The world of Dark City was created in the imagination of director Alex Proyas. The
futuristic and chaotic world of his film is filled with detailed subterranean streets,
strange looking cars, a world that can only exist in the movies. Rufus Sewell's
instruction is to walk agitatingly across the street, followed by a menacing Kiefer
Sutherland. It takes several goes for Proyas to be content. At the end of it all, Sewell,
dressed drably for the part of a confused fugitive with major memory lapses, seems in
genuine awe of this world in which he now inhabits. "This is real movie making,
complete fantasy stuff, I love it", the actor says with enthusiastic relish.
There is more than a gentle irony that here, within the heart of Sydney, Sewell is
working on a movie set. A descendent of Joseph Sewell, a roguish English highwayman
deported to Australia in 1830 as a convict. "Ah, sad but true", he now muses.
Well not quite, he now admits. "It sounded great to say that he was a highwayman,
incredibly classy. He was more of a simple burglar actually", he adds laughingly.
A rebel from a young age
Be that as it may, he might have indeed emerged from a line of crims, but that would
never have rubbed off on Sewell. Well actually--- A rebel from a young age, his teenage
years were nothing if not eventful. As he confessed in an early interview, "It was
pathetic, I had stolen CDs, clothes, food, and when I was finally caught, I was starving
at drama school! I got caught stealing smoked fish and humus. I had enough money to buy
the bread rolls and got caught on the way out. So, I do have a criminal record for
stealing a mackerel. But these days, questions about his roguish past are annoying.
"God, I said it to one journalist years ago as a bit of a laugh, and now I have this
dark past that follows me from interview to interview."
His mother was Welsh, his dad an Aussie (which has enabled him to take out Australian
citizenship prior to filming In a Savage Land), who died when he was 10. "I grew up
in Wales, where my mother still lives, in Dylan Thomas' old town. My mum lived in Dylan
Thomas' house, the Pelican. I grew up there, and London and Soho, where my dad's animation
studio was". His father was a respected cartoonist, amongst his credits being The
Beatles' Yellow Submarine. "There was a lot of mystery about my dad, 'cause he had
come over in 1953 in search of Dylan Thomas, it turns out. He'd been married to an
aboriginal woman when he came over. He was an artist at the time, and always said that he
was an only child, but I discovered that he had a sister, whom I met - my auntie and four
Sewell recalls that he had a nomadic life as a teenager, while his main school was
"Bog Standard, a comprehensive school, which is really for people who have no
money." It is here that Sewell's rebelliousness first came into play. "Yeah, I
was quite rebellious at school, constantly under threat of expulsion, dyed my hair blonde
when I was 11, and wore make-up and earrings." He did "all the things one should
do if planning an autobiography", he recalled later.
Yet criminal past or not, they, the British theatre establishment, eventually, let him
set foot on a stage. "I discovered early on that if you wanted a job, you could
always lie about your qualifications. They tend to believe you, and if they had caught up
with you and found out that your qualifications weren't genuine, they would only fire you
if you weren't doing the job properly."
"That's what I loved about it, that it's a strange mix
of styles." on Dark City
He went to drama school when he was 18, as a means of providing himself with, as he
later recalled to one interviewer, "sex and free sandwiches", though he dabbled
with acting since the age of 16. "But I then pulled out of it because I loathed all
the people involved in it - pretentious, absolutely fey and shallow. All they were doing
at school were musicals and Noel Coward plays, not even real Noel Coward plays, and I
wanted to be shaking my head, shouting and hitting with sticks. I was watching Marlon
Brando and this didn't seem to bear any relation to his work, so I gave it all up and took
up drumming, going out and being naughty. Then I got back into it again because the girl
connection suddenly struck me. I had a teacher at college who insisted that I audition for
drama school, and I wasn't going to, because I had no money. For each audition at the
London drama school, you had to pay about 30 pounds. So she pulled me aside and said that
she would loan me 200 pounds if I would do it. So I did. I have paid her back. Those are
questions that people in England ask me, 'cause they have read all this jail stuff. I am
still in contact with her, but if she hadn't done that, I don't know if I would have
become an actor."
Stardom for the 30-year old came swiftly once his brooding performance in the dark
comedy Cold Comfort Farm reached the American screens. It wasn't long after that he was
cast opposite Kiefer Sutherland and William Hurt in the film noir sci-fi drama, Dark City,
as an amnesiac on the run who may, or not be, a serial killer. It's a surreal, almost
hallucinogenic, work set in a world of eternal night where an eerie group of deathly pale
creatures in leather overcoats are conducting sinister experiments with human memory.
Sewell likens the film to the work of Germany's Fritz Lang. "That's what I loved
about it," he continued, "that it's a strange mix of styles. When I read the
script, it reminded me a little bit of 'Brazil,' a little bit of 'Barton Fink,' a little
bit of 'Jacob's Ladder.' "What I like about it is the way it doesn't worry about the
why and the how, but just says, 'This is the way it is.' "
Sewell sees the film as a hybrid mixture of science fiction and film noir "and is
altogether psychologically interesting." After filming, the actor spent an additional
few months in Sydney "catching up on my roots." Dark City recently had its
European premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, at a special midnight screening. "That
was great but quite surreal in a way. Suddenly in the middle of it all the lights went up
and everyone was sitting there clapping. It was something out of a zombie movie."
"It's such a fucking stupid title." on
Before shooting Dark City, Sewell donned period garb for the haunting period drama,
Dangerous Beauty, a richly decorous outing, in which he plays Marco, a dashing
16th-century Venetian nobleman who chooses love with a beautiful, spirited and brilliant
courtesan, played by Catherine McCormack, over duty with a plain and pious wife (played by
Aussie actress and now Hollywood resident Naomi Watts). The film's original title was The
Honest Courtesan, but it was claimed Hollywood studio bosses didn't understand what a
courtesan was, hence the title change. It's an issue that causes much furore with the
usually calm Mr Sewell. "It's such a fucking stupid title. When a film executive
starts saying' I've got three degrees, blah, blah, blah, and even I don't know what a
courtesan is'...fuck off, you lying arse hole. I understand that people might not know
what the word is, but I don't think that's a problem Teach them a word-what's the crime? I
mean 'Dangerous Beauty' is a strange hybrid mutation of 50 Demi Moore films without
actually meaning anything."
But at least he likes the film. "It's quite beautiful, really, though the final
movie could have been a lot darker, which it was in the original script."
In 1995, he ended a lengthy relationship with British actress Helen McCrory; and 1996
saw him briefly date fellow rising star Kate Winslet, with whom he'd become acquainted
while playing Fortinbras in Kenneth Branagh's film adaptation of Hamlet. "Now I
wouldn't get near her following that ship movie of hers", he adds laughingly. The two
have remained firm friends, for the record. Sewell, who now makes his home in Hampstead,
London's bohemian district, sharing space with actress Yasmin Abdallah since 1997.
"It's such a rare opportunity to observe this unique
culture" on Bill Bennett's In a Savage Land
Sewell will soon be seen on our screens again (after Dark City) in the cross-cultural
British romance Martha, Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence, about three childhood friends
who, unbeknownst to each other, end up falling in love with the same girl. Sewell plays
Daniel, an erratic, frequently out-of-work, and frightened young actor. It was a
character, he says, he had no problem identifying with. "I'm not him by any means,
but I can relate to what he goes through. Even now, between films, I go through periods of
brief unemployment, though now it's more by choice." Sewell also relished showing off
his lighter side "but am glad to make the shift from frothy comedy to more intense
Sewell is now (July 1998) in New Guinea, shooting Bill Bennett's newest film, In a
Savage Land, set in the isolated Trobriand Islands. "Not only was it such an
extraordinary script, but here was the chance to do something that was so un-Hollywood, so
real and truthful," he says. Sewell plays an exploitative pearl trader who
understands the natives with whom he has been living for years. "It's such a rare
opportunity to observe this unique culture, and all my research will be done while I'm
there." Shooting will be tough, with no communications, accommodation limited to a
cruiser, not to mention his character having to be raped by 10 native women, all locals.
"Scary stuff. I wonder if I'll ever be the same again."