The 42nd Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF, 2-10 December) opened with Florian Zeller’s debut The Father. Based in Zeller’s 2012 play, which on its launch in Paris won a Moliere Award before moving onto Broadway and London’s West End, where it won both Tony and Olivier Awards for Best Actor for Frank Langella and Kenneth Cranham respectively, the film was cowritten by Christopher Hampton shot in London.
Alongside Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman, it stars Mark Gatiss (The Favourite, TV’s Sherlock), Imogen Poots (Green Room, A Long Way Down), Rufus Sewell (Judy, TV’s The Man in the High Castle) and Olivia Williams (Victoria & Abdul, An Education). Both Hampton, ho received this year’s CIFF Lifetime Achievement Award, and Sewell are guests of the festival.
In The Father, Hopkins plays the eponymous role of a mischievous and highly independent man who, as he ages, refuses all assistance from his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman). Yet such help is more and more indispensable following Anne’s decision to move to Paris with her partner Paul (Rufus Sewell). As he tries to make sense of his changing circumstances, the father begins to doubt his loved ones, his own mind and even the fabric of his reality. Anne is deeply sympathetic, but Paul is impatient.
The film portrays the father’s viewpoint, however, and so Paul’s behaviour – his cruelty – should be understood as a sense of persecution felt by an old man suffering from dementia.
Sewell says he tried to make Paul more human than cliché. “In reality, people can be good and bad at the same time. The key of this character is that we see everything through the father’s eyes, and he mixes people up. What my character does could be perceived as if he really did it or as if it’s only the father’s mixed up ideas. It is completely ambiguous.” Still, every person contains many characters. “So this complex is completely natural and human”. So much so it even affected Sewell’s own view of people in given situation.
“It opened my mind about it. I don’t think that such a story has been told so we got to feel some of that horror. Hopefully it gives us some insight. I think that what my character represents is what people might be feeling when they are in such a the situation. Where someone with dementia is behaving terribly this might provoke someone to be racist or sexist and violent."
"That is not the case here but people don’t know how they will behave because it can bring out the worst in them. And I think the empathy and compassion in the face of misbehaviour is one of the interesting things that my character represents.”
Sewell adds that when he saw the film, even though he knew what would be happening because he had read and been in it, it hit him hard. “I know what is going to happen but when it happened it hit me. The end of the film for example knocked me sideways.”
Acting alongside Hopkins had been a longtime dream of Sewell’s, since Hopkins had been among the very first actors he noticed. “He is not a normal movie star because there are many movie stars. He is an enormously influential person,” he says, “and that is because you see him play a king or a butler or a madman or a monster, in film, TV, radio, and theater.
He is just a youthful, great actor.”Sewell was delighted to find out that it is easy to act opposite him because he “makes you forget who he is. My experience working with the greatest people is it is easy. It was a very pleasant experience.
He used to tell me stories and, my God, I also told him stories. He was telling me jokes too. It was one of the most pleasant, straightforward, simplest working environments.” With Hopkins as the father figure, a family under pressure was the opposite of the atmosphere on set. “Although when we acted it was absolutely real but in between scenes I think we liked to be relaxed and to have a nice time. It was a very pleasant and fun atmosphere. Going to work every day was something we looked forward to.”
But was it a risk to work with playwright Florian Zeller as a first-time director? “You never know,” Sewell says.
“You may work with people who know nothing but success and their first experience of failure will be with you. For me he is a genius playwright. As a director he was wonderful. It is wonderful to work with someone who has written the words. He was a natural director. I felt ease and relaxation about him. Someone would say a line and he would say, ‘Oh, I’m not sure about it.’ He had true confidence. True confidence in my experience is where he just sits back and creates an atmosphere which is very easy. I think he is a great director.”
Although the film star cannot predict the mark The Father will leave on him, what he would like to keep is the sense that he was in the right room, and that he was privileged to work with great actors, and with great material. More than anything to come of it, he feels, the experience is its own reward.
Sewell has always chosen his roles very carefully: “I am not well known in the big films as the main guy so if I want to play a good role, I have to fight harder to find the things I like to do because it is more limited when it comes to knowledge of what I am capable of. I don’t take it personally as in the past I used to be wary of making people know what I could do but now I think that people already know what I’m capable of."
"My best is when I do comedy or romance and I can have fun doing well written darker roles. I also still do theatre every couple of years. I’m really hoping to do more plays and every book that I’m reading is about theatre, not even consciously.” Generally speaking, he believes he has balance in his life: “I have a good life and a good career.”
Born in 1967, Rufus Sewell belongs to a family of creative if ordinary people: “My father was an animator who came from Australia in the 1950s, but he was also a body builder. He met my mother in the 1960s in London where she was playing jazz piano and she was painting but she was also a social worker working with kids. My brother is a double bass player and a landscape gardener.”
His family was not rich, but it made up for it in other ways. “We had books and piano and I grew up in a kind of bohemian but poor family. It was very interesting at school as we were kind of poor but arty. I did not know any actors but when I was quite young, I realised that as an undisciplined person I had the potential of discipline with acting. My mum wanted me to find something that I was happy with and I was not under any pressure to do a certain thing.”
Looking back today, he feels what is good about his career is that he is returning to what he was doing before he achieved success.
“What I loved about my career when I first started was that it represented me much better than the kind of journey that I had after. When I was at art school, I play really extraordinarily different characters. And that kind of changed because suddenly I was under the pressure of acting things that prove what people thought I looked like. It took me a long time to find my way back. Every few years I have the opportunity to represent what I can do. I am proud that I’ve kept going although sometimes I was far away from what I was good at."
“Now I am older and I don’t go through any of those complications any more because I worked through a lot of things. Now I am happy to play any kind of character and I don’t care what people think. I found my way of accepting my strangeness. Before, I thought I was not allowed to show my strangeness. My hands were tied to my back. But I’m lucky to start reaping the benefits now."
"In my 50s I feel more energized and excited about what I do than I have in quite a long time. All the things that are odd about you,” Sewell says, all the things you might feel disqualify you, everything you feel slightly wrong about yourself – that’s who you are. Don’t throw that away, because it’s all you have. Put away the pressure of having to normalize yourself to fit in the world and feel the value of what you have. This is a lesson that I learned after a long time struggling.”
As for CIFF, he says it is “an enormous honour. I was delighted to know that I was coming to Egypt to represent the film. It is fantastic to be here. I loved the people, loved the food. I haven’t stopped eating since I arrived!” Coming to Egypt had been a lifelong dream, yet this is not a holiday. “I don’t have holidays. For me if I finish a job and I know that it is going to be a long time until something good enough comes along I don’t spend all my money on a holiday because that would mean I’d have to say yes to jobs that I don’t really like.”
Rufus Sewell recently wrapped up playing the lead, Mark, in the upcoming Mammoth Screen mini-series The Pale Horse for BBC1. He recently completed four seasons of the hugely successful Amazon show The Man in the High Castle produced by Scott Free Television, and he featured in the second season of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel, also for Amazon, in which he received a 2019 Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series. His most recent role was Sid Luft in Rupert Goold’s feature JUDY, starring Renee Zellweger, for BBC Films.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.