Interview: Paul Rhys
Published in The Stage, 13.12.2012
The Euphorium Bakery on Upper Street is a haven of wholesomeness. Mounds of bread – £4.50 a loaf – sit in the windows. Islington residents stream in, nattering away, and leave with fair trade lattes in hand. A mothers and toddlers group is in session at the back.
In the midst of this warm organic glow, Paul Rhys nurses a very black coffee. No sugar. Despite looking younger his years – he turns 49 next month – his face has a lived-in quality. Preppy in his twenties, chiselled in his thirties, these days Rhys looks drawn without being gaunt. Other faces wrinkle and sag. This one has hardened.
It would be too easy to pin him as the tortured artist type. Certainly, there’s been pain in his life. Before the first in-progress performances of Complicite’s The Master and Margarita last September, Rhys hadn’t been onstage since 2004; an unusually long absence for a former Hamlet. The following year, a combination of grief and illness led to him quitting Howard Brenton’s Paul, which he was due to lead, before rehearsals began.
“I’ve always had a funny relationship with the theatre,” he admits, “I rehearse and rehearse and rehearse – like a maniac, like a soldier preparing for war – not just in the theatre, at home, non-stop, completely obsessive. It’s both brilliant and terrible, going that far. It’s thrilling, but it’s also hell.
“More and more, acting involves a serious chunk of autobiography and often what we’re talking about is trauma. We long for these experiences in the theatre, for someone to be torn apart in front of us. We always have. Theatre’s at it’s best when it has that, but there are consequences to it.”
When Rhys was at RADA, a classmate drew a series of caricatures of his peers. “Everyone else’s was some comic thing. Mine was locked away in the top room of RADA with the clock striking midnight, working away, all dressed in black and smoking.”
Halfway through his time there, Rhys was taken aside by the then principal Hugh Cruttwell. “He said, ‘I’ve only said this to about four or five people before, but you will always need to be very careful about what you give as an actor. There’s a slightly unbounded quality about you. You need to always protect yourself.’ I’ve possibly not always protected myself and I’ve learnt the hard way.”
Rhys is open about his perfectionist tendencies. “I didn’t know what he was talking about,” he says of Cruttwell’s advice, “because all that’s ever gone on in my head is, ‘It’s not enough. Come on. You’ve got to go further. It’s not truthful enough. There’s more, there’s more.”
Yet in working with Simon McBurney – The Master and Margarita being their third collaboration after Measure for Measure and a John Berger reading – he’s not only been able to get back onstage, but to rediscover his love of theatre as a form.“I admire him more than anybody. He holds my temperament very well. Go into that territory alone – digging deep into your trauma – and it’s awful, but with Simon, I always feel very supported. He’s got genuine compassion, so I can bleed a bit, but not completely exhaust myself.”
Initially, Rhys thought he’d only have one role in the production, The Master, who, he says casually, “plays with the essence of pain and human sacrifice and loss.” Yet, early on he was asked to read Woland, the devil’s earthly persona who arrives in Moscow. “Suddenly it became clear there was no way out. Simon didn’t say at the time because he knew I’d probably have said no.”
Doubling up has, however, come easy for an actor who believes that there are “at least two distinct persons in the personality.” Certainly, Rhys’s credits point to his-own personality split. Recent screen roles include a fearsome vampire in BBC3’s Being Human and a washed-up spy in Robin Holder’s film Eliminate Archer Cookson. “I seem to go from translucent sensitivity to demonic power overnight. I probably find the middle-ground more challenging.”
His Woland is an extraordinary creation; serpentine yet dignified, simultaneously droll and dreadful. The devil, as it were, is in the detail. “If you look at Woland in the book,” Rhys explains, “I copy it to the absolute letter. He’s the most minutely described creature in the thing. When I walk onstage as Woland, I know it’s absolutely what Bulgakov wanted. Everything’s there: his voice, his clothes, his gold and silver teeth.”
However, Rhys’s eagle-eyed faithfulness hasn’t stopped invention: “Every single icon I’ve ever been attracted to came out in Woland. Movie stars from way gone. Pop stars. Artists. Bowie. Freud. Dietrich. A brilliant German actor called Conrad Veidt. All wrapped in that feeling of a Weimar Republic performer-personality.”
Currently, in re-rehearsals, Rhys is struggling to re-find the accent, a distorted German, to go with that. Nonetheless, he’s adamanant that the forthcoming Barbican run is no mere revival. For starters, there’s a new Margarita in tow: Susan Lynch replacing Sinead Matthews. “It’s certainly not about rehashing it. Simon would lose everything and start the whole thing again.”
That explains why, despite past form, he’s stuck with the show over a year that’s taken Complicite all over the world. “I’ve never stayed with things,” he says, “That’s changing as I get older. A year on, you’re slightly different in yourself. Life’s slightly different.
“Besides with a massive, imponderable work like this, you can only ever get near it and challenges like that restore your confidence. I feel more ready for theatre than ever.”
Perhaps it’s taken the devil to rid Rhys of some of his demons.
Photograph: Hugo Glendinning