Jennifer Selway.
Publication: Theatregoer Magazine, RGO.


Rupert Graves made his showbiz debut in a circus; movies and plum stage parts followed. He ’s starring in an Oscar Wilde play, but, he tells Jennifer Selway, he can still put up a tent – and juggle.

There are two male leads in Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance. There is the wicked Lord Illingworth whose sins are rewarded with some of Wilde’s best lines, in particular the one about foxhunting being ‘the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable’. The other male lead is the nice Gerald Arbuthnot, of whom it is said, ‘He is so simple, so sincere. He has one of the most beautiful natures I have ever come across.’

Now whom is Rupert Graves playing? Gerald? After all, he has done boyish for some years now – maybe too many years. But is he of an age to play Lord Illingworth, who has to be old enough to be Gerald Arbuthnot’s father for the simple reason that he is Gerald Arbuthnot’s father?

‘I am Lord Illingworth, I’m afraid,’ says Graves, actually sounding rather pleased about it. ‘A complete bastard. The interesting thing is to try and understand his point of view. I don’t think I’m too young to play him, because if he fathered Gerald when he was 21 and Gerald is about 22 when the play opens, that only makes Lord Illingworth in his early forties.’
And Graves is just 40, I believe.

He was only 22 when he played Freddy Honeychurch, Helena Bonham Carter’s brother in Merchant Ivory’s film A Room with a View. He looked divine in his white tennis flannels. Girls thought so. So did boys. And he continued his association with EM Forster by making another Merchant Ivory film, Maurice.

It takes only one appearance in white flannels for a chap to be designated posh, and this is what happened to Rupert Graves. There was a lot of floppy hair on show at the time – Hugh Grant, James Wilby, Julian Sands. Rupert was a posh name and the whole thing sounded like some conflation of Rupert Brooke and Robert Graves. Posh and literary and probably gay.

Graves kept his counsel: ‘I let everyone go on saying I was gay, partly out of mischief but also because it was no one’s business.’ Not only was he not gay, he wasn’t posh either. Born in Weston-super-Mare, he went to the local comprehensive, and had a bit of a stammer and a West Country accent.

‘It’s a funny place, Weston-super-Mare… a bit dull I suppose, but I didn’t mind it. I like the sea, walking along the beach. I was bad at school; it wasn’t a very good school and I left with just one O Level. I think acting was always at the back of my mind, but I thought you had to have A Levels and go to college.’ He joined a small circus instead. ‘I learnt how to put up a tent, and juggling. I can still juggle a bit, four things at once and behind-the-back stuff as well.’

Television viewers have seen him most recently in the latest slab of The Forsyte Saga, playing young Jolyon, who fancied himself as a painter and won the love of Irene. When the series was transmitted, he was in Prague filming Charles II for the BBC, with Rufus Sewell in the title role.

Graves, in what he calls a ‘spaniel wig’, plays the Duke of Buckingham.
‘Rufus and I have worked together before, on a terrible film called Extremist Ops which hasn’t come out yet. I don’t always do things that are good…’ Goodness, not many actors will admit to that. ‘I sometimes do things that I know are not very good, if the people are fun or interesting or it means travelling somewhere nice. I’m quite shallow really,’ he says, all raffish charm.

It’s that mixture of cynicism and romanticism that Graves finds so appealing in Wilde. ‘I like that idea that all ex-romantics are cynics and all ex-cynics are romantics. I am very serious about acting, but I like to be light about it, Wildean if you like. You need to keep it playful, prevent it becoming turgid.’

From the title – A Woman of No Importance – you can tell that there’s a misogynistic thread, which troubled Graves when he first read the play. His only other excursion into Wilde country has been as Algernon in the altogether sunnier The Importance of Being Ernest.

‘My dear Rachel,’ says Lord Illingworth to Mrs Arbuthnot, his ex-lover and the mother of Gerald, ‘I must candidly say that I think Gerald’s future considerably more important than your past.’ Woman-hating, damned witty, or plain truthful?

‘I’m not so sure it is misogynistic,’ says Graves. ‘Wilde cared for wit more than for gender, and some of the female characters have the most fantastic lines. And you have to remember that in the end Lord Illingworth doesn’t win the argument. He’s the loser in the play. But the great thing about Wilde is that he turns any ideas you might have about what is true and real completely on their head. He’s great at pricking pomposity – as important now as it was in his day.’

Whereas Lord Illingworth has a long lost son, Rupert Graves has a new one called Joseph who is, as he says with male vagueness, ‘a few months old’. He married Joseph’s mother recently, too. She is Susie Lewis, a production co-ordinator. Lord Illingworth says, ‘Men marry because they are tired; women because they are curious.’ Graves says that he married because ‘It seemed a very good idea.’

Graves has found that theatre has offered him the chance to escape from the tiresome tag of ‘posh actor’. He has achieved an extraordinary range, from Torch Song Trilogy to The Caretaker, via Hurly Burly (for which he received an Olivier Award nomination) to The Elephant Man on Broadway. He has yet to attempt Shakespeare and says disarmingly, ‘I’m scared of Shakespeare. I don’t actually understand Shakespeare when I read it and I’m full of admiration for people who do.’

For him, the most nerve-racking part of a stage production is the night of the first preview. ‘There’s that moment when you have to make sure that your bottle is intact. I’ve never done a Stephen Fry, but I can promise you that every actor has thought about it. The adrenalin you produce during the first night is equivalent to surviving a car crash in which someone else dies. It’s that bad.’

And that good. Graves may have built his career playing those born with silver spoons in their mouths, and the reckless and cynical Lord Illingworth is no exception. But that laid-back manner is a marvellous disguise. Posh he may not be, but very classy all the same.

Wilde Words of some importance:

One should never trust a woman who tells one her real age. A woman who would tell one that, would tell one anything.’
Lord Illingworth

Lord Illingworth: ‘The Book of Life begins with a man and woman in a garden.’
Mrs Allonby: ‘It ends with Revelations.’

Lord Illingworth: ‘Nothing spoils a romance so much as a sense of humour in the woman.’

Mrs Allonby: ‘Or the want of it in the man.’

‘A kiss may ruin a human life.’ Mrs Arbuthnot.

‘After a good dinner, one forgives anybody, even one’s own relations.’ Lady Caroline

‘Twenty years of romance makes a woman look like a ruin, but 20 years of marriage makes her something like a public building.’ Lord Illingworth.

‘Nothing should surprise us nowadays, except happy marriages.’ Lady Caroline.

A Woman of No Importance, directed by Adrian Noble, with Rachael Stirling and Prunella Scales, is at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, from 10 September.

©2003 Theatregoer Magazine, Rupert Graves Online.


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