The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
Whether he’s sucking on hard candy, contemplating suicide, or limping slightly in boots two sizes too big, Rupert Graves is ever graceful. At once a mixture of the violent and the poetic, Graves’ film characters are compared to the kings of the tortured handsome, Montgomery Clift and John Keats. It’s an odd and wonderful thing to spend the afternoon with a stranger speaking of the near obscurity and perfection of Robert Donat, Che Guevara’s hands, and what exactly it is to be brave.
Graves is a prime example of the coda “action is character.” He, like all great actors, is highly physical. We can see his characters—literally we recognize them. In Intimate Relations, Rupert as Harold Guppy clings to Julie Walters, feeding himself sugar cubes like a child. In Mrs. Dalloway, his Septimus Warren Smith stumbles through life; again, literally and emotionally. It is all the way Rupert Graves turns his characters inside out, so what you see is what you get. He manages to become Virginia Woolf’s subconscious—he materializes the description of his character, Septimus: “…with hazel eyes which had that look of apprehension in them which makes complete strangers apprehensive too.” Graves has five films coming out this fall: Mrs. Dalloway with Vanessa Redgrave, Different For Girls, The Revengers’ Comedies with Kristen Scott Thomas and Helena Bonham Carter, Bent, and Intimate Relations with Julie Walters, for which Graves was awarded the Best Actor Award at the 1996 Montreal Film Festival. But that is just this year, his other credits include extensive work on British television and other films: Louis Malle’s Damage, Nick Hytner’s The Madness Of King George; and Merchant Ivory’s Maurice and A Room With A View. In addition to his film work, Graves has consistently worked on the London stage, where he is returning this fall to do Hurly Burly.
Nicole Burdette Now, how did you grow up?
Rupert Graves I grew up in a little English town in a poor-ish family. I went to a comprehensive school which is the same as public school here, I think. My father was a bit posher than my mum, who was a working-class girl from Wales. He’s a pianist.
NB How did they meet?
RG My mum used to sing in amateur shows. They met at a choral society that my dad used to conduct. She saw him, and she can’t have thought, “What a beauty,” so it must have been, “What a genius,” because she loved the music.
NB Were you musical as a kid?
RG No, no. I was brought up quite religiously Catholic and was a choir boy and an acolyte. I used to sing, but it’s a horrible sound.
NB I read that you were in the circus.
RG Yes, I joined when I was 15. I had just left school.
NB How did that idea come to you?
RG It didn’t. It came through the city employment bureau. I knew a girl whose mum used to work there—it was a small town I come from—and she knew I liked acting. And so when the circus came into town and their clown disappeared, I became a trainee. A trainee clown through the job center.
NB Were you a good clown?
RG No, not really.
NB Could you do flips and jump off high things and do daredevil stuff?
RG I didn’t jump. I did slackwire. Do you know slackwire?
RG It’s lower than most tightropes and it’s not tight. It’s very loose, about 15 feet high, and it’s harder to do. It’s like walking across a chain.
NB And you were good at it?
RG I was a clown. I would practice in the ring during the performances, and everyone would laugh because I fell off—but I was actually seriously trying to get across.
NB I ask because I got to see three of your movies in one week, and I noticed that in each one you have a different walk. Your body changed completely. But it wasn’t like method acting where one, say, gains fifty pounds and obviously one’s walk changes. With you it’s subtle. There are an actor’s usual bag of tricks—beards, haircuts, accents… Yet, in all three movies your voice, your haircut are all intact, but you are completely unrecognizable—that’s quite an accomplishment. You don’t rely on the visual—you actually act, imagine that!
RG You do have to understand what your part is, and it’s difficult to intellectualize that. But you can feel it and you know it the moment you see it. It’s accessing some part of your own. I’m completely uneducated, untrained, as an actor, but I do have a fundamental belief that one is capable of pretty much anything. That’s a first principle: One is anything. So I kind of feel that I’ve got George Bush and Che Guevara in me.
NB I’ve been thinking about Che Guevara, just so you know.
RG Are you into The Motorcycle Diaries? They’re great. Guevara went around South America and up to Mexico on this terrible old Enfield motorbike with this other doctor, they were specializing in leprosy. And you know, Castro has Guevara’s hands in his house. They found his body in Bolivia just in the last few months, and it’s gone home to Cuba. But it was handless. The story goes Guevara’s hands were sent to Castro to prove it was him, and Castro kept them. Anyway, that gets back to “One is anything.”
NB So that’s your theory for acting?
RG I think you access different parts of the brain. It’s slightly different for different things. For example, for Intimate Relations I wore shoes that were two sizes too big. I wanted to feel clumsy.
NB I read that in explaining your role (Harold Guppy in Intimate Relations) you said, “I think it’s dangerous as an actor to ever judge a character as stupid.” It seemed to me, watching you in the film, that you played against Harold’s violent tendencies—constantly trying to play down his destiny. You are so powerful at this that even though we can see this story (based on a true murder case) turning dark and darker, we still are hoping that tea and sympathy will win out for Harold—which of course it doesn’t. How did you create such a layered portrait of a possibly less layered person?
RG My starting point with Harold was a lack of will. What happens when your will is taken from you, when you become quite suggestible? It’s not that he’s very innocent. I don’t think he’s an innocent person, but I do think he was institutionalized and his will was taken. He had this blood-sugar problem and when the levels went down he would get violent; but he hadn’t really done anything, it was just a behavioral problem. So I imagine from an early age he didn’t have much love or comfort. Nobody would want to hug a child who would head-butt you. His mum threw him out because she couldn’t cope with it. So he’s been in this kid’s prison—not like a home, a prison for bad children.
NB A reform school.
NB What was it like working with Julie Walters in the film?
RG Fan-fucking-tastic. She’s a genius. She’s a very working class girl, and she used to work as a nurse and now owns a hog farm down in the south of England. But anyway, she’s a really lovely lady, deeply, all the way from her toes to her head, and she has a great facility at getting the saucy aspects of people. She’s kind of naughty, so mischievous. At the time of Intimate Relations, I had been doing a lot of work and I was getting a tiny bit cynical as an affectation. I thought the more films you did, the more you had to pretend it was boring. And I kind of started to believe it. But she came along and she was like this gremlin, a little troll living under the bridge. Any cynicism that comes over the bridge, she’ll get it. It’s so infectious. She completely gave me my love for doing stuff back.
NB She gave it back to you?
RG Well, only by example, because she’s no time for any of that cynicism.
NB Would you say she’s your favorite person to work with so far?
RG Yeah. She’s great. She really is, she’s so lovely. That’s my Julie Walters rant.
NB If you were for example—and this is hypothetical, obviously—given you as a character, you the man, not the actor, how would you prepare? What qualities would you consider important to examine under the surface?
RG God knows. I’d look at the environment of myself.
NB Which is?
RG Which is London theatricality. Psychologically I would look into background, and try and determine what he was missing or wasn’t missing.
NB Would you want to play you? Would it be interesting?
RG I don’t know. Everyone is interesting in their own funny way.
NB What I noticed in these three characters, and this really sounds corny, but you seem to love these people. It’s old fashioned, to love your characters; Michael Redgrave, the sort of actors I really love, they loved their characters. Did you ever see The Browning Version?Michael Redgrave plays this really tortured, almost bad person, but you can tell Redgrave loves this man and it is the most bizarre thing to watch because he loves this person who is ruining everything. You also give your characters the benefit of the doubt, and you give them nobility. Is that something that just comes to you?
RG I find it difficult playing a part that I don’t have any empathy with at all.
NB Is there such a part?
RG Well, I played a Nazi in Bent. It was a very, very small part but I researched like fuck, because I couldn’t understand. I couldn’t get my head round what it meant to be a Nazi. Here’s a guy taking Jews and homosexuals in the trains to Dachau, the camps. They were just brutal. How do you get to that place? So I researched, what does Nazism mean to Germany, and what state was Germany in that a leader like that could take them in? Not all Germans were bad, but a collected evil gathered speed. And when I played that character, I realized that for him it was just efficiency, that this was the practical thing to do. And somewhere in my soul I had to find something that could understand that.
NB If you were to play Richard III, which you very well might do in your lifetime, what then? That’s pure evil, from beginning to end. Would that be the ultimate challenge?
RG Certainly, with Richard III, there’s an awful lot more context and more individual motivations and desires. Rather than just here’s a nasty guy who’s killing somebody, whacking them up and beating them. The part’s so damn small in Bent, there’s not much actually in there. Whereas Richard III is very articulate about what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. You’ve got to have a reason to be the character. I like mess. That’s why people become so intellectual, because it’s all a damn mess.
I did a funny thing the other day. I’ve got a friend in England who’s an actor and he bought a new house in the countryside, right on the foot of this steep hill which is made of slate and flint, so the ground is really hard. It’s got this path which is almost vertical coming down and which is covered by trees so there is no moon at night. We went to the top and got absolutely stoned out of our faces—and it’s darn hard getting up there, and if you fall the flints can rip you open—and then he said, “Come on, we’ve got to go back, we’ve got to be really careful.” And I said, “No, let’s just run. Let’s just close our eyes and run down this path as fast as we can. Just trust that we can do it.” He said, “No, no, no,” and I said, “Come on.” We were all right, but it was just this moment of going, “Waaa!” into this sheet, which was quite dangerous. I know it’s quite a mild story really, but I’m not really given to wild things.
NB You’re not?
RG No, normally I’m not. But it’s an interesting thing to me, to just trust it. To just go with the message that if you fall over and you cut your hand you’re not going to die. If you cut your fucking hand, so what? Be brave. It’s like in Mrs. Dalloway — the young clerk who says, “Take the plunge.”
NB Are you brave?
RG I can be, and I can be hugely cowardly. But if I’m deeply pissed off or deeply offended I can be brave.
NB Sometimes it’s the opposite with people. When they’re relaxed they can be brave, and when they’re upset that’s when they find that they’re cowardly.
RG That’s true of me too. Maybe I was being disingenuous there.
NB No, I think you’re better off if you’re brave when you’re angry.
RG Yeah, but now I don’t know if that’s true.
NB It’s complex. But you have some braveness in you.
RG Yeah, some. I break things. I’m a good breaker of things.
NB Do you feel better?
RG No, because I only break my things, which pisses me off. Sometimes, I think I do it because I get tongue tied. When I was a kid I used to have a bad stammer, it’s probably one of the reasons I went into acting, because I had to go to elocution lessons to get over going, “Uh-uh-uh.”
NB And that’s how you got into acting?
RG Do you know an actor called Robert Donat?
NB Oh my God! One of my favorites.
RG What strikes me about him is a kind of grace.
NB The Winslow Boy.
RG Isn’t that the most beautiful portrayal of any character ever?
NB That’s what I was trying to explain to you about the love of the character, and that is the most beautiful…
RG His mood is so moving. You can watch him doing Goodbye, Mr. Chips, The Thirty-Nine Steps… He has such deep grace. Even The Winslow Boy, that is such a hard part. But there’s this absolute nobility, and it’s not to do with class, but with human nobility.
NB It’s so funny that you bring up that actor. As I was watching your movies I was thinking: Robert Donat. That’s my favorite era of films, English films of the ’30s and ’40s, and you hearken back to that.
RG He was my hero. I’ve always thought, if I could tune into that, if I could take whatever that man was taking, I’d be a happy boy.
NB But that’s a different legacy. It’s just a different kind of acting.
RG Yeah, it is. I did a very bad film called Damage, which Louis Malle directed. And Louis Malle, who was a lovely man and has made some great films, was always going on about grace. You know, (imitating a French accent) “Rupert, there is something of a big grace in you, something that is very beautiful.” But at other times he’d say, “You can’t do acting, forget it!” I looked at his old films and you can see that sensibility, that grace, in some of his really early films.
NB Absolutely, he had a wonderful sense of grace.
RG It’s an overworked word now, grace.
NB No, it’s not. It’s an underworked word.
RG Is it? I’ll fight you for it. (laughter)
NB Let’s get back to Robert Donat. It’s very important.
RG It is, because it’s like having a bag full of nudie magazines in England. You can’t refer to him, because it’s old-fashioned.
NB But old-fashioned is where it’s at.
RG But England is very admiring of American, brash acting.
NB If you could play anybody, or a couple of people, who would it be? This is not an acting question. For instance, I asked a jazz musician what he would be, and he said, Abraham Lincoln, Bobby Fischer, the chess player, and Seymour Glass, a Salinger character.
RG I would like to play Caligula, in Camus’ version. Do you know the Camus version?
RG It’s interesting. It’s not a great play, but you can do it if you open it up. You have to really put a bomb under that thing. There’s a lot of existentialist “yadda-yadda-yadda.” It’s about corruption, I suppose, the corruption of a soul.
NB And who else?
RG That’s it. I’d like to play a great sports person. With a kind of absolute grace and ease. (laughter)
NB If you were to come back as an inanimate object, what would you be? You have to say what came to your mind instantly.
RG A stone.
NB A stone? Why a stone?
RG I don’t know, you said whatever came into my head. I don’t know why I said a stone…
NB What does it look like?
RG It’s smooth…
NB What color?
RG I don’t know, do you need me to define it?
RG A large pebble.
NB A large pebble. What color?
RG It’s a bit blondish, kind of ash colored, beech-wood color.
NB And where was it, was it alone?
RG It was on a dusty road. On a road with smaller little pebbles around, but it was…
NB You knew that was you?
NB What about your work in the theater?
RG I’ve never trained at all. I mean, I did things like ‘Tis Pity, She’s a Whore at the National Theatre in The Olivier when I was 21. Which is a fucking hard play to do. It’s a lovely, hard play, but it’s a really tricky one. And I really fucked up on that. I didn’t know about Jacobean drama, I didn’t know how to speak. I don’t know if you’ve been to The Olivier in London, but it’s massive, an open theater in the round. It’s huge, like three thousand people, and I just ran down this corridor onto the stage and thought, “Ahhh…,” and forgot my lines. I wanted to say, “Come back in five years.”
NB And then what happened?
RG I fell over. I started shaking and then fell over. I got the first word, and then I just stood up and shrieked. (shrieking) I did the play like that.
NB But you got through it?
RG I got through it, but…
NB What did your other actors think? Were they mad?
RG They were just like, “Rupert, what are you doing? Hello!!??”
NB Well, there comes the bravery thing again. That was brave at least.
RG No, that was ignorant, that wasn’t brave. Brave is different, brave is trying to push as many different things, take risks, being open.
NB Playing Septimus in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, what was that like?
RG It was great. I read the script and I didn’t know what the hell it was about. Septimus suffers from a lot of abstracted neuroses, and I needed to find out what that was about. I went to speak to a lady at the Hospital for Psychological Disease. She worked with people who were in the Gulf War and had post-traumatic stress. But it didn’t really help, in that I knew you could be brave with shell shock or post-traumatic stress disorders, it’s not an internal thing. PTSD is actually a physical manifestation. So I wasn’t lacking in confidence, but I didn’t understand what the dialogue meant, things like, “The birds, they’re speaking in Greek to me.” So I looked at everything that Virginia Woolf wrote. Her letters, and biography, and I realized that a lot of her personal trauma had been put into her male characters. That kind of threw me a bit, as she’s acknowledged as a feminine, or feminist writer.
NB As a female writer I do it all the time.
RG But interestingly, I do it as a male. When I used to write songs, and I still do write sometimes, I often have a female character, and put my truth into a female. Woolf puts it into male characters. Things that Septimus says connect very directly to things in Woolf’s life. For example, “The birds are speaking Greek to me.” She was abused when she was a girl during Greek lessons. And when she had a breakdown when she was older she used to hear Greek birds talking to her, or birds talking in Greek. Finding out about those pieces of her life gave me the emotional plane to work on. So it didn’t have to just be, you know, jabber.
NB Actors rarely realize that the playwright or the writer is in all of the characters.
RG Yeah, the most honest stuff and her most personal stuff went into her male characters. Because Septimus is the other side of what Mrs. Dalloway would have been if she’d taken the plunge, like what she said she should have done when she was 17…
NB And married Peter? He would have been the brave choice.
RG Yeah. She took the easy route and married Dalloway. And the day in which the story takes place is her looking back, and thinking, “Am I where I had hoped to be when I was seventeen? Was I brave, or did I do the easy thing?”
NB How do you relate to that? In your life?
RG I don’t know, I’ve never had a plan. I mean, I wanted to act and I’ve done that. And I’ve gotten better as I’ve gotten older, so I’m progressing. I don’t feel I’m getting worse. Sometimes I do, sometimes I think my experience has overcome my naiveté and my naiveté is interesting in a certain way. Do you know what I mean?
NB Yes, I do.
RG You want to know what you’re gaining and what you’re losing, don’t you? Every time you take a step somewhere. That’s what I do anyway. Maybe that’s why running down the hill was so important, because normally I’m looking at stuff pretty carefully. And sometimes you just need something like that. And you can do that onstage sometimes, you can just dive—Bang! it might be into a nest of snakes or it might be a lovely work. It’s essential. I did one play which I loved doing. And the reviews came out, and I’d meet people after the play, and it was like the embodiment of everything that I’ve wanted to do with acting. It was really intense. They were going, “That was the most fucking intense thing. I never had that feeling before.” And then the reviews came out saying, “What a crock of shit.” And in one way it seemed like people were saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry about the reviews.” I was saying, “No, honestly, I don’t know what’s happened, but it’s just fantastic. People love it. People fucking love it.” You would go through the bar, and people were actually shaking sometimes, and that was so wild. It was the wildest thing I’d ever seen.
NB Sure, and the opposite happens too.
RG Yeah, absolutely, all the time. Unnervingly often, too often.
Nicole Burdette is a writer and an actress based in New York. This fall her short stories will appear in Jane magazine and the QPB Literary Review; as an actress she appears in the upcoming Digging to China directed by Timothy Hutton.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.