Shakespeare on the BBC
This autumn across the BBC
This autumn, the BBC brings Shakespeare and
his stories to audiences with a variety of new
programmes and initiatives across its
services – television, radio, online and interactive.
Rufus Sewell plays Petruchio
Rufus Sewell's latest role gives a whole new meaning to the phrase 'men in tights'.
BBC ONE's The Taming Of The Shrew sees the actor, famous for his smouldering good looks, don a daring combination of fishnets, miniskirt and kinky boots.
"Some of my friends would say I don't look that different to how I did in 1987!" laughs the 37-year-old actor, who stars as Petruchio in the modern-day comedy.
"I was heavily into make-up and nail polish back then. I was very androgynous; I loved eye-liner and had huge feather earrings. I never actually wore kinky boots or a miniskirt but I wasn't far off it, believe me. I was also quite big and in the rugby team, though, so I just about got away with it."
Almost two decades later, Rufus rediscovered his feminine side when Sally Wainwright's adaptation of one of Shakespeare's best-loved plays called for him to model heels of which Manolo Blahnik would be proud.
"It was worryingly fun and I felt strangely liberated," he laughs. "Often you see transvestites and they look like their mums – they lose all sense of taste. But I really like the idea that Petruchio looks kind of good. To him, he's not dressed like a woman – he's dressed like someone who says 'I'll wear what the hell I like'."
Petruchio's certainly no lady… on the contrary, he's lord of a somewhat crumbling manor. He might have a title (the 16th Earl of Charlbury), but he hasn't got much money.
So when he meets hardnosed MP Katherine Minola (Shirley Henderson) – who also happens to be loaded – he's determined to woo her.
"It's not love at first sight, it's money at first sight, which then becomes something more. It's a story of two total misfits taming each other, really," says Rufus, who jumped at the chance to work with Shirley Henderson again, after striking up a great friendship with the Scots actress on the set of the Bafta-winning BBC period drama, Charles II, two years ago.
"I loved playing Petruchio because he's just a big, daft, nice character. He does outrageous things and behaves totally inappropriately and it was a lot of fun just to have that kind of release."
The actor describes the film as a "modern riff on Shakespeare" and, appropriately, decided early on that "Petruchio is just the type of person who, occasionally, might quote a little bit of Shakespeare for theatrical effect. There are plenty of fruity old farts who do that – and he's one of them!"
It's not something Rufus would ever be caught doing, not least because, as a teenager, he did his best to avoid Shakespeare – and, indeed, school – while his classmates grappled with the iambic pentameter.
Rufus was born in Twickenham to Welsh mother Jo and Australian father Bill, an animator who worked on Yellow Submarine. His father died when Rufus was just ten and Jo was left to bring up Rufus and his older brother, Caspar, alone.
Rufus readily admits that his mum had her work cut out: he was a teen rebel and bunking off school was his speciality.
"I wasn't a model schoolboy," he says. "Of course, I was forced to sit through Shakespeare and I really got into some of it, though it depended on who was reading it out. If your first experience of Twelfth Night is some grumpy teenager droning on incomprehensibly, it can put you off a bit."
Despite his early misgivings about education, Rufus (who insists: "I'm a better-behaved boy now than I was then,") studied at London's Central School of Speech and Drama, where he won the Best Newcomer Award for his London stage debut in Making It Better.
"I was a very undisciplined person but acting was something that actually motivated me to get up in the morning. I hadn't experienced that before, but it was something that really excited me. I think I could be quite self-conscious and it gave me a release," he says.
An early role in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia earned him an Olivier Award nomination in 1993. A year later, he became a household name when he appeared as the dashing Will Ladislaw in the BBC TV costume drama Middlemarch and set hearts a-flutter across the nation.
Rufus has appeared on the big screen in A Knight's Tale and Helen Of Troy, and will shortly be seen in The Illusionist, alongside Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti, and medieval romance Tristan And Isolde.
He is also currently starring in swashbuckling action flick The Legend Of Zorro.
The actor spent six months of last year in Mexico, filming the Zorro sequel opposite Catherine Zeta-Jones and Antonio Banderas.
"It was wild and mad and all the rest of it but for the last six weeks I was basically on a train, fighting Antonio Banderas – or, rather, an array of stuntmen wearing masks and pretending to be Antonio Banderas," he laughs.
"Actually, I had a rather cool stuntman as well. You'll notice that I'm a really good fighter when I'm seen from behind … and, funnily enough, as soon as you can see my face, I'm marginally crap again!"
But despite the highs of the Hollywood life, Rufus – whose wife, Amy, a writer and poet, and three-year-old son, Billy, joined him in Mexico – was relieved to come home again.
"I'm really enjoying being at home now because I've been away so much. The Taming Of The Shrew is probably the first time I've worked in this country for about ten years, apart from theatre, and it's not for want of trying. It was so fantastic to work in London – it felt really glamorous," says Rufus, though he admits that the few days the cast spent in Tuscany were idyllic, even if they did "make mincemeat of any Atkins diets being attempted at the time".
Working at home also gave the actor the chance to catch up with some old friends, including Stephen Tompkinson, who also appears in the drama as Harry, Petruchio's best mate.
"Steve and I were at drama school together and have been mates for years," says Rufus. "We didn't have to do a lot of work on the relationship between the characters because it was kind of already there."
In fact, he says, some of the scenes took the pair right back to their student days.
"We used to go out on the booze together and I used to crash at his flat, things like that. In fact, I distinctly remember getting him into trouble once by leaving mascara marks on one of his pillows. His girlfriend wouldn't believe it was from a bloke. Then she met me and it all made sense…"