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“You don’t have to be a prick to be a good actor”
Note: This interview was taken by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoon) for The Sunday Guardian. An edited version of the interview can be found here: http://goo.gl/3W1FnJ.
Read my interview with Joshua Malina of Scandal/West Wing here: http://goo.gl/0FrRV8
My interview with Anatol Yusef of Boardwalk Empire is here: http://goo.gl/drIeeF.
Coming up next: My interview with FRIENDS creators David Crane & Marta Kauffman.
Homeland is one of the most addictive shows on television and even with its ups and downs, it never fails to make for a compelling watch. While I’ve always been a fan of the fantastic work that Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin do, my biggest reason to watch the show over the last season has been Rupert Friend, who plays Peter Quinn in such a raw, gritty, unflinching yet impossibly humane manner that when Homeland sometimes gets campy, it gives the show a very solid grounding in reality.
I’ve also seen Rupert Friend in a bunch of movies over the years, and he’s pretty much been the very best thing about them. From The Young Victoria to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas to the recent Starred Up, Rupert’s played all sorts of roles from tragic to terrible to tender, and he’s really kicked ass in all of them. I’ve also seen his brilliant short film, Steve, which stars Colin Firth, Keira Knightley and Tom Mison, and it just speaks volumes about how he thinks and what sort of a fascinating mind he has. (Watch Steve here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/steve/id494748556)
So I was quite excited about getting to speak with him. Also, given that he’s going to star in Agent 47 next, and is perhaps one of the most talked about young actors in Hollywood, I was really looking forward to the interview… until I began my research by reading up on his old interviews. And then I got pretty intimidated. Because Rupert’s earlier interviews portray him to be an actor who’s not at all fond of interviews, is distinctly uncomfortable and agitated at questions he doesn’t like, and may even pull up the journalist if they don’t have a background on him. Luckily, I had already seen some of his stuff, and I’m pretty diligent when it comes to research… but I became even more cautious before the interview, and to be honest, just a wee bit nervous.
But my anxiety was unfounded because when I spoke to him, the very first thing Rupert asked was if my mother was alright now. (There was a slight confusion in the interview timing earlier – I had been at the hospital with my mother when I got the call for the interview and I had to request for it to be done earlier. P.S. My mother’s better now, thanks J) But that put me at ease instantly, because hey, if Rupert’s *that* compassionate and actually cares about checking up on your mother, then you’re going to do just fine.
And the interview wasn’t just fine, it was quite excellent. Rupert made for a fantastic interviewee; he was informal, fun, self-deprecating every now and then, very interested in answering the questions in as much precise detail as he could, and more importantly, as you would realise from the answers, seemed to have a good heart to him, which is always such a great thing, interview or no interview. He even said during the interview that he may have “mellowed down” a bit, with a bit of a laugh. So I had a pretty great time speaking to him, even though I kept calling him Peter on every second question (it’s a testament to his acting that I believe it’s Peter and not Rupert!)
I’ve divided the interview into the following segments:
1. ON SEASON 4, NIMRAT KAUR AND THE QUINN-CARRIE DYNAMICS
2. ON THE PROCESS OF ACTING AND PORTRAYING PETER QUINN
3. ON HIS MULTI-FACETED TALENTS: ACTING, WRITING & DIRECTION
4. ON AGENT 47, DOING A COMEDY AND WHAT ELSE IS NEXT
So you can skip to the part you want to, or go through the entire interview and enjoy Rupert’s answers.
1. ON SEASON 4, NIMRAT KAUR AND THE QUINN-CARRIE DYNAMICS
“If you are a fan of Peter Quinn, you’re going to be really happy this season.”
This season, Homeland has been doing over. What does that mean for Peter Quinn with the complex and morally conflicting journey he has had as CIA?
It’s a good question. I think, at the end of last season, we were left with feeling that Quinn was very much done with CIA and with the whole line, as it stood, and definitely his role in it. He was feeling very ambivalent about his job, and so, in this season, he has deliberately distanced himself from that line of work and also from Carrie, because I think it’s pretty obvious that Carrie and Quinn have this, sometimes, disastrous effect on one another, whereby it’s sort of like a dangerous black hole that pulls you in and once you’re in it, then bad things happen.
So, there’s definitely a sense in which he has separated himself geographically and emotionally from Carrie, so that they can perhaps work better. But of course, this being Carrie, things are never that smooth, and when she needs him again, she is someone Quinn can’t say no to. And that is the beginning of the unravelling, I think. So, there’s basically a lot of tension at the beginning of the season between them, and a disastrous event, it’s a catastrophic happening, if you will, that sets the whole season into motion and forces Quinn back into a place he really does not want to be. And that has many disastrous results for him personally. And he starts, kind of, having a breakdown; I suppose that would be the best description of it.
With Nicholas Brody having been executed last season, fans of Homeland are expecting Peter Quinn to step into his shoes, in terms of being the male lead driving this season. Do we see Quinn upping the ante in season 5?
Well, I mean, obviously no one can replace Brody. Fans love him and Damian is amazing, so while nobody would ever want to say that Quinn is in any way stepping into Brody’s shoes, because they are diametrically opposite characters anyway, Quinn is definitely much more front and centre this season. He, as I said, is very much the counterpart to Carrie both emotionally and story-wise and we see them dancing around each other, in a way that doesn’t always have the most gratifying results for either of them. But if you are a fan of Peter Quinn, you’re going to be really very happy this season.
I’m interested in knowing: Did you have any take on the war on terror before you joined Homeland, and that that change or evolve, as you played a character, who was such an emotionally intricate part of the plot?
Well, I’ve tried to keep out of making any kind of under-informed opinions on the political aspects of this job. I do think its extraordinary how, you’ll see, this season has managed to hit some kind of truth, and feels almost like it’s being written in tandem with the events that are happening. SO there’s definitely a sense in which it has opened my eyes to what’s going on but I would not to go down on one side or the other, without being completely informed about it.
So we know that this season involves Pakistan, but does that mean it also involves India in some way?
I don’t want to give anything much away, but I’m afraid at this moment I can’t say that India gets involved. This season takes place very much in Islamabad, where the station is based. It’s largely dealing with Pakistan-American relations and there’s a little bit of Kabul as well. So, at the moment, not much India, but next season, who knows?
Indian actress Nimrat Kaur is working in Homeland this season. Have you worked with her so far?
No, Nimrat is playing an intelligence officer for the Pakistani Secret Service, and she plays a very, very interesting character called Tasneem, like everyone else around, she isn’t quite what she seems. She plays a very powerful, very manipulative woman, so you know, it’s worlds away from her role in Lunchbox, it would seem. But she’s part of a real power play here and although I’ve met her but we haven’t had a scene together yet.
How has your interaction with her been so far?
Fantastic! Oh yeah, she’s wonderful. She’s got a lovely, great energy, and you know, I’m sure she’ll play someone nefarious and multi-layered incredibly well. She seems to be very excited about it but since I haven’t seen her work in the season yet, I can’t talk about that. So I hope you guys can probably see it before I do.
Let’s talk about something you can talk about: Claire Danes. Claire and you had some pretty intense scenes set in a mental institution last season. How did you both approach those scenes when Claire channels her character’s bipolar streak in such a powerful manner?
Well, she’s very loud, so I go in the other room and let her get on with it (chuckles). It’s totally unplanned, actually. The exciting part for me is not knowing what’s going to happen. And then finding out on the day of the shoot.
A lot of people on the internet are rooting for a romance between Carrie and Quinn. Do you think that’s ever going to happen?
I don’t know about that personally. All I would say is that if it feels obvious, I don’t think it’s going to head that way (chuckles).
2. ON THE PROCESS OF ACTING AND PORTRAYING PETER QUINN
“The quickest way for me to get really angry would be if I witnessed somebody being bullied”
I want to ask you about one of the most crucial moments for Quinn in Homeland, when you accidentally killed a kid last season. You’ve also earlier played a Nazi in The Boy with the Striped Pyjamas and had a similar disturbing incident with a kid. How do you prepare for such dark scenes and how do you cope after having played them?
With the two things that you’ve referenced, it was important for me to play with the kids and to hang out with them, so that they were able to see the difference between a man and the character. Because however good the film or show turns out to be, if you’ve scarred a child for life psychologically, was it worth doing? So it was very important to me, particularly in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, where it was a more direct interaction with the young actor, to, kind of, help them psychologically.
Kids are fantastic – they are the best at imagination, so if you pitch a kid a game, for example, ‘I’m the cop, you’re the robber’, or, you know, ‘I’m the doctor you’re the patient,’ they just go with it, without question. That’s what I loved about being a kid and I love about working with kids, is that they have no limit. The problem is that they are, I think, very susceptible to being unable to distinguish always, between what is real and what is not. And if you have some awful Nazi, who is an asshole, you know, that could be a nightmare for lots of years to come. When worked together in the film, I asked the kid to see this character as somebody who lived in that house. When he lived in there and whenever he was in there, the character was real, but as soon as we left that house, which was the one we were shooting in, he didn’t exist anymore, and Rupert existed. So we spent a lot of time at the zoo, you know, hanging out, where I was being Rupter, and when we were in the house, it had to be real and I was a Nazi. Because, otherwise, kids kind of giggle and say, ‘Aww, you’re pretending,’ and that wouldn’t serve my purpose either. So it was a, sort of a, weird balance between trying to be fair to them as humans while giving a performance that they can be proud of as well.
You’ve spoken quite a bit in your interviews about being bullied as a kid. Do you think your sensitivity in handling such scenes and portraying such characters comes from having faced that?
(Pauses) Yeah, I think the quickest way for me to get really angry would be if I witnessed somebody being bullied. It’s something I feel very strong about. I’m not perfect by any means, you know, but, if I see something like that at work, it’s not okay, and it won’t wash with me. So I hope it’s manifested itself into something of an intolerance towards bullying behaviour. While that’s part of me now, the kids thing is more because, as I said, this is the business of imagining, right? Whether you are in writing or filmmaking or acting, you’re in the business of imagining. And kids make that business a part of their lives, they insist on it. And for me, that is something we should never lose as adults either. So working with kids or being with a kid, is super important for me, as a, soulful person, if you like, but also, as a professional and as someone who professionally creates and makes things up. It’s really important to remember that the kids can imagine without having to think about it, and to not stop them when they do.
Since we’re talking about imagination, what sort of a backstory did you imagine for Peter Quinn, since we know very little about him even now.
I think Peter Quinn is one of those guys who very few people ever get to know. And I think that is why he was able to be in the line of work that he did. And it’s why he finds forming relationships very difficult, and why he chooses to spend most of his life alone. And I think that those facts mean, that out of respect for Peter Quinn, I’m not going to go into his backstory (laughs).
So I’ve read in many of your interviews that you prefer experience over imagination, and do extensive research before getting into the role. How did you prepare for a role that revealed so little to you initially?
Yes, it was completely different, Nikhil, you’re right. Because, you know, it was my first experience with serialised television, in fact, it was my first experience with television at all. In films, you’re given a script where you see the arc of all of the characters of the story and you can, to a certain degree, play detective, and work backwards to try and figure out how these events may have happened and so, you can try and get inside the skin of somebody. With this, it was like walking off a ledge, and not knowing how to fly or how hard you have to fall or whether you can jump – it’s a complete, sort of, leap of faith. I suppose that the way I responded to that challenge was to make a hard choice one way and stick to it and see what happens, really. It always comes down to those two, kind of, magical things called imagination and being present. And if you start with one and rely on the other, touchwood, everything seems to go alright.
Is it more interesting to you when a character is revealed in parts as opposed to when you know everything about him? How do you make a character like that more truthful?
To be honest, knowing an arc is not that useful in and of itself, to me, because if you know it in a way that it is rigid, then it doesn’t allow for things to evolve in the moment. So, for me, what is super interesting, whether I know where somebody’s roughly going or not, is knowing as little as possible in the moment. So it’s really like it is in real life, as in, you get there, and you see what happens, you see how you feel, and you see what that course is. So, I suppose I’m a big, big advocate of under preparation and improvisation (laughs).
You know, Rupert, after speaking to you, I get the sense that Peter Quinn’s arc in Homeland, which has been very internal at first and over the seasons, he’s become a lot more expressive, is, in a way, similar to how you’ve dealt with fame and even the media, for that matter. Initially you were a lot more introverted when it came to dealing with the attention that comes from being an actor, and now you are quite expressive. You think that’s a fair analogy?
(Pause) That’s an interesting one. With Quinn, you know, I think part of the storyline that’s happening with him is about his starting to need to open up to somebody. Human beings are essentially pack animals and need some kind of connection and he just hadn’t had it for years, necessarily. And you’d see, in this season, his moral compass is just swinging around, and the effect of this is such on him that it’s making him question absolutely everything. So that’s the answer to that part of the question, in terms of, why he is more expressive. When we first met Quinn, the whole point was nobody was supposed to know what he was really there for. So of course, he couldn’t be allowed into anybody’s office, for example. And now, his role is no longer that.
And, in terms of my dealing with the media, you know, I guess I’m just a slightly less of an angry young man (laughs). I’m slightly less pretentious, I hope, and slightly more comfortable about talking about some things and saying ‘I don’t know’ and ‘I don’t understand’. Because one of the reasons I would get very, kind of, worked up about people taking interviews is that I didn’t know the answers to some of the questions, when they’d ask things like, ‘How did you do this or how did you prepare that.’ I either didn’t know or didn’t want to answer stuff like, ‘Where do you like to buy your milk in the morning?’ You know, it’s just that you don’t really want to answer that question. I guess, as I got a bit older, I realised it’s okay to say ‘I don’t know’, or ‘I don’t want to’, and you can say it without it becoming, a fight. (laughs) Maybe I’ve mellowed a bit, I don’t know.
3. ON HIS MULTI-FACETED TALENTS: ACTING, WRITING & DIRECTION
“You don’t have to be a prick to be a good actor. Acting is not supposed to be some great, big, ground-soaring, arduous thing. Acting is one of the most fun things to do.”
That begs me to ask you a question: When you had made your short film Steve, you had spoken about how you made it as a reaction to people who love ticking boxes or because of conformist attitudes. Since you’ve changed quite a bit, if you had to make Steve now, would it still be the exact same film?
Well, I think, the happy accident of Steve happening was that the genesis of it was some kind of frustration with society’s requirement for certain social interactions, before you ever got to really get to know anyone. And I felt like, you know, a lot of interesting people are seen as eccentrics or outcasts of misfits, I know I certainly was. And it always felt like, just because maybe you don’t shake hands in the right way or you don’t know the latest gossip or you don’t know pleasantries, it doesn’t mean you are not worth knowing. And I think that that point to me completely stands.
The other thing is, that what Colin (Firth) and I stumbled across in rehearsing the piece was a character that I completely love and so does he, and he loved it so much that he called me earlier in the year and said, ‘What do you think about a feature?’ But, you know, I had never considered that, but when he said it, of course, my imagination machine started working and I thought, ‘Well, I loved making that film more than anything else in my professional life, and I would love to go and spend time with this wonderful, different man, for 100 minutes rather than just 15,’ And as I started thinking about it I got, you know, excited then frustrated then excited then frustrated, as it goes (laughs). But the exciting bit, finally, is that I feel very good about the idea of making a feature out of Steve. And I know that Colin is excited to play the role again.
So when is it happening then?
Well, I’m just in the writing process at the moment, so it’s away in from being anything that I’m happy to shoot, but I’m definitely in that process of realising that there’s no limits to it. Also, that film played in festivals all over the world. I saw it subtitled in Spanish, Arabic and all sorts of languages. I had first thought that it wouldn’t work because it felt very English to me, because, in a way, it was, sort of, all about tea. But people enjoyed it regardless of their culture. They seemed to understand what it was about: not fitting in, which, I guess, everyone recognises.
Since you’ve acted with some of the greats, right from Johnny Depp, whom you debuted with, to Mandy Patinkin in Homeland. What do you pick as an actor while working opposite a talented actor, as opposed to as a director, when you’re directing an actor like Colin Firth?
What do you pick up? I suppose I learnt, from the actors that I really have loved to work with, and was fortunate enough to work with, that you don’t have to be a prick to be a good actor, for one. For two, that sense of fun – again coming back to the childlike thing – that sense of play, is what made me remember what was so great about acting. It’s not supposed to be some great big ground soaring, you know, arduous thing. Acting is fun, you know; it’s one of the most fun things to do. So, if you can retain that and then add, you know, a little bit of technique or experience, then you end up with someone like Johnny Depp or Colin Firth.
And the difference between acting with someone or rather acting with both of those or directing someone, is rooted in the same thing. The fun in exploring Steve with Colin is that I don’t have any censorship when I direct. So, if you want to bring something, then I’m totally down with pushing it all the way to the point where we are either both no longer interested in it – sometimes that may happen in the first place – but if we are both interested in it, then it becomes about elevating the other person’s energy to, one hopes and definitely feels, unto oneself. You elevate the other person, they elevate you, and you both come out with a whole that is far superior than the sum of its parts.
I find it an interesting contradiction that you are both a writer and an actor; since generally, people write to discover themselves, while they act to discover others. Do you feel the same way?
I think, everybody probably approaches it differently. For me, they’re actually very similar. For me, it’s not about myself, it’s about what can I imagine, to come back to that word which I’m probably boring you with (chuckles), but to me, it’s the idea of that there really are no limits in your imagination. And if you want to write a world that you’ve dreamt up, then you can do it. And if you want to play a CIA assassin, then you can do it too, if someone gives you the opportunity, obviously. So, I suppose what I’m trying to say is that with writing there really are no limits, you know. If you can dream it, you can write it down. Kubrick once said, ‘If it can dreamt, it can be filmed.’ So I am fascinated by directing for the same reason that, you know, I’m a lyricist. I’ve been writing with this band, Kairos 4tet, who are very, very exciting, because they work with people that I would never have gotten to work with. I get to work with a harp player, some outstanding jazz musicians; and some of the vocalists that we’ve gotten together and collaborated with, it’s been really, really out of my comfort zone, and therefore, very fascinating.
You hail from the quiet town of Oxfordshire in Britain. Where did this sense of adventure come from?
I’m pretty sure it began with being read the Greek myths, when I was too young to even hold a book. I think, being read stories of Rome and Greece and the characters and adventures in a way that I could imagine – and I could imagine them very well – that definitely inspired me. You know what, if you’re to talk to me about pirates and mermaids or the minotaur or Greek Gods or Beast and Loki and Thor, then I am in a world that, I feel, was frankly, always more real to me than growing up in England, like myself. So the idea of pretending to be someone else, to be somewhere else, and to have a mission of your own in a world of your own, were in my blood from the very beginning.
Since you seek out different experiences, from the amount you have travelled to building your own house to being part of a band, would you say these are byproducts of you being an actor or did you become an actor because you’re so interested in eclectic things?
It’s a very, very good observation. I think they are intertwined, and I’ve never considered which came first. I can tell you that the reason I came into acting was that I wanted to experience as much as possible. You know, the idea of having the one career my whole life just seemed to be completely anathema to me. I also knew that acting in and of itself was never going to be everything for me. I just knew it was going to be a great way of experiencing adventure, frankly. The other cool thing about acting is that I get to suddenly go and learn a whole bunch about something entirely new, for example, how to take apart a gun with one hand, you know.
4. ON AGENT 47, DOING A COMEDY AND WHAT ELSE IS NEXT
“I think I have quite a serious face, which is a shame, because I’ve a quite a silly side.”
So let’s talk about what you’re up to next. You’re doing a comedy for the very first time, in Alex Holdridge’s Meet Me In Montenegro. Was your approach to a light-hearted romcom such as that any different than your approach to your other roles?
You know, I would really, really like to do more comedy. The few people that really know me and love me know that that’s very much the heart of me. I think I have quite a serious face, which is a shame, because I’ve a quite a silly side. So the idea of being a bit more silly is very appealing to me; I really like making a fool out of myself. So, if people want to cast me on that whim, and I suppose it is only a whim in that you might have to go outside your comfort zone, then you know, it’s fantastic. Like, I am a big fan of Melissa McCarthy, I think she’s fantastic. She has a way of being serious within comedy, which I love, and I would love to do something like that.
As for the approach, the approach for any role feels like it’s always the same and it’s always different, in as much as you’re just trying to imagine you’re someone else. And I don’t really know how anyone does that, and I almost think that the less we try and understand it, the better, in as much as it may just be one of those things that is better left to history. I’m not trying to be mysterious here, I don’t know if trying to understand it will help me any better (laughs).
You were also writing a film that you were to direct, co-starring Emily Blunt. How’s that shaping up?
Yeah that is going to be my first feature film as a director. And we are slated to begin production at some point, next year, I think. It’s a story of two people finding their way across America while falling in love but the film’s got a lot of twists and turnings, so it’s got elements of suspense, when you’re not really sure what the truth is or that who between them is saying the truth.
I can’t finish this interview without asking you about Agent 47. The first look is badass. Is being a part of a no-holds barred big studio action film an experience unlike anything else you’ve done?
Well, I began to do my own stunts as Quinn very early on Homeland, and I’ve always loved the, kind of, physicality of characters, in that the way they do things other than most appropriate, so, you know, that’s always been interesting to me. You know, I have never played anyone who has a whole world created for them, but that isn’t real in a film. Now, I’ve played people who have lived and people who’re not real, but this is the thing where this character, of 47, has a whole world grown up with him, and then comes interactively acted out, and fans of the world can basically come see him in a film event. So you are stepping into the shoes which people feel they know very well. And not only that but, obviously, someone has already played the character once so there’s a sense in which, people are thinking, ‘Okay, is this a reinvention, or is it a homage, or is it a reboot?’ I don’t know the answer yet, we’ll see soon, I guess (chuckles).
Paul Walker was attached to the role of Agent 47 before his unfortunate demise. Has that added any additional responsibility to the role for you?
I think that the tragedy of Paul’s death is something that I think should be kept with his family and loved ones to mourn and not forced into the parallel tragedy of his not having played the role, which obviously doesn’t really compare. I think the main thing is to wish the best for the people close to him and then go do the best job we can, which I’m sure they would want us to.
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Note: An edited version of this article first appeared in The Sunday Guardian in the October 26, 2014 issue.
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