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Rupert Friend is the handsome young dilettante who catches Michelle Pfeiffer's eye in Stephen Frears' Chéri, opening on Friday, June 26. The film, which also stars Kathy Bates as Friend's mother, is eye candy wrapped in eye candy: set in the drawing rooms, gardens, and boudoirs of 1906 Paris, the sumptuous design is reminiscent of Merchant and Ivory's lovely period pieces.
Read more about Chéri here, but in the meantime, here's Friend's roundtable interview, presented in its entirety.
How did you like the way you looked in this film? The clothes, the hair?
We had a lot of visual ideas about Chéri, one of them being the idea that he was sort of a devil and an angel. Physically he looked like a most angelic, sweet, sort of well-behaved boy, but he actually had the morals of a Lucifer. We also had the idea—Stephen and I—of a sort of ballerina matador in the way that he moved. Working with Consolata Boyle on the costumes, we very much wanted to keep that element of dangerous grace, where you can be gliding through a room one moment, and pouncing the next with a barb or an action or a look.
Yeah, when I was preparing the role, an image that came to me very strongly was of this lazy tomcat on a hot, brick wall, sort of just lazily watching the world go by. But when a mouse came too close [knocks the table], it was a goner. That was something I felt as soon as I read the script.
Stephen Frears said they were originally looking for an American, because Michelle Pfeiffer and Kathy Bates were American. But then you came in. Did you know that was what they were looking for when you came in for the audition?
Well, I was aware I was probably quite low on the list. And also that I was going to have to fight tooth and nail to get the part. When you have a script and a director of this caliber, and a star like Michelle comes on, I should think there were many more high-profile actors than I am who were keen to play the role. So I think the script had some fingerprints on it.
What did you bring to the role that made them decide to cast a Brit and to cast you?
I have no idea. [laughs] You’d have to ask Stephen.
Frears has a track record for plucking people from relative obscurity and making them into stars. Did you have that in mind?
Not really. I’d never met him before. Obviously, I’d seen his work and was a big fan. I was just relishing the opportunity to work with such a consummate filmmaker, and I felt I was going to be in very safe hands, and that if we screwed up, it would be my fault, not his. Everyone else on the show had already proved their mettle, and I was the unknown actor.
Frears is rather reticent in discussing his process and how he approaches working with actors. Could you tell us something about how you discussed where you were going with this role, and what he gave you each day as you approached the day’s shooting?
I can understand his reticence, because I share it. I think that the process of trying to become somebody else, and obviously the director/actor relationship in trying to do that, is such a weird, undefinable thing. There’s definitely not a sit-down board meeting where you talk it all through, at least not with Stephen. It’s much more of an instinctive, felt thing, and the only thing I can liken it to is it’s a bit like music. You could say to a musician, “If you play this note and then this note, it will be good.” But you’d be wrong. There’s a sense or a feeling about it, which you literally can’t describe. And Stephen is a brilliant conductor of humans, and of emotions, and yet he never really says anything. It’s a very, very curious thing, and I can’t explain or recreate or remember it particularly, other than that you trust him implicitly. So you sort of put yourself in his hands, and follow your instincts and trust that he will steer you when you go off-course.
And how does he steer? Is it a word, is it a look?
It’s like, you know when you walk into a room, and someone you know very well—your partner, your son, somebody—is there, and you know they are in a bad mood, and you can just tell, without them saying anything or doing anything? Well, it’s the same with Stephen—with all of his moods, you just sort of know. I felt this very strongly—we didn’t have any big conversations, arguments, discussions, pep talks. I would just know when he was wanting something else.
When you started researching this period and culture, was there anything that particularly surprised you?
Well, I didn’t know anything about the social status of courtesans at the time, and wanted to really understand them as a social group, because I think the film really deals with that in a way that other things perhaps haven’t. They are a very unique group in a very unique period of time, being as they were, highly accomplished women who were independently wealthy and talented and charming and witty and beautiful and very canny with their money, and for all that, entirely emancipated from the typical female role of that time. They were very powerful, and in an age where women didn’t have the vote or anything, it’s very inspiring to see how they turned the social expectation to their own advantage.
What was your experience working with Michelle?
It was nothing but wonderful. She was a very, very generous actor, and we established a trust early on, which was lucky because we had to do some very hard work together. Not just the more obvious intimate scenes, but when the characters go through these 180-degree changes of emotions, seemingly without reason. You have to feel that you are dancing together, that one will catch the other; otherwise, it’s very exposing.
What did you do to build up that trust?
I don’t know. It just happened. We met the night before we were going to start shooting, and knew nothing of each other before then. (Obviously, I knew her work, but she didn’t know mine.) So we had a quick cup of tea, and then what I think happened was we left ourselves behind at that point and started to just inhabit the world we were creating.
Chéri must have been a hard character to play because he’s so indecipherable. It’s all inaction. Did you have any fears about playing a part like that? It can be thankless.
Definitely. One of the first walls that I came to was this statement that Léa [Pfeiffer's character] makes—that she can’t criticize his character because he doesn’t seem to have one. Which for an actor is a tricky thing, because obviously we are looking for character. A great way of finding out about somebody—as an actor, or even in life—is to find out what they want. That can give you a lot of clues about their behavior. But when somebody doesn’t seem to want anything—has everything he could possibly ask for, but doesn’t seem to want any of it—it is a very challenging onion to unpeel.
Is a Colette character more challenging than a Jane Austen character?
They are an interesting comparison, because both writers obviously were female, and dealt with a new strength in women. They allowed women to think independently, act independently, and in many times, overshadow the male characters in their wisdom, intellect, and wit. I think as a man playing in particular Chéri, there was very little masculinity about Chéri the character. It was a story about a man-boy who had been raised entirely by women. The only contact with men he would have had—as you can see from that gathering of friends—there’s a man dressed as a woman, and the other men would have been paying by the half-an-hour. So there’s a lack of male role modeling in Chéri’s life, which I think explains a few things about him.
What does it explain?
In this particular guy, there is a huge appreciation of the beautiful. The courtesans you see in Gigi [the Vincente Minnelli film, also based on a story by Colette], the thing they prize above all else is their trousseau, the collection of jewelry, because for them it is effectively their pension—when you are working in their business, there is no security, and no one is going to retire you with any sort of pension. There is the thing in Gigi: “Whatever you do, make sure you get a jewel out of it.” It’s referred to in the film many times. You’ve got to get that jewel, because that won’t depreciate, that’s what’s going to see you through when your looks go.
[Chéri] is about time passing, and that beauty is a tradeable, quantifiable commodity. They were aware that unless you got material possessions out of these transactions, you were going to be left high and dry at some point.
How did that affect Chéri?
Well, I think that love of the glittery—the magpie quality—there’s not an interest in matters of the mind or soul. It’s not an interest in philosophy or literature—it’s the clothes, jewels, holidays, houses, cars, paintings, things that display wealth, that rely on a sense of the aesthetic, of good taste.
With values like that and a focus like that, how would you make a character likable? Or was that not a concern?
I do not have a concern to make the character likable. I have a concern to play him truthfully. I believe that if you can discover something of the truth of a person, then you will start to understand, and to understand is to move towards, if not like, then at least an empathy of some kind. My concern was certainly not to try and smooth out his bad bits. Colette wrote a very complicated young man, and I don’t think he was a standard, square-jawed hero—quite the reverse in many ways. And when you start to look at why that might have been—What has kept him a child for so long? Was it Léa’s fault? Could you put it at her feet? Is it his mother’s fault? Is it society’s fault? Or was he just born that way?—it’s more interesting than trying to paint a sympathetic picture every time.
There’s a transition in the film from Chéri being 19 to being 25. That’s a lot of aging in a short time. What did you do in your performance to capture that six years, and the development of their relationship as well?
That’s a good point. That six-year period—which you could see as a hiatus or you could see as the relationship or Léa’s tutoring period, whatever—also encompassed Chéri doing more of the same thing. And it’s that curious thing that you see nowadays among the very, very wealthy—the jet set, or whatever they’re called—where you have no money worries whatsoever, and when you’ve sailed in the biggest yachts, and gone to the best tailor, and eaten at the finest restaurants, and you’ve done that every night for six years, and you cannot buy a better bottle of wine than the one you’re buying every night, there’s a point, I think, in the human nature, where you just become incredibly bored of life. You start to become listless and apathetic, and lose your hunger. I think that what drives most of us as human beings is the want for something. You might have a hope, or a big dream, or a goal that you haven’t yet achieved. And when you take that away from somebody, whether by incarcerating them, or in Chéri’s case, by making them possibly over-privileged, you’re left with very little to live for, literally. So it was really trying to explore what six years of that sort of luxurious monotony might have done to somebody.
That whole milieu—the different characters and what they represent—do you think that has any resonance in our current day situation?
I don’t think film has a duty to be relevant to today, always. Film is a fantastical world, and it can be about exploring a time that has passed. It can be about telling a story to take us away from today. But if you were to draw a parallel, I suppose the obvious one would be pre-the-crash-of-autumn-last-year, when the trend was that we all spent beyond our means, and sort of reveled in the opulence of that. The difference being that [in Chéri] they weren’t spending beyond their means, they weren’t even touching the sides, they had plenty more where that came from. And they weren’t tied up in loans, this was a concrete jewel or house or whatever that you owned outright. That was their trick.
What do you have awaiting release that you can tell us about?
There’s a film called The Young Victoria, about the early life of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and their romance.
Are you Albert?
Yes. So, a much more decent human being, on every level.
He was quite a remarkable man.
He was an extraordinary man, and the opposite of Chéri, in that he didn’t ever see his life’s work being done, and had this incredible sense of urgency: about his philanthropic work, about his commitment to his queen, the country that wasn’t even his, and all this in the face of immense opposition from the British people, and even from Victoria herself for awhile. He persevered through all of that to become the love of her life.
I tried to understand what it might be in a man to make a woman mourn for the next forty years of her reign, never take the black off, build monument after monument to him. That was very inspiring to me.
What about Lullaby for Pi?
That was a lot of fun. That was a film that I did this year with Forest Whitaker and Clémence Poésy. It’s about a musician, so I learned the piano. I’m playing a New York washed-up jazz musician. It’s about a man who’s mourning his wife in a hotel room, and one day a girl bursts into the hotel room and locks herself in his bathroom and won’t come out, and they conduct a relationship through the closed door—they never see each other. So it’s full of music, and he’s a kind of raconteur, so it has lots of rambling musical stories. It’s a very different piece from other things I’ve done.