Welsh actor Matthew Rhys found fame as Sally Field’s gay son on long-running Brothers & Sisters (the wine was real!) and credits her as his mentor. He also directed a handful of episodes of the show, and therein lies a story of unequivocal lobbying to score such a coveted gig. His latest movie is an elegant remake of Alec Guinness’s The Scapegoat, just out on DVD on Eagle Entertainment. He talks about all this with IAN HORNER.
HIS accent is still a surprise. He played an American on Brothers & Sisters and completely hid his natural Welsh speaking voice but it’s in full force on the phone now. ‘‘Love your accent,’’ I couldn’t help myself. ‘‘I interviewed Rachel Griffiths recently and she said you were an absolute master of accents; very clever with them and funny."
"Ah, God bless her. She and I were non-Americans on the show and we found solace in each other. The problem was when we spoke to each other in our respective accents no one could understand either of us!" More on Griffiths later.
In The Scapegoat, based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel, Matthew plays two roles — the no-good heir of a troubled estate who’s about to walk out on everyone and his look-alike, a more principled stranger who’s set to take his place and oversee the dynasty’s salvation.
The opening sequences of The Scapegoat were superb technically, with you acting opposite yourself. How on earth did you do that?
"Well, I’ve spent my whole life talking to myself so there was an element that was familiar! You do one of two things. There’s another actor who does all your lines and you try to teach him your performance for the two-shots, over the back of his head or his arm or whatever, and then in the wider shots you’re basically talking to a stand with a little ping-pong ball on it so the eyeline is right. Because of the set-up you’re changing costumes and your hair, you do your bit, then you change costume again, you do another little bit then change costumes again, so your head’s spinning by the end of it."
It was amazing to see you cross over in front of yourself in front of a mirror!
"Yeah, it’s amazing what they can do these days."
(View stills from these special-effects sequences, with Matthew playing opposite himself, above.)
Du Maurier seems to have a thing for menacing housekeepers — such as Mrs Danvers in Rebecca — a trademark perhaps. How do you think she did as a woman writing lead male roles, which is a bit of a switch.
"It is. Incredibly well, I think. All great authors seem to have a firm grip on human nature and if you have that then you can apply it to either sex. But she writes very well for men. It came very naturally. She was heavily influenced by men and especially with her father she saw the extremities of the male ego and she used that."
Watch the trailer for The Scapegoat (duration 1.02):
Director Charles Sturridge has come up with a beautiful adaptation of the book and the changes from the original seem pretty inspired. Were you a bit intimidated walking where Alec Guinness had walked in the first movie version?
"Yeah, that was always pointed out when I did the British press. They’d say with great aplomb that I’d be following in the footsteps of Alec Guinness. That’s a statement no actor wishes to be written about themselves. And, stupidly, I went as far as watching the trailer for the Alec Guinness version and then I turned it off. I thought, shit, I shouldn’t – I know what I’m like, as Rachel Griffiths pointed out, I have a terrible habit of mynah-birding people so I thought I’d better turn it off or otherwise I was just going to pretend to be Alec Guinness!"
One of the interesting themes in the story is the question of whom you might have been if life had taken a different turn. And the fact that another man’s life is not always as green as it seems, to mix a metaphor. Where would you have ended up if you hadn’t become an actor?
"I do think about that but I’ve absolutely no idea because I spend my life pretending to be other people as it is – it’s an odd one. I genuinely don’t know. I’m incredibly happy that, thus far anyway, knock on wood, things have been all right."
There’s a particularly perceptive line in The Scapegoat. You say: “I don’t think we know what we’re capable of until we’re given the opportunity.’’ You got the opportunity to direct four episodes of Brothers & Sisters. How did you get that gig? Did you have to lobby?
"Oh, yes. I had to sleep with a number of people! Actually, I annoyed a number of people until they felt pity on me and went ‘All right, shut up!’ It was always something I’d wanted to do. And I thought more than anything that moment for me would be the smoothest transition for me to step into that role. I’d known the crew for three years, I’d known the part for three years, I’d known the writers’ work, I thought the step would be as comfortable as it could ever be. So they put me on probation for a year and I had to sit in on editors’ and directors’ meetings and I had to prepare phantom scripts and all the rest of it until eventually they gave me one. And then I lobbied in the same way for another. And another."
What was the most difficult part? And where were the surprises?
"Alfred Hitchcock put it perfectly when he said directing is like being hacked to death by a thousand starlings. You don’t realise until you’re on the studio floor that everyone wants your opinion or your approval or your answer. So you’re overwhelmed with the volume of questions and how rapidly they come. You’re just winging it on your feet, basically."
Stepping back to 2001 for a moment, to the wonderful Very Annie Mary which you made in Wales with Rachel Griffiths and your flatmate at the time, another Welsh actor, Ioan Gruffudd [say "Yo-an Griffith"], star of the Hornblower series. Ioan told me the story about how you guys developed your own jokey camp schtick at home and brought it into the studio and turned it into these hilarious gay characters.
"Yeah, that was another serendipitous moment, where someone you lived with for so long, you used to chow and chew together, and we did have all this schtick and then suddenly someone goes ‘Listen, why don’t you play boyfriend and boyfriend and use that schtick!’ It’s rare such an opportunity is presented."
Watch Matthew and Ioan do their camp version of Annie Get Your Gun, accompanied by Rachel, in Very Annie Mary (duration 0.31):
Did it lead in some way to working with Rachel on Brothers & Sisters? Did they ask her "Who could play your gay brother?”
"You know what?! That had never, ever occurred to me until now. That she was asked and then suggested me. I’ll have to give her a call now. It genuinely never occurred to me, I swear. Yeah, I’ll drop her an email. If she did I owe her my bloody heart and soul! Bless her."
You’ve said Sally Field was your mentor.
"Aye, she was! And in a number of ways. She kind of taught me the level of professionalism at which you have to work. For a long time I was a wry kid with a slight air of suggesting, oh, the planets have to align for performances to really work. And she says No! You have to force the hand, you have to be so prepared, you have to be so focused and regardless of what else is happening you have to turn up on the day and do it! You can’t just say oh well, I’m feeling a bit sick today so I can’t do it, you have to do it! Her level of professionalism I’ve never seen equalled or rivalled. She set the standard on set, how the set would be run, what was expected of the actors. She was an absolute all-rounder."
You both made a hard-hitting video against anti-gay bullying. And you and your screen partner Luke McFarlane playing a normal gay couple on a hit prime-time show seen around the world must have thrust you into the gay rights movement a bit.
"It did. The reaction of the gay community was great. The same words were raised time and time again, that they were grateful for a mature, even-handed gay relationship on network television which was for once seen as a normal relationship."
Indeed. It came at a time when my partner and I had only just come out to our families and we took the show to heart because it modelled what normal could be. We’ll be forever grateful the show didn’t present marginalised stereotypes.
"Oh, thank you. And that’s appreciated. And that was a real vision of the creator, Jon Robin Baitz, that there was never to be a coming-out story. My character, Kevin, was never to be defined by the fact he was gay or by his sexuality, because it was just one part of his many characteristics, you know?"
Watch Matthew and Sally Field, Luke McFarlane, Ron Rifkin and Brothers & Sisters crew campaign against gay bullying (duration 6.53):
I bet you’ve never had the chance to drink so much wine on camera — and regretted the fact it was all fake!
"Look to be honest, it was, er, swings and roundabouts as to how much was real! They would indulge us up to a point and then if we fell apart there’d be a quick reprimand and then we’d go back to the grape juice for a while. We’d prove to them how passionate we were and then, you know, someone would inevitably — usually Ron Rifkin, who played Uncle Saul — would bring in some incredibly good wine!"
Is that right?!
"[Laughs] Oh, yes. He’s a real connoisseur of his grapes. Oh, bless him, and very generous. He was always the one supplying the wine . . . and very good bottles they were!" ❏
Hear Ian Horner interview Matthew Rhys (duration 6.06):
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