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Rufus Sewell has been a recognizable star of stage and screen for countless years, with a filmography that includes a stunning portrayal in 1998’s Dark City, as well as memorable performances in Tristan + Isolde, The Illusionist, The Holiday and The Tourist. The British actor has become well known for his villainous roles, but his latest turn as Adam, the undead antagonist in director Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, provided the classically trained actor with refreshing new challenges.
We caught up with Sewell while he was in New York City, and discussed the logistics of navigating razor-sharp porcelain vampire teeth, prepping for his role by listening to Orson Welles, acting in an effects-laden environment, Twilight body sparkle and the possibility of comedic roles in his future.
I’m kind of aghast that you’re just sitting here in the lobby of the Ritz, undisturbed. It’s a little surreal.
[laughs] I’m always sitting somewhere having a coffee.
Is that on your business card, “Professional lobby-sitter”?
Yeah! Layabout. Idler. Soy latte-sipper.
I have to gush first. Dangerous Beauty is a movie that I revisit all the time.
Oh, yeah. It’s good stuff. You must get that a lot.
I do — I get it in America. No one ever saw it in England!
This is just my subtle way of saying that you need to play another romantic lead, like, now.
Well, I’m up for it! [laughs]
In your role as Adam, a kind of delightfully villainous and charismatic guy, it looks like you had a lot of fun.
I decided it was a romantic lead!
Oh, did you? I’ll allow that to count.
[laughs] As far as he’s concerned!
What attracted you to the role? You’ve played villains before, but never a vampire villain!
I’ve certainly thought in the past … to be sent a big film for a part that isn’t a bad guy, I’ve never known what that feels like. And maybe that’ll change. But I have to look for the variances where I can. And for me, as far as I’m concerned, to be prepared to do television, film, theater and radio and not be trying to chase a buck means that I can play a wide variety of roles, but generally — at the moment — not big films. Or I can’t be too fussy about the size of role, because I don’t want to just play the same role again. But as far as I was concerned, a vampire — actually — I really want to do that! Timur Bekmambetov … and vampires? Yeah!
And the thing about Adam is that he’s not entirely evil — you sort of get where he’s coming from.
My stance on him is he is, as far as he’s concerned, the president of the vampires. He’s been around forever, you can’t tell him shit. He was there from the time of the Egyptians, so he’s seen human society’s empires rise and fall, rise and fall — so the span of a human life [snaps fingers]. So he’s a pragmatist, he is a great soldier and prophet for his people. And he’s found the promise land. Much as they did a few hundred years ago. I mean, you’re not one of the first occupiers of this country, either! So he basically wants a new nation for his people.
It’s interesting that you discuss the government side of things with Adam’s plans for a vampire nation — it almost sounds like a prequel to True Blood. Have you seen that show?
Yeah, I love it but I’m not up to date on it. But exactly, yeah!
The vampire thing is pretty trendy.
It’s trendy if you’re a teenager. I don’t sparkle quite enough to be allowed into that club.
Do you know they make Twilight body sparkle? You can buy it online!
Do they? Now you tell me!
Well, better late than never!
[laughs] I don’t think I’ll start wearing it now. I am, actually. I am right now. [laughs]
Did you delve into vampire research for this role? Because Adam isn’t in Seth Grahame-Smith’s book, and you didn’t have real-life people in history to look to like Benjamin and Mary Elizabeth did.
Well, I’m not in the book, right. I studied the things that I thought were useful — I didn’t look into vampires, because as far as I’m concerned, un-research is just as useful when you play the undead. Because we’re bombarded with imagery from the moment we’re watching TV — about vampires. You tell someone to do “vampire” and they’ll go “ah ha ha ha!” whatever. What I’m saying is we’ve already had decisions made for us, so you’ve got to kind of root through those. And actually what was useful for me … I listened to Orson Welles reading The War of the Worlds, just for the kind of stately early-Hollywood voices and characters. Because I saw him as a kind of Eisenhower-era cigar room dealmaker. Like a kind of captain of industry. He considers himself to be a vampire’s vampire. He’s the baby-kissing vampire.
Except he’s sucking the baby’s blood, not kissing it.
[laughs] Yeah, but you know what I mean — if there was a vampire election, you can see why he’d be the leader, because he has their best interests at heart.
Which is why the movie sets up a very interesting juxtaposition between Abe, who’s rising into his political position, and Adam.
Yeah, and that’s why I want Abe on my side. I don’t just kill him, I want him to become a vampire.
And the make-up in this is like nothing we’ve ever seen before, as far as the vampires go. The blue veins throbbing through your face and such.
You can’t see yourself while they’re doing it, but there’s something about watching that process happen — and the eyes. It’s really freaky! I’ve got weird enough eyes anyway, but just sticking those things in. I look like a kind of sick fox.
Those were contacts, right? Could you actually see through them?
Yeah, you can see through them. Everything’s slightly milky, which is strange. You kind of forget them after a while.
You didn’t always have tangible things to work with during action sequences in this movie, since it’s so effects-laden. How did Timur help you envision and realize the scenes?
Yeah, I mean, quite unashamedly, I fight in my corner. He’s very much an ally, but what I mean is he’s very childlike in his imagination, he’ll have a very exciting idea and he’ll come running up to you, “I have an idea! I have an idea! You can be on a bicycle!” And I’m saying, “Yeah, hold on — forgive me — but this is what my character wants. How do I do that without losing that?” And he’ll go, “Oh, I see your problem, yes. You must realize, I’m thinking visually.” So let’s work together — what can we come up with that gives me what I want and also keeps the integrity of what you’re doing? And because I was quite vocal in saying that, he was incredibly responsive. And he is a visual director, but at the same time he was very enabling for me — he wanted me to do what I do. But I had to kind of fight for my space, to start off with. It was just a communicative thing.
Do you have trouble watching yourself on screen?
It’s not so bad when you have all that make-up and stuff. Somehow, because I’m monstered out, it’s like one removed. I can watch playback on set, if the sound’s turned down and I’m at a distance and looking through a crack between my fingers. [laughs] I find it more difficult if I’m supposed to be looking more normal.
I hear you lodged one of your vampire teeth into Dominic Cooper’s neck.
I didn’t even bite, but I went “ahhh” like that and I didn’t chomp down but still, it went in his neck! And you know kitten’s teeth, you know how sharp they are? They were long, but they were sharp at the end. They were porcelain, steel-reinforced, fucking fangs!
Of your huge breadth of work — film, TV, radio — is there anything that you dream of tackling next? I’d love to see you do comedy!
The thing that I started off with at drama school, the thing that people tease me about, they used to say that they couldn’t look at me without laughing. Because I did comedy! I hate listening to actors going on about what they want to do — I very rarely want to watch them do what they want to do, but I do feel there’s a whole lot of stuff that I can do. Not just in terms of comedy, but in terms of characters. So I never got the chance to do on screen what comes to me naturally. So everything else that you see is what I would’ve considered a stretch when I was at drama school. I thought I was going to get trapped in comedy – that’s why I took my first straight roles so seriously.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter opens today nationwide.