Who would win a wet cotton shirt competition? Colin Firth or Matthew Rhys?
It was the question on viewers’ lips when it was announced that Rhys is to reprise the role of Pride and Prejudice’s Mr Darcy, in a BBC adaptation of the PD James’s sequel, Death Comes to Pemberley.
The 38 year old actor from Cardiff is sitting in the Pali Hotel on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood, pondering the answer, but it’s a fairly quick response: ‘I’d say Firth.’
It was Firth’s Mr Darcy, emerging from the lake, all tousle-haired, with white shirt clinging to his fine, muscled chest, that set female hearts racing back in Andrew Davies’s sexy adaptation of the Jane Austen 1813 classic back in 1995. So can we also hope for a repeat performance of the iconic scene from Rhys? ‘Definitely not. Colin is so rooted in the national psyche, it would be almost sacrilegious to try to do it; it’s a level of comparison I wouldn’t want. He looked good. Really good. It’s not as if he looks bad now, but that scene resonated so much.’
Comparisons are nevertheless inevitable, not least in the physical similarity between the two men – dark, handsome, great eyes, and the ability to hold a fixed expression that makes the ladies swoon. Rhys was chosen, says Ben Stephenson, head of BBC drama, because of his good looks and a ‘likeable but dark edge’ as an actor. ‘We did not want a Milk Tray advert kind of handsomeness.’
Rhys still feels a little apprehensive at taking on a role so fixed in the minds of viewers. ‘It’s what I found when I played Dylan Thomas (in the 2008 film, The Edge of Love). Everyone had an idea about him, even though there had never been any footage, so nobody really knew. It’s the same with Darcy. So many people love Pride and Prejudice, they have a very strong idea of who or what Darcy should be. Coupled with that is the fact that Laurence Olivier played him, Colin Firth nailed it, as did Matthew MacFadyen, so there are instant comparisons to be drawn. My only saving grace is that it’s not Pride and Prejudice, it’s Pemberley, it’s 6 yrs on and he’s a very different Darcy.’
Anything remotely sexual (‘at least, on screen’) is definitely off the agenda five years after Darcy’s marriage to Elizabeth Bennett, but they have two children, so something must have gone right (‘although you can’t categorically say that both the kids are his’). The toned down nature of the couple’s attraction can be attributed to the adaptation being a family show.
Currently single (he claims, although he is intensely private about his personal life), he believes that we are all searching for that one person. ‘I have romantic, rose-tinted notions that someone’s out there – I just wish she’d hurry up and knock on my door.’
Rhys clearly has a place in his heart for the man he is trying to get to understand (not least, in the love department) where others, on first impressions, fail. ‘I think he comes from somewhere else. First of all, when I approach a character, I never try and give them negative characteristics; I always try and look for where the empathy lies – justifications. I think with Darcy, it’s all to do with Pemberley and the name he’s inherited. He’s incredibly duty bound and he’s incredibly honest – which is why Elizabeth first hated him.’
While Rhys sees his own romantic nature in Darcy, he is less sure whether he shares the man’s moral core. ‘It’s been tested . . . I struggle . . . but I’ve not always been as well behaved as I should be. Darcy has a strong sense of honour – that’s why they call what we do acting.’
While we await the smouldering Mr Darcy, viewers can catch a very different Rhys in The Americans, currently showing on ITV in the UK. Created by Joe Weisberg and first broadcast in January this year on the FX cable channel in the US, it is the story of two KGB spies, in an arranged marriage, posing as Americans in suburban Washington DC during Reagan’s Cold War era. While Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) remains firmly loyal to the motherland, Phillip (Matthew Rhys) is increasingly attracted to the American way of life, which his two children (who remain oblivious to their parents’ true identity) have embraced.
It is an astonishing performance by Rhys, who employs different guises and accents with seeming ease. He moves between love scenes and scenes of extreme violence with a fluidity that one minute has viewers’ hearts pounding, and the next melting for the character’s tenderness.
The show is a huge hit in the US, where Rhys has become a star following his portrayal of gay Kevin Walker in Brothers and Sisters, which ran for five seasons. It required him to get his kit off and engage in relatively explicit sex scenes with his lover, Scotty (Luke Macfarlane). There was only one thing he found difficult about the scenes – ‘Stubble. That was the first thing I remember thinking. Then you just approach it as you would any part.’
In The Americans, he’s getting his kit off – again. The KGB has never been so sexy; so sexy, it makes you want to defect. Where once there were men in overcoats growling in Russian, now there is Rhys’s torso engaged in a variety of sexual poses with different women.
His seeming lack of shyness and undoubted good looks (he has a ridiculously perfect mouth) have turned Rhys into a sex symbol on both sides of the Atlantic – an observation he greets with uproarious laughter. ‘It continues to make me laugh; I don’t know anyone who genuinely believes they are a sex symbol.’
He hasn’t always been confident about his looks, either. ‘I was a massively self-conscious as a kid. I had bad skin, bad acne and the multitude of insecurities that every teenager has. I overcame them by pretending to be other people. It was a natural progression into this ridiculous business.’
It took a long time for Rhys to feel comfortable about playing out sex scenes and developing the confidence to take his clothes off in front of the camera. ‘The first job where you have to do that, you’re terrified; you just feel so vulnerable. The second time is pretty scary, too. By the third time, it’s more familiar. You just think, I’m gonna have to do this.’
It’s a far cry from the shy 25 year old who, playing opposite Kathleen Turner in The Graduate in 1995, could not bring himself to look at the 45 year old’s naked body onstage once. What he did learn, however, was how to effect his American accent, as Turner would correct him when he got it wrong. Having also grown up with American TV shows such as Starsky and Hutch, Rhys’s accent could, these days, easily pass for a native’s and is undoubtedly a factor in his having been able to land top jobs in the US, where so many others have failed.
Like Phillip in The Americans, he is now a foreigner (proudly Welsh - his first language) trying to be an American, while acknowledging the need to keep a realistic head on his shoulders.
‘This place is like an asylum. It’s an industry driven town and it’s like Klondike – that gold rush fever. Everything is possible, and I love that about the place; it is the land of eternal optimism, and it’s great. You can chase your dreams; you can follow your dreams until your last day. There is that thing in the air, that mercurial thing that anything is possible here; but on the flip side, where I come from, you carry your sack of salt on your back, because you take a pinch of it every second of the day.’
Rhys’s down to earth attitude, delightful nature and great humour make him a joy to work with – everybody on both sides of the Atlantic says so, and nobody has a bad word to say about him; but there are things that rile him. ‘I don’t deal with diva behaviour very well – any sort of rudeness or ignorance; arrogance doesn’t sit well with me – or injustices; for example, if somebody’s being ill-treated because of hierarchy on the set.’
His lack of grandiose behaviour rooted in realism has ensured ongoing success. While his acting skills were honed at RADA, he carries a Welsh modesty with him that is borne of both family and country. ‘As a race, the Welsh are not known for their arrogance, and we have a healthy attitude – an ability to smash it out of anyone who does have it. But we do suffer from small nation syndrome sometimes. I think we could do with a healthy dose of confidence. But you know, there’s a thin line between confidence and arrogance.’
His modesty is also abundantly apparent in his ability to recognise external factors that have contributed to his success.
‘I don’t say this glibly, but so much of this business is luck – massive, massive luck, and I’ve just been incredibly lucky in the parts that I’ve been given and in the timing when they’ve come about and I’ve been able to do them. Because as much as you sit down at the beginning and you leave drama school and you say This is what I want my career to be, there’s no way on God’s green earth that it’ll pan out the way you want. And another great liberating day is when you realise you have very little control over your career unless you’re Tom Cruise – A Listers are the only ones who can go This is what I’ll do next. You’re at the mercy of the gods.’
At the moment, the gods are smiling very kindly on him. When he finishes filming Pemberley, it’s straight back to New York to film series two of The Americans, which is already being tipped to pick up dozens of awards – including several for Rhys.
As for the future, he’s not sure, although he feels that he will in all likelihood return to the UK. ‘I feel like I’ve been on location for eight years. I keep feeling someone’s going to tap me on the shoulder and say “Come on, time to go home.” I’ve no idea where the future lies. Given the employment situation in the US and Britain, you just go where the work is these days.’
Until then, he is just looking forward to taking up residence at Pemberley where, filming in Yorkshire, he will be able to return home often to friends and family in Wales.
Maybe, in the rugby club, he’ll bet getting his kit off for the lads.
And why not. He’s done it for everyone else.