World Without End – Rupert Evans interview (exclusive)
Interview by Rob Carnevale
RUPERT Evans talks about playing narcissistic monk Godwyn in World Without End and working with Cynthia Nixon on the historical mini-series.
He also reflects on his own career to date, including working on Hellboy with John Hurt and spending time with Derek Jacobi. He also recalls an early experience with a lion that almost cost him dear, an embarrassing but ultimately triumphant night with the RSC and why he’ll be playing Ian Fleming’s brother, Peter, next.
Q. Did you enjoy working on World Without End?
Rupert Evans: I loved it. It was great. We spent seven months in Budapest, Hungary, and I think it was one of the happiest jobs I’ve ever done because the people were so lovely and the characters we were playing were so varied. They all went on such great journeys and had such great arcs. It’s set over a 30 to 35 year period, which is great because it meant we had real scope to take them on a journey.
Q. Godwyn is a narcissist, isn’t he? Was that part of the appeal of playing him?
Rupert Evans: I always find baddies interesting because I often think they don’t see themselves as bad. So, it’s interesting from my point of view to try and work out what makes them tick. He’s a fundamentalist Christian and he has strong, rigid beliefs. But he also fights himself a lot of the time. He has desires and ambitions that are often very much against what he feels he should believe, so that’s a fascinating dynamic to play with. He’s a bit of a psycho at times too.
Q. Is he one of the most complex characters you’ve played?
Rupert Evans: Definitely. One has to be careful not to just make him bad for the sake of it. I wanted to give him a certain amount of plausibility. So, that was a challenge… to make him two dimensional.
Q. Did you do a lot of research into the historical period?
Rupert Evans: I did a fair amount about the church because I was trying to get my head around what significance the church had in those days. And in those days God and the church was very much at the centre of everyone’s lives. It was an incredibly powerful force for good and evil for everyone. And if someone said you are going to hell, you really did believe it, especially if it was a man of the cloth saying it. So, I looked into those kinds of things – the importance of the church and people’s lives in general. I tried to gauge how medieval lives worked and how society operated… the importance of trade and that kind of thing. We also talked a lot about it before we started shooting to get an understanding of what we were trying to recreate.
Q. Was there anything you discovered that surprised you?
Rupert Evans: I suppose what surprised me was that a lot of the stories deal with the type of problems we all deal with. The drama, or what makes a good story, is the same now as it was then. It’s all about survival. I mean, it’s not the same in terms of technology and things like that. But we’re all still looking for happiness, and striving for something better for our families and our children and all that stuff – and it was the same then as it is now. So, I guess I was surprised at the lack of change really.
Q. And, of course, there are still oppressive regimes that people are fighting. One only has to look at the Arab Spring…
Rupert Evans: Absolutely. History does have a tendency to repeat itself and nothing really changes. That’s why these kinds of shows are so popular. We watch them because they offer a good reflection of our society and our lives in so many ways.
Q. How was working with Cynthia Nixon, who plays your mum?
Rupert Evans: I was really nervous to start with if I’m honest. I’d not met her before, so all I’d seen of her was Sex & The City. But I actually looked her up on the Internet and saw that she’d done a lot of theatre and I could tell from how she talked in interviews that she was really passionate about it. So, that calmed me a lot. And when we did meet we talked a great deal about theatre. In fact, I went and saw her in New York after we finished filming in a play she did. We both have a real love of theatre…
Q. Is that something actors do a lot when preparing for roles, Google each other?
Rupert Evans: Yeah, I guess so [laughs]. I don’t do it too often. But I had so much to do with Cynthia, so I wanted to know what films and theatre she’d done.
Q. I read that you’re quite accident-prone, including having an experience with a lion as a teenager. Did you get into any scrapes on the set of World Without End?
Rupert Evans: I used to be accident-prone yes, but that was way before World Without End. I used to be hyper-active when I was young, which was the bottom line, and I got myself into real scrapes… less so now! But I’m always slightly nervous on jobs now and there were lots of horses running around on that set. But luckily, I sort of kept myself out of trouble.
Q. And how did you come to have a close encounter with a lion, if you don’t mind my asking?
Rupert Evans: Sure, it’s nothing to do with work. But I was in Zimbabwe on a cricket tour when I was 14 because I played a lot of cricket when I was younger. While there, I was at a nature reserve and I stroked a lion, stupidly thinking I was at one with nature, and this thing took a dislike to me and went to grab me, and I jumped back and as it went to grab me with its paw, it kind of nipped my leg and blood went everywhere. I stupidly started to run away and it got up and ran after me. I just got to the door in time. I remember hearing a big thud against the door as I got there and it was closed just in time!
Q. You’ve recently completed The Village for the BBC. That sound intriguing…
Rupert Evans: Yes, The Village is great. We were filming up in Derbyshire and I’m starring alongside another formidable woman, Juliet Stevenson. She plays my mum in that. It’s set during World War One and it’s a really interesting look at how war effects people back home… how it affects village life rather than focusing on the boys on the frontline. It examines how people in the village survived.
Q. And who do you play?
Rupert Evans: I play the local MP who is very forward thinking and quite an entrepreneur. His career helps to sustain his family status. So, I live with the posh family up the road. But the series also stars Maxine Peake and John Simm and all of our storylines cross over. I guess you could say that I’m also quite a conniving MP!
Q. Did you look into the politics of the time as part of your research for that?
Rupert Evans: Yeah, I looked into a lot of things like that. Peter Moffat, of Silk fame, is such a great writer. He never actually says what the name of the village is and he never actually states what party my character belongs to. But I think it’s pretty clear he’s Conservative. So, I was interested about how politics were run in those days. My character goes to London a lot and comes back… so there’s a lot about the building of memorials and all that malarkey. And I realised there was a much bigger, sort of propaganda-esque way that politics were done in those days, where the idea was to get everyone’s backing and to get everyone involved on a local level. I’ve never done that period before. I’ve done pretty much everything else [laughs]. So, it was really nice to do that period. And everyone dresses so well. I love the costumes – the men’s suits were great in that period.
Q. How was working with Antonia Bird?
Rupert Evans: She’s a great lady. She really cast the whole thing and it’s her baby. And she’s done an incredible job. She actually has very little time but I think she’s done a really great job with the look of it. She’s very imaginative and she allows her actors to play and discover new things within each scene.
Q. You’ve mentioned your love of theatre. Is that something you’ll continue to divide your time between?
Rupert Evans: I’d love to do a play a year, if I’m honest, but it depends what comes up. But I do love theatre and it’s very different from TV and film, not better or worse. I did a Dominic Savage play last year, which was a new play and I loved the challenge of doing that. And I might do another play later this year. So, who knows what might happen.
Q. You’ve also done film, including Hellboy. What was the experience of that like?
Rupert Evans: Hellboy was extraordinary. It was like an amazing dream really… an extraordinary time in my life. We lived in Prague for seven months and I got to work with Guillermo Del Toro, who is an extraordinary man. He has such a wonderful imagination and a truly great vision, so to be able to get a first-hand look at his work in action – it was one of the highlights of my career because it was great to be around such a genius. But the whole set was exciting to be around because I had such great co-stars too. John Hurt and Ron Perlman are brilliant at their craft. So, it was a really exciting time to look back on and remember.
Q. How much do you take away from sharing a scene with someone like John Hurt?
Rupert Evans: Oh, a huge amount. Actors of that ilk… there’s not a huge amount of them left. He’s an established age now, so he comes with a wisdom and a sense of relaxation and trust about himself and what he does, which for me really helps. He helped to demystify acting in a lot of ways because it can get a bit in your head. But he was a real teacher and a father figure to me and continues to be so. He’s been very instrumental in my life after Hellboy as well. He’s always very helpful and very kind. And his wife, Anwen, is equally kind. They got together during Hellboy, so that whole experience holds some really special memories for me.
Q. And you’ve also worked with Derek Jacobi, so how much of an influence has he been on you?
Rupert Evans: I’ve actually worked with him twice and he’s also been an incredible influence. We did a movie… I’ve actually done quite a few independent movies that people have never seen. But I love doing them because it’s always more interesting and exciting – there’s a real sense of freedom because there’s no studio hanging over you. It’s almost like shooting movies in a guerrilla-esque fashion. It’s long hours and you’re working intensely but invariably you’re collaborating with the director and everyone has a real passion for the project. So, with Derek Jacobi, we did a film called Guantanamera. It was a Spanish film and we shot in Spain and in Cuba and we spent a month together in Spain. So, Derek and I would have supper every night and I would listen to the extraordinary stories he had. He has an amazing expanse of stories about The National and working with Laurence Olivier. He’s also a huge theatre man, of course, so it was lovely to get to know him. And he’s an incredible man. In fact, I saw his King Lear not long ago and I saw him at Chichester last year. I try and catch all of his theatre… John Hurt’s too.
Q. You’ve mentioned hearing great stories but do you have some of your own to tell? I mean, is there a particularly fond memory of a time on-set or on stage that you’d care to pick out and share?
Rupert Evans: Oh my God! That’s a tough one… wow! My mind always goes a blank when I get asked something like that. I remember very clearly doing Romeo and Juliet with the Royal Shakespeare Company and I was driving to the theatre in my car for the evening performance but got stuck in a jam and was running late. So, literally the whole audience had to wait for me to arrive. And I’ve never seen my producer look more angry – he had a look of thunder at the stage door [laughs]. I had to park illegally outside the RSC and I literally had three minutes. I remember running in and literally undressing down the corridor in order to put my costume on. It was a terrifying moment because there were 2,000 people waiting for me. So, I’ll always remember that… walking on stage having literally just got out of the car and starting the play and thinking ‘oh my God’. But it turned out to be one of the best evenings because it went brilliantly after that… having managed to get there in time I was in a jubilant state, so I think it was the best show of the run [laughs].
Q. Actors often say that they enjoy that sense of fear and stepping outside of their comfort zone. Is that what you look for when choosing roles?
Rupert Evans: Definitely! To be honest, unless a character has an arc or really has a journey, I’ll pass. I’ve been very lucky with the great plays that I’ve done, whether it’s King John or Kiss Of The Spider-woman, to play characters who have had such amazing and extraordinary things happen to them. So, particularly in theatre I’ve had the chance to play some really challenging characters that do really extend your range and push you as an actor. But similarly with film, which is why I enjoy working in independent cinema when the chance comes along. I did a film called Asylum Blackout last year, which was really good fun. It was set in the ‘80s and was about an American chef in an asylum for the criminally insane. It was made by a director named Alexandre Courtès and it was really interesting and really challenging. And it looks great. It’s a horror film. I guess you could say I enjoy picking the odd [laughs].
Q. Is directing something you might like to try at some stage?
Rupert Evans: Funnily enough, it’s something that I am thinking about and I’m probably going to try and do a short [film] in the next year or two. I don’t know how good I’ll be but I love working with other actors, so maybe in the future I’ll dip my toe in and see if it’s something I enjoy or get frustrated with. I am writing the short with a friend now.
Q. What’s next for you in terms of acting?
Rupert Evans: In fact, I’m off to Budapest again to do Ian Fleming for Sky Atlantic with Dominic Cooper.
Q. Isn’t that going to be quite dark?
Rupert Evans: It’s more the experiences of his life which led him to write the Bond books. It’s a really good writing and it’s got great, great characters. I play Peter Fleming, who is Ian’s brother, and who was a famous travel writer at the time. He was actually more famous than Ian during the 1930s and ‘40s because he was also married to Celia Johnson at the time. She won two BAFTAs and was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Brief Encounter. So, he was something of a celebrity travel writer and wrote numerous books. He was one of the first travel writers to go to Brazil. He’s kind of gone into the background now but at the time he was probably more famous than his brother.
Q. He must have been fun to research as well? Did you talk to anyone?
Rupert Evans: Well, it’s only just happened. I’m in the middle of it right now. So, I’ve bought his biography and I’ve bought a couple of the books he actually wrote himself. It always starts with books…
World Without End is on Channel 4 on Saturday nights at 9pm. The Village is coming to the BBC later this year. Fleming is due to air on Sky Atlantic later this year.
Editor’s note: Middle photo of Rupert Evans kindly supplied by Andrea Vecchiato.