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The star of Dark City (currently shooting In a Savage Land in New Guinea for Bill Bennett) doesn't mind talking about his own dark past. Rufus Sewell tells PAUL FISCHER of his convict ancestors. And what part sex and free sandwiches played in his acting career.

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 cousins."

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 Dangerous Beauty

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 drama."

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."

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Went to drama school as a means of providing himself with,"sex & free sandwiches"



Stills from Dark City


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