British actor Rufus Sewell is fed up being offered parts for what he calls “brooding, Byronic curly haired” types. Even though he fits the description perfectly, he says there’s no challenge in being labeled a poetic heartthrob. So, in his newest project, Brian Friel’s play “Translations,” which opened on Broadway at the Plymouth Theater last week, he’s bucking that trend. He plays an Irishman who finds himself selling out to the English.
“I chose it [the role] because it was a difficult part in a brilliant play,” he says. “And it was time to return to the theater after shooting three films in a row.”
Sewell, 27, has been working almost continuously since graduating from London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. His first film role was in “Twenty-One,” with Patsy Kensit, and more recently he appeared in the BBC series “Middlemarch.” “Translations” is particularly significant, however, because it marks his Broadway debut. Set in the Donegal village of Baile Beag in 1833, the play is the story of Britain’s determined efforts to secure control of their Irish neighbors. “Ransacking a country with rifles is only one way of taking over a culture,” explains Sewell. “Language is an incredibly powerful thing and if you take away a country’s language, you effectively become its landlord.”
It is the task of the Royal Engineers to change the Irish place names from Celtic into English. Owen, Sewell’s character, is the pragmatic, domineering son of village patriarch Hugo (Brian Dennehey), who consequently takes it upon himself to become their interpreter. “He manages to convince himself that it isn’t such a bad thing, because that’s the way the world is going,” says Sewell, “but gradually, through the course of the play, he is forced to see the physical consequences of what he has done.” Sewell says he doesn’t conform to his character’s way of thinking, but he does appreciate how Friel goes beyond the domain of politics to tackle universal themes in “Translations.” “It’s about MTV swamping the rest of the world, about finding The Body Shop in Kuala Lumpur,” he says. “It’s about America and global cultures, certainly not just about Ireland.”
Sewell can currently be seen starring opposite Albert Finney in the film “A Man of No Importance,” which is set in Dublin. His next film, “Carrington,” the story of the Bloomsbury artist Carrington and her bohemian love triangle, is scheduled to be released this summer. Emma Thompson plays the title role.
Sewell plays artist Mark Gertler, one of Carrington’s art school amours. “I spend a lot of time lying on top of Emma Thompson,” he says with a smile.