At 1:45 p.m. on a snowy Friday, Suite 29A of the Waldorf Towers feels like the smoking area of a Parisian airport club. The air is so thick with exhaled nicotine you’re tempted to ask for an oxygen tank to fend off fainting. Draped over a chair smack dab in the center of the room is the source of these fumes: Actor Rhys Ifans, a one-man chimney dragging on a cigarette, in a rumpled leather jacket, faded jeans and beat-up trainers. All gangly legs, mussed hair and a mischievous grin, he looks like an older version of your high school’s token budding rockstar.
It may come as a surprise, then, that Ifans plays one of the more mature characters in Noah Baumbach’s latest film, “Greenberg,” out Friday. Ben Stiller stars as maladjusted 40-something Roger Greenberg, a former rock musician who, after suffering a nervous breakdown, is house-sitting for his brother in Los Angeles. Ifans is Ivan, one of Greenberg’s former bandmates and friends, with whom he reconnects. While Greenberg spends his days launching tirades against everyone from Starbucks to his young love interest (Greta Gerwig), Ivan acts as his sensitive foil, a gentle soul grappling with an impending divorce and a young son.
“Ivan is passive and peaceful, but he’s only like that to protect himself in a way. That’s why he seemingly tolerates Greenberg where most people watching would say, ‘Why do you suffer this f—king guy?’” explains Ifans, between drags on the first in a series of Marlboro Lights. “You’re faced with these two old friends who don’t see each other for 10 years and their lives have changed beyond all recognition, dramatically. But the only vernacular they have to discuss that change is the language they used when they were students. And that’s what eventually short circuits them and that’s what I found so beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time.”
Ifans’ nuanced performance, according to Baumbach, proved just as heartbreaking.
“His instincts are terrific and when I would give him adjustments or throw ideas at him, he made just really beautiful and subtle changes,” says the director and writer. “This maybe will go against his bad boy image. He’s just very [emotionally] available.”
Despite some evidence to the contrary — a glass of white wine at 2 p.m. that becomes an extension of his hand; the flying fish tattoo on his right wrist that he got three years ago “because the guy couldn’t draw swallows; I was very drunk” — it seems the actor, who most still remember as crotch-scratching Spike in 1999’s “Notting Hill,” has grown up.
“I’m very happy. This is the happiest age I’ve ever been,” says Ifans, 42, with a wide grin.
Born and raised in Wales, the son of two teachers, Ifans grew up intending to become a farmer.
“But I discovered being an actor is pretty similar: You get up at irrational hours of the day; the food’s free, and you’re surrounded by bullsh-t most of the time,” he says.
Ifans studied acting at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London and in addition to films like “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” and “Enduring Love” has earned notice for his theater and TV work. And personal life: his relationship with Sienna Miller in 2008, for one.
He calls Majorca home, where he has four chickens (a vestige of his farming dreams), and later this year will appear in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” and “Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang.” On the other end of the cinematic spectrum, Ifans is about to start shooting “Anonymous,” a historical thriller with Roland Emmerich and Vanessa Redgrave, in which he plays Edward de Vere, an aristocrat who may have penned work attributed to William Shakespeare.
It’s all part of his uncalculated, happy-go-lucky career approach.
“I’m too lazy for a game plan, how-am-I-going-to-get-to-the-top rubbish,” he says. “I’m not riddled with ambition or vanity. I just want to hang out and not be late, and know my lines and eat free food.”