Brothers & Sisters star Matthew Rhys loves a challenge. Having just portrayed one of Dickens's most sinister characters, the actor/ director/author now has his eye on a prized role, discovers Chloe Fox
TO some of you, the name Matthew Rhys will ring a vague bell. You may have seen him holding his own as Benjamin Braddock opposite Kathleen Turner in the West End production of The Graduate in 2000. You may have got past the sensation factor of the Sienna Miller/ Keira Knightley double whammy to appreciate his charismatic portrayal of the poet Dylan Thomas in John Maybury's 2008 biopic, The Edge of Love. You may even have registered that he was, along with Hugh Laurie ( House) and Dominic West ( The Wire), flying the British flag in Hollywood on an American television series called Brothers & Sisters.
The rest of you will have followed the ups and downs of the Walker clan for a full five seasons, sobbing inconsolably along the way. You will have fallen in love with Norah (Emmy Award-winning Sally Field) and her children, Sarah ( Rachel Griffiths), Kitty ( Calista Flockhart), Tommy (Balthazar Getty), Justin ( Dave Annable) and Kevin (Rhys). You will have marvelled at Rhys's funny, layered performance as a sarcastic, troubled gay lawyer, especially on discovering that the actor who plays him is, in fact, Welsh and straight. You will have realised, when you felt like your world was collapsing as the credits rolled on the last episode earlier this year, that you needed to get a life.
"Yes, I'm afraid it does have rather a profound effect on some people," Rhys says. He is used to the show that has taken up his past five years having a polarising effect. Not long ago he had an awkward encounter with a drunk in Las Vegas. "If I don't see your goddamn face ever again in my life it will be too soon," the man leered -- a casualty, Rhys explains, of the husband-and-wife divide caused by scheduling Brothers & Sisters on Sunday nights in the USA, at the same time as the football.
But now Brothers & Sisters is over, axed (amid rumours of slipping ratings) in May, leaving its cast members reeling. "The first we heard of it was on a showbiz blog," says Rhys, who that night was in New York watching Luke Macfarlane (who plays his husband, Scotty, in the show) performing on stage. "Who is that guy?" he overheard one audience member say of him to another. "Him?" replied the man, nodding disdainfully in his direction. "He used to be on a TV show."
Still, Rhys's American agents begged him to stay in America. With a green card, a good reputation and a gap in his diary, the industry was now his oyster. But, after five glitzy, sun-filled years -- in which trips in Harrison Ford's helicopter were the norm -- Rhys, 37, decided it was time to leave LA (though he still has a house and two horses there) and go home. "I wasn't being contrary for the sake of it," he says. "It's just that I had been doing the same thing for a very long time and I was craving some variety." Most of all, the Rada graduate wanted to do some theatre.
"When I told [my American agents] that I was going to do a Dickens for the BBC, a Daphne du Maurier for ITV and then go and play Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger off Broadway, they literally had their heads in their hands," he says, laughing.
Rhys is good company: charming, funny and unaffected. "Matthew is a total gentleman," says Diarmuid Lawrence, who directed him in BBC Two's forthcoming two-part adaptation of Charles Dickens's final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. "There were times during filming when I had to send him to his trailer because he was helping the crew move the props and furniture."
On the outside, it seems odd that Rhys should have been Lawrence's first choice to play John Jasper, Dickens's troubled, opium-addicted antihero. A frustrated choirmaster who falls in love with one of his young pupils, Rosa (Tamzin Merchant), the fiancee of his nephew Edwin Drood (Freddie Fox), Jasper is one of Dickens's darkest creations. And yet, for Lawrence's purposes, the actor described by his co-star Freddie Fox as "immensely charming, like all the best bad guys should be" was the perfect choice to persuade audiences into forgiving Jasper's flaws.
Faced with an unfinished story, Lawrence and his screenwriter, Gwyneth Hughes, had to write their own ending, inventing a back story for Jasper that would go some way towards explaining his amoral behaviour. "It was essential that he was more than just an irredeemable villain," Lawrence explains. "We needed an actor who could help us get inside his troubled head and Matthew has the sensitivity to do just that."
Born in Cardiff in 1974 to a headmaster father and a special-needs teacher mother, Matthew Rhys Evans had a happy, loving childhood. "I have a safe place," he says of his homeland. "Just knowing it will always be there makes me feel rooted." Educated in the Welsh language at comprehensive school, he describes himself as having been an unremarkable student. "I wasn't one of the cool kids by any stretch. I just bumbled along."
A star turn as Elvis Presley in a school musical, aged 17, was his first taste of adulation, and he liked it. "It was intoxicating," he says, grinning. When his best schoolfriend, Ioan Gruffudd, was accepted into Rada that same year, Rhys started seriously considering acting as a career.
He applied to Rada and was accepted to start the term after he left school. It was 1992 and Rhys -- for whom London felt like a foreign land -- was 18. Nevertheless he made such an impression during his time there that he won the Patricia Rothermere award, given annually to the best student from any drama school in the country.
After leaving Rada in a blaze of glory, the inevitable slog began: an uncredited part on Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth (1998); a personal high point having his throat slit by a Welsh hero, Anthony Hopkins, on Julie Taymor's Titus (1999); standout performances in forgettable films such as Sorted (2000), Very Annie Mary (2001) and The Abduction Club (2002). Acclaimed turns in plays such as Stranger's House opposite Paul Bettany at the Royal Court in 1997 and The Graduate may have secured Rhys's reputation, but leading-man status proved elusive.
At the suggestion of his friend and fellow actor James Purefoy, Rhys began braving the three months of madness (January to March) that is pilot season in Los Angeles-- a self-financed trip with the hope of a highly paid television part at the end of it. In 2005, after eight consecutive years of lots of fun and limited success (but for a role in one episode of the last series of Columbo), Rhys vowed never to endure it again, but then he was offered the role of Kevin in Brothers & Sisters.
For the most part, life as the star of a popular American sitcom was pretty good. Not only did Rhys make good money but he also had some good times. As fate would have it, three of his best friends from Wales -- the actors Ioan Gruffudd and Andrew Howard and the agent Duncan Millership -- were also living in Los Angeles (although by the time he left, Rhys -- still single -- was beginning to feel like "the spare part at the family barbecue").
In terms of acting, the work on Brothers & Sisters was far from unrewarding ("Sally Field is a total dynamo; she really demands that you are on top of your game") but, about three years in, Rhys admits to having started to get a bit bored. Not only that, but he was getting frustrated. "I resented how the studio treated us actors like children," he says. "We were crucial to the process and yet, if we wanted to know anything about rewrites or schedules, they would just tell us not to worry. That's when my hackles really go up. I think, 'Don't do that. I'm the only thing that the audience will see on their screens; don't treat me like a mug.'"
Rhys received a similar response when, after a run of uninspiring directors ("I would look at them and think, 'I could do that standing on your head'"), he expressed an interest in directing an episode himself. The answer, unanimously, was "No". Rhys then badgered them until they gave in. "The condition was that I did about six to eight months of preparation, which I think they were fairly sure I wouldn't do. But I did it, shadowing directors, sitting in on editing sessions and production meetings, preparing dummy scripts." Having proved his commitment, Rhys was allowed to direct one episode in series four. The studio was pleased enough with his work that four episodes in the final series also bear his name. "It was terrifying and sort of awful," he says in retrospect. "But I can't tell you how good it felt to be treated like a grown-up."
Buoyed by this taste of creative freedom, Rhys began to use his spare time constructively. In the past two years he has produced a television documentary, Mr Hollywood, about the life of Griffith Jenkins Griffith, a controversial Welsh-American industrialist and philanthropist after whom Griffith Park -- home to the Hollywood sign -- is named. He has also written a book, Patagonia: Crossing the Plain, charting an epic pilgrimage across Patagonia on horses on which he accompanied some descendants of the South American region's original Welsh settlers. It was while on this gruelling trip that Rhys bumped into the Welsh director Marc Evans, who was in Patagonia scouting locations for a film he was working on about the same community. The end result, Patagonia (which features the singer Duffy's acting debut), sees Rhys starring as Mateo, an Argentine of Welsh descent who comes between a happy couple, and is hotly tipped as a contender in the Best Foreign Film category at this year's Academy Awards.
Ask Rhys to name his acting heroes and he will, without hesitation, say Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins. An early teenage viewing of Burton playing Jimmy Porter in Tony Richardson's 1959 film version of Look Back in Anger is burnt into his consciousness.
"My father came in and said, 'He's Welsh, you know,' and I just couldn't believe it," Rhys remembers. "I just couldn't believe that someone from Wales could do something like that." In the new year, Rhys will take on the role of Porter in the Roundabout Theatre Company's off-Broadway production of the play. "If anything's going to reignite my fire for acting, that will," he says.
It isn't at all that the fire has died out -- "of course I'm still incredibly ambitious as an actor" -- it's just that, as he edges closer to 40, Rhys is a little more jaded than he was. "In my 20s, I thought I was Robert De Niro and I invested all of myself in my acting," he says. "But, as I've got older, I've calmed down a bit. I've thrown my game plan out of the window. I've realised that nobody's going to die if I don't get it right and that there are a number of things out there, beyond acting, that are very interesting and fulfilling. Keeping a number of balls in the air, I suppose. That's what keeps me interested and that's what is going to keep me sane."
Martin Scorsese is hotly rumoured to be planning a biopic charting the tempestuous love affair between Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (based on Sam Kashner and Nancy Shoenberger's biography, Furious Love), Scorsese is going to be on the lookout for a black-haired blue-eyed Welsh star with a voice as rich as the valleys. "Oh, I thought I might just send him a couple of tickets to see Look Back in Anger," Rhys says with a boyish grin, and more than a hint of that irrepressible ambition.
'The Mystery of Edwin Drood' is on BBC2 this month