Nicely done, Rhys
Rhys Ifans goes for broke as Howard Marks in ‘MrNice’, his first major lead role, writes Susan Daly
By the time you read this article, Rhys Ifans will be back at work. Head down, hard graft, all the stuff expected of an actor in the middle of an expensive TV movie production. For the past six weeks or so, he has been playing James Hook in Neverland, a Peter Pan prequel being filmed around Dublin and Wicklow.
When we meet, he is in the middle of a one-week holiday. Ostensibly, it's a week in which he is working to promote his new release in the cinema, Mr Nice, the biopic of Welsh drug smuggler Howard Marks and Ifans plays Marks. Although the actor is hugely memorable from supporting roles such as Spike, Hugh Grant's outrageous flatmate in Notting Hill, it is his first time to lead a major movie. A more ambitious actor might be jumping up and down on chat-show couches to capitalise on their first real lead role at the age of 43.
Ifans is certainly doing the rounds: the night before we meet, he is on the red carpet with Marks for the Dublin premiere of Mr Nice. The pair, who are firm friends, will appear again the following night on the Late Late Show, where Ifans will appear somewhat distracted and take particular interest in Ryan Tubridy's "dainty little foot".
I get Ifans on his own earlier that morning in the Octagon Bar in The Clarence hotel. It is just after 11.30am and he's nursing a pint of Guinness. He wanted to have the interview in his bedroom so that he could smoke, but he has friends still up there relaxing.
"We had a party up there," he says. "While I've been working, I've worked very hard. But I've kind of got a week off to celebrate Mr Nice."
There is also a bright and airy interview suite going to waste somewhere above our heads, but the dark, wood-panelled bar suits him. It's a bit rock'n'roll, sitting in the bowels of a U2-owned hotel, and it must feel appropriate to Ifans, who was the singer with the Super Furry Animals in the Welsh rockers' early days and now fronts his own band Y Peth.
"Funny enough, I was saying to Howard, I don't know about the U2 thing, but it feels like a court," says Ifans, gesturing about him. It must have given Marks, who served seven years in jail for drugs trafficking, flashbacks, I say. "Yeah," smiles Ifans.
I joke that Ifans has presumably never seen the inside of a courtroom himself apart from acting situations. The smile disappears, Ifans looks sideways and his London publicist begins to lean in from the bar stool on which she has parked herself directly behind us. "That's a good opener," says Ifans, deadpan. Time to move on.
It doesn't take long to figure out what Ifans likes talking about. The good times he's had in Ireland. His Welshness. His affection for Marks. I already know what he doesn't like to talk about: his people issued two directives by email prior to the interview. Sienna Miller, the English actress he had a year-long relationship with two years ago, his other relationships and his personal life in general are out of bounds.
So, we find some common ground on, ironically enough, how much he values a good chat. "I define conversation as culture, and I've had many conversations [here]," he says. "I love Dublin so much. It feels closer to Wales, even though there is an ocean between. My brother lives in North Wales, and my parents, so I feel really close to them here." He leans in conspiratorially: "We have England in common."
It is impossible to think 'Welsh actor' and not think 'Rhys Ifans'. He grew up speaking Welsh and went to a Welsh-speaking secondary school.
His first mass exposure to movie audiences was alongside his brother Llyr in the Swansea-set cult black comedy Twin Town. Although there were rumours early on in the production of Mr Nice that Sean Penn might take the title role, it was unimaginable that Marks would be played by any less quintessentially Welsh actor than Ifans.
I wonder if it bothers him, this pigeonholing. He is clearly more than capable of acting outside the Welsh box, as displayed in his fantastic portrayal of English actor and wit Peter Cook in the TV drama Not Only But Always (he won a Bafta Best Actor for it).
"When I'm reduced to being a Welsh actor, I'm offended," he says. "When people understand how my Welshness elevates my acting, I'm very touched. My first language is Welsh. I fuck and dream in Welsh. Not at the same time, obviously. Fuck and then dream, hopefully, if all goes well.
He thinks that being bilingual gives him a distinctive world view and feeds his creativity. "Both languages inform the other. For you to understand another language, you inevitably resort to metaphor, and when you resort to metaphor, you arrive at the foothills of poetry, and when you arrive at the foothills of poetry, you become a poet. And when you become a poet, you feel for everyone."
I take a stab at deciphering this. I venture that empathy is a big part of acting, of finding a way into someone else's head?
"Absolutely, yes. So it's my bilingualism, the fiction of my bilingualism is what fires my creative world."
Ifans is an animated character when he's fired up. He sits up again to tell how he met a tattooist in Dublin who shares a mutual friend of Ifans in Cardiff. He loves these random connections, these "real punk-rock circles". And even if I'm not to ask about his romantic entanglements with women, he has no problem exploring his male bonding with Marks, who is being interviewed at another table across the bar.
"As a friend, I find him deeply intelligent, interesting and good company," says Ifans. "He's a learned, well-read man, right, who has also lived a life that is counter to what we'd expect from a well-read man. He is a rebel. And he's eloquent and he can explain why he's a rebel. He's a rebel with a cause as opposed to being one without one."
Ultimately, though, Howard seems to me to have been a businessman. His supply and demand was in an illegal substance, sure, but it was about making money. Ifans takes exception to this view.
"But we all are," he says. "What do you get paid for? What do I get paid for? What you get paid for is what makes you a businessman. He's not waving a flag; he's associated with waving a flag, but that flag isn't just one flag, it's a flag that we all wave too," says Ifans.
"The mockery of government and how people are criminalised because of politics or whatever it is. Prohibition is an unmitigated disaster wherever it's implemented. You can see it now in Mexico, children and mothers shot on a daily basis because of American foreign policy and prohibition.
"More people are dying in this world from the illegality of drugs than there are from actual drugs themselves. So I just want to look at it as an adult. The facts are there."
As for Howard: "He's a good friend and he went to jail for seven fucking years and I'm glad he's out."
Ifans first met Marks after his release from prison in 1995. It was at a Super Furry Animals gig, when Ifans asked Marks to sign his packet of cigarette papers and asked if he could play him if they ever made a movie of his life. Now that has happened, Ifans must be beside himself. Is this the best point of his career so far?
"It's just a circle that has been completed. I'm having a fucking great time but ... " he trails off. He's not ambitious, he says, but he's "selfish".
He clarifies: "When I choose the character or job, the measuring stick is, 'How do I want to feel?' It's really random. I'm such a reckless bastard. I did Nanny McPhee [and the Big Bang] because I don't have kids but most of my friends do, and my godchildren would would love it." With that, he is distracted by a call on his mobile from one of the partygoers upstairs in his room.
I'm told to wrap it up, so we shake hands and he unfolds himself from his chair and wanders over to Marks, pint in hand.
Whatever his next random encounter, he's having a good time right now.