I arrive early for my meeting with Rhys Ifans and catch the tail end of a photo shoot. He is all dressed up in a pinstriped suit, open-necked shirt and shiny white winkle-picker boots, but he pulls it off somehow. In fact, he looks a bit like a Brit-rock star from the pre-punk Seventies: laddish, louche, larger than life, disheveled, in all the classy clobber.
In the pub later, dressed down in a leather jacket, jeans and sneakers, Ifans orders the first of several pints of Old Speckled Hen, and immediately nips out into the backyard for a smoke. When he returns, I tell him he seems to belong to another era, when actors worked hard and played harder, and didn't worry about the consequences. "I suppose I do," he grins, glugging on his pint. "I'm definitely pre-gym."
Ifans is perhaps the most rock 'n' roll actor working in Britain today, which isn't saying much, but it's a role he plays with relish. He's good mates with Noel and Liam Gallagher, a friend of Keith Richards' son Marlon and a close confidante of Kate Moss, who, if the tabloids and celeb mags are to be believed, is a bit miffed about his latest squeeze, the reigning femme fatale of London's posh Primrose Hill, Sienna Miller.
PHOTO: AFP AND NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE
In person, Ifans has a certain swagger about him and, blessedly, none of the inflated sense of self-importance that usually attends those in his profession. Instead, he comes across as a bit of a character, laddish but not in an offensive way, altogether Welsh but not a professional Celt. He likes a pint or 10 and is utterly unrepentant about it - an attitude that, much to his chagrin, means he is almost as famous for his partying as his acting.
"I work hard and I party hard," he says at one point. "When I go to work, I know what I am doing and I do it to the best of my abilities. When I party, I take exactly the same rule book with me. Except I might turn up later and outstay my welcome. I really don't know why that interests anybody," he sighs, shaking his head, "given that most of the population behaves in exactly the same way."
Most of the population, though, is not going out with Sienna Miller. Although Ifans has always been linked to the "Primrose Hill set" (Sadie Frost, Moss, Davina Taylor) and is close friends with Daniel Craig and Jude Law, it is only since the news of his and Sienna's "relationship" broke in a series of snatched tabloid shots that Ifans has been pitched into celebrity hell, pursued by paparazzi every time he steps out the door. You can tell how difficult he finds it all by that now-infamous series of snapshots of him gobbing at photographers from the back of a car. Jude Law he most definitely isn't.
Today he is affable, but adamant that his personal life is out of bounds. He wants to talk work, and work only. In his latest role, as Colin, a wet-behind-the-ears social worker in Chromophobia, Martha Fiennes' overblown and oddly muddled meditation on the English class system, Ifans almost steals the show. It's not quite as dramatic a turn as either of his other two big scene-stealing parts, Spike in Notting Hill and Jed in Enduring Love, but it's pretty damn close. The film begins as a black comedy of manners, flirts with being a satire and ends up as a kind of blighted fairy tale. It's down to Ifans and Penelope Cruz to carry the latter strand, he as a bumbling, uncertain ingenue with a heart of gold, she as a terminally ill - but smoulderingly sexy - call girl, all curves, smudged mascara and laddered fishnets.
He seems to have cornered the market in damaged souls. I put it to him that Colin could easily be Jed from Enduring Love before he totally lost the plot, turned gay and became a stalker. "Interesting, that," he says, nodding. "I hadn't thought of it like that, but now you mention it ... I don't think Colin is that damaged, though. He's vulnerable. There's a tension between the two of them that is interesting, almost erotic. I thought it was a brave thing to explore. There's a lot suggested rather than spelled out in their relationship. If it works, that's why it works, that restraint. I mean, if Hollywood had got hold of it, you'd have needed popcorn and a bucket to get through it."
There's something immensely likable, even charismatic, about Ifans. It's the rock 'n' roll thing, I guess, the same kind of energy you feel from the likes of Bobby Gillespie or Liam Gallagher. It's there on screen, too, this mix of swagger and sensitivity. He's a bit of a lad, for sure, but he takes his work incredibly seriously and doesn't bore you with the usual luvvie nonsense about acting as high art.
"I'm a factory-floor actor," he says. "I learn the lines, I get there on time. I don't sit around with other actors and talk about the pain and the magic of acting. I'd rather just go down the pub. That's where the real magic happens. That's often where the ideas take flight. Very underrated, the pub, in terms of the history of creativity." He cackles, drains his third pint, and holds up an empty glass. "Same again, brother."
Ifans was born in Ruthin and raised in Wrexham, Wales. Both his parents were teachers and he grew up speaking Welsh as his first language. "We lived near the border with England," he says, "where the choice was stark. You could either succumb to the encroachment or dig your heels in and resist. I dug my heels in, but I always had my eye on the horizon. There was a definite tension, a sense of being pulled in two directions and a sense of being an outsider. Speaking Welsh and all that. Even as a young boy I felt it, but it has served me in my work. I've drawn on it and used it, in a way."
Although there is no history of performing in his family, he won a scholarship to Guildhall School of Music & Drama, having served an apprenticeship of sorts as a handyman at Theatr Clwyd. After graduating in 1997, he landed a part alongside his brother Llyr in Kevin Allen's Twin Town, a low-budget attempt to make the Welsh equivalent of Trainspotting. His big break came in 1999 when he was cast as Hugh Grant's irredeemably oafish roommate Spike, whose grubby Y-fronts were one of the only elements of realism in Roger Michell's otherwise anemic Notting Hill.
"With me, there's two kinds of roles," he says now of the character that propelled him into the mainstream, but also defined him for a time in the eyes of the public as a kind of crude comic stereotype. "There's the ones where you draw on some vulnerability in yourself or detect some vulnerability in the character that you recognize and can work with. Then there's the ones that are pure craft, where you think: I have the tools to do this. Spike was definitely the latter. All craft. It wasn't a role that I was going to imbue with any sense of poetry."
Since then, he has been busy appearing, with varying degrees of success, in films as diverse as Little Nicky, directed by Steven Brill, The Shipping News (Lasse Hallstrom) and Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (Shane Meadows). He is most proud of his bravura performance as Peter Cook in Channel 4 television's biopic of the great comedian, Not Only But Always, which earned him a British Academy of Film and Television Arts nomination for best actor in 2005.
Ifans stole the show again in Roger Michell's adaptation of Ian McEwan's Enduring Love, the other role for which he is most remembered. He played Jed, an almost likeable stalker, who fixates on Daniel Craig's character after they both witness a fatal accident involving an out-of-control hot-air balloon, the trauma of which neither of them can process. Again, the film was uneven, but Ifans excelled. I ask him if Jed was based on pure craft or if he drew on something deeper and more personal.
"Well, a bit of both, really. The first thing I knew when I read the script was that I didn't want to play him as just a weird stalker. I had to find another level, and I couldn't find it in the novel. I had to take that character by the scruff of the neck and make him something else entirely. A girl. A lovesick adolescent girl. The blinking eyes, the playing with the hair - it's childlike, really. But I also wanted him to be someone religious and very likable. Someone you'd meet in church."
There's an incredible amount of thought and preparation that goes into these parts, then, despite his insistence that he is a factory-floor actor. "There is, there is," he muses. "Maybe too much. I sometimes think maybe I shouldn't go so deep given the size of the parts."
This is one of the odd things about Ifans's career trajectory: he has yet to land a big lead role. Apart from his tour de force as Cook, his reputation rests on strong supporting roles, and ones in which he often upstages the lead actors. I wondered out loud if this was to do with the lack of great roles generated by the UK film industry, or with him. Maybe he's too rough for an era that prefers bland good looks. Or could it be that he is not ambitious enough?
"Maybe that's the case," he says, nonplussed. "I mean, with British films, when they're good, they're great; when they're not, they're absolute shite. But I don't get a rash thinking about wanting to be a big Hollywood star. Hand on heart. I'm 40 and I'm in a really good place right now in my head. I definitely want to do more, but I'm satisfied. Basically, acting is important to me, but fame isn't. Simple."
The interview is proceeding in fine style until I mention the C word followed by the S word, and it all goes awry. "I don't do celebrity," he says, fixing me with a baleful look and simultaneously lurching about on his seat. "And I am not talking about my private life, even to you, mate." The word "Sienna" is so out of bounds, in fact, that it never passes his lips in the entire interview. In truth, his private life is of no interest to me, but I am interested in the way in which a down-to-earth lad like Ifans negotiates the moronic inferno that is contemporary celebrity. How, in short, does a matter- of-fact chap like himself cope with the intrusion that must now shape his life?
"Well, when you're being pursued like that, it's just a fucking great pain in the arse," he says finally. "But you know, that's all it is, a giant pain in the arse. It's like having wasps in your crash helmet. You just have to open the visor and spit them out. That's it, really."
Does he accept it as part of the contract of being a famous actor? He lurches about on his seat some more and starts furiously twisting the broad silver bracelet round his wrist. "Well, for a start, that's not why they're doing it. It's not about my work, is it? It's a part of Western culture right now, and not a very healthy part, whatever way you look at it. But you know what? There's a war on. And there's kids getting shot on the streets. I mean, who the hell cares about me? It's just all wrong somehow."
This is undoubtedly true, but the attention must have got worse lately, I persist, chancing my arm, what with all these reports that he and Sienna are about to get hitched. "Yeah, and they found Elvis on the moon, mate," he says, leaning across the table and lighting another cigarette from the candle that flickers between us. "I came here to talk about my work. My personal life is invented for me, so why bother? Keep the fuckers guessing, that's what I say."
He stands up and walks outside into the yard, where he stands for a few minutes, puffing away, obviously a bit put out, while I sit inside feeling like a showbiz hack. He returns finally and sits down again. "I've broken me fucking bracelet," he says accusingly, holding up two strands of silver. Feeling like a hack, I turn the talk to rock 'n' roll.
Ten years ago, before he started acting in earnest, Ifans was lead singer in a Welsh rock group called the Super Furry Animals. The group has gone on to considerable fame and fortune in the interim. Now Ifans has formed another group, the Perth (Welsh for "the Thing"), with his old mate Dafydd, "the Furries" drummer. Their first album is done and dusted, due for release next spring.
"Don't worry," he says, anticipating my next question, "I ain't no Jimmy Nail. We had loads of overtures from big record companies wanting to push the actor stuff and we told them to stick it where it corporately hurts. This is a labor of love. We've worked on the songs for a year. Hopefully it will speak for itself. If not, so be it. I gave it my best shot."
Does the rock 'n' roll route offer him something he doesn't find in his acting career, though? A pause. "Well, that's an interesting one, that is. See, one of the things I felt in the past, as an actor was that I was performing in front of an audience I didn't really know. Maybe it's that outsider thing again, but I definitely felt that keenly at one time, that sense that I didn't really belong. Or that I was going to be tapped on the shoulder and found out."
Has that fear held him back? "Sometimes, yes, but it has also allowed me to soar like a bird. Every great decision I have taken in acting has come from fear of one sort or another. Fear and risk. With rock 'n' roll, it's simpler. Just in terms of its brief as entertainment. Rock 'n' roll is there to make you fucking rock 'n' roll. Think whatever you want, but not during." He laughs and punches the air. "Some rock stars go to rehab," he says, still cackling. "I became an actor for 10 years."
Then, just before he departs, he tells me about finally getting to meet his hero, Keith Richards, and how his mates went mental when he told them, and how he was "shy as fuck" when confronted by the greatest rock 'n' roll survivor of all. "I went round Keef's house with Marlon," he says, visibly excited at the memory. "And there he was. Watching Wimbledon. With his brain surgeon."
We both crack up. What did they talk about? "Tennis, mainly," he answers, looking slightly deflated. "The thing is, I could hardly speak at all. No actor could render me speechless like that. I mean, it was like a papal audience for me, if you get my drift?" I do. I do. So what is it about Keef that is so awe-inspiring? "The honesty, brother. And the fact that's he's still doing it. He's a total inspiration. I just kept looking at him and thinking, 'fuck it, if he's still alive, I'm going to keep on partying.'"
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