You’ll probably know him as the whiney yet loveable gay lawyer from Brothers & Sisters, the multi-award-nominated ABC drama that ran for five series from 2006 to 2011. The thing is, there’s more to Welsh actor Matthew Rhys than his surprisingly good American accent (more on that, later). Horseback riding, stage dominating, thrillseeking, scarf loving and pretty damn talented to boot, Rhys’s star is in the ascendant. Just don’t tell him that, because he’ll probably tell you where to go.
We meet one muggy morning in June, in London. We have an hour before 38-year-old Rhys is required to model AW13’s best looks. Given that three weeks prior to this, LA-based Rhys was trekking alone around Mongolia on horseback, that he once considered joining the army and that he recently completed the infamous Pamplona running of the bulls, I’m dubious about how into the whole thing he is. Turns out I’m wrong.
‘I love coming back to London, especially in fashion week,’ he enthuses. ‘I love the old-school spin on the dapper gent, like the pocket square or the hat. It’s not stuff I’d wear myself because I’m not brave enough, but I love those who are.’
We’ve made a good start – he likes clothes. And before I know it he’s off again. ‘I saw Peter O’Toole once at a restaurant in LA and he had a white suit on, and white shoes with a shocking sock. And then he had this huge, like, clichéd actor scarf, which was pink and floral and he was just sat there drinking rosé, and I was like, “I wish I could be like you”. I’m so envious of that attitude in life.’
Rhys is wearing a pair of well-worn boots, some faded jeans and a shirt. And attitude-wise, he seems pretty serene, which is surprising given that the past year has probably been the biggest of his career.
Earlier this year, Rhys made a startling return to our screens playing the lead role in Joe Weisberg’s critically acclaimed FX series The Americans. An intrigue-filled, cliffhanger-packed spy yarn, Rhys plays one half of a husband and wife living in Washington DC in the 1980s. So far, so normal. That is, of course, until you realise that they are, in fact, a pair of Soviet agents spying on America. It’s a meaty role, and one that not only thrust Rhys into the spotlight but also gave him the chance to do some more physical acting – an opportunity he relished. ‘In Brothers & Sisters, an action sequence was opening a bottle of wine,’ says Rhys. ‘I enjoyed the change in pace because the difference in parts was like night and day. I’ve never done action or anything like that so it was nice to be considered for it.’
The Americans has been commissioned for a second series, but Rhys’s focus has temporarily shifted onto his next role, and it’s both the reason he’s in the UK and also why he’s rocking a substantial pair of muttonchops. The BBC’s adaptation of PD James’s Death Comes to Pemberley, the unofficial follow up to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, airs later this year, and guess which character Rhys is playing? ‘I was at home in Cardiff last weekend and there were people at the pub who said, “I hear you’re playing Colin Firth,” and I went, “Well, no, I’m playing a part he played”,’ laughs Rhys. ‘I’ve done a couple of roles like this… people get disappointed because it’s not what they’re expecting.’
A world away from the fallible, contemporary character he portrayed in Brothers & Sisters and, to an extent, in The Americans, romantic period heroes such as Darcy seem a natural fit for Rhys. In 2004, he spent a year and a half playing Romeo with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and he played Dylan Thomas in 2008’s The Edge of Love alongside Keira Knightley and Sienna Miller. It’s a typecasting he rejects: ‘I feel I’ve done a broad range. But there was a young boy on the set of The Americans who was on the phone saying, “I’m doing a period piece called The Americans” and I was like, “F*** off, I remember 1981.”’
Rhys may be flying high right now but things haven’t always been so rosy. Following a stint on the stage playing Benjamin Braddock to Kathleen Turner’s Mrs Robinson in The Graduate in 2000 (where he also perfected his American accent – ‘Kathleen Turner saying “that’s wrong”, that helped’), Rhys spent an entire year out of work. “I did The Graduate in the West End and I thought, you know, I was made, and then I didn’t work for a year,’ he says. ‘Things got so bad that I was walking past Charing Cross recruiting office [in London] and went in and had a conversation with the cover sergeant for the army’. It’s an insight into a reality all actors face, even those at the top. Behind the veneer of gifting suites and chauffeur-driven cars there’s the harsh fact that jobs are increasingly hard to come by. ‘I’m very aware of what the rollercoaster is,’ he says, ‘and that’s great because as soon as you recognise and accept it, something in you relaxes. You realise that… unless you’re Brad Pitt, you don’t have a choice.’
Fortunately, Rhys decided against the life of a squaddy and in 2006 upped sticks for LA. ‘Cardiff and LA are similar: they’re both asylums, just one has sunshine,’ he jokes. ‘It’s great in LA, but it’s also an industry town so you get slightly caught up in its mania, which isn’t so healthy. It’s sort of like the Klondike [gold rush] in that way. It is actually possible to go there and make something of yourself.’ It’s obviously working for Rhys. But the man sitting before me – currently single, and straight unlike his most famous character – with his five o’clock shadow, flyaway curls and brilliantly wry, indelibly Welsh take on the world, is as far from a product of La La Land as it’s possible to be. ‘I do miss the UK enormously…’ he says. ‘I love that cynical humour. As much as I think sometimes we’re a bit negative, I absolutely love that acerbic outlook we have.’ And what do the residents of LA make of him? ‘They sort of think you’re funny because your humour becomes very cynical, and they go, to “Oh, you Brits ”, when really you’re just digging at them and their wheatgrass shots,’ he says.
Despite Rhys’s ambivalence towards his chosen home, it’s pretty clear he won’t be returning to the UK anytime soon. Not only is he getting more work than ever, he’s also running in some pretty impressive circles. ‘I was sat in a diner called Swingers and Bill Murray just sat down next to me, and we just started talking,’ he laughs. ‘He asked me if I was British and was like, “Do you like Man United?” and I was like, “No, I don’t.” And we just started talking about it.’ And with that, our boyo is ushered into wardrobe. I overhear the stylists discussing ‘those’ sideburns, Rhys greets his make-up artist with a booming hello, a box of steaming ham and cheese croissants is opened, fresh coffee is poured, the rail of clothes is pulled out and I can’t help but feel sad that there’s not a white suit or floral scarf in sight.
Teo van den Broeke is associate editor of British Esquire. Follow him on Twitter @TeoESQUIRE
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