Rhys Ifans talks about some of the challenges of playing Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, in Roland Emmerich's Anonymous, a film that controversially challenges the identity of William Shakespeare. He also addresses some of the controversy and talks about reuniting with Vanessa Redgrave after his earliest experience of working with her.
You play the 'real' Shakespeare. What kind of burden was that? And did you enjoy it?
Rhys Ifans: I'm not over it yet. No, again, like Rafe [Spall, who plays Shakespeare], Roland asked me in his beautiful home in London which character I responded to and much to everyone's surprise it was the genius aristocrat [laughs]. So, he made me jump through a few hoops... two hoops to convince him and three hoops to convince Sony and this [press conference] is the fourth, so I hope you all enjoyed it!
You've performed Shakespeare and did the research... you're a working class hero, a left-winger, so what do feel about a theory that suggests that Shakespeare wasn't written by a working class man but a lord?
Rhys Ifans: Whoever wrote Shakespeare is a working class hero, be he an aristocrat or a peasant. Shakespeare is a great leveller. We're presented with kings, queens, emperors and giants who feel the same things as everyone else: jealousy, love, anger, bitterness, grief, loss. I was always aware of the authorship debate, but never particularly interested in it because the body of work that we all have speaks for itself. But in reading Shakespeare and in reading about Edward de Vere, it's quite apparent when you read these works that whoever penned this body of work was firstly well-travelled, secondly a multi-linguist and thirdly someone who had an innate knowledge of the inner workings and the mechanisms of a very secret and paranoid Elizabethan court. Edward de Vere ticks those three boxes and many more. William of Stratford gave his wife a bed when he died.
I gather you were a stagehand - a trainee flyman - at Theatre Clwyd when Vanessa Redgrave was playing Cleopatra there. What does it mean for you now to be starring with Vanessa in a film?
Rhys Ifans: I did mention to Vanessa that we'd worked together before and I was a 17 or 18-year-old flyman. I was positioned way above her pulling the scenery in and out [laughs], so my first experience of Vanessa was the glorious top of her head! And this experience has been Vanessa in 3D. But that first time was during the time of Chernobyl and I was 70 feet above Vanessa, so maybe that's why I glow in the dark [laughs]. But this has been an incredible experience to actually work alongside her.
Did you do any special preparation for this role? And was it difficult to hold up the English accent rather than your Welsh one?
Rhys Ifans: Well, it wasn't hard to keep up the accent because [assumes classical accent] I'm classically trained. No, it was a joy. Roland talked to all of us individually about our characters and the look was kind of specific for de Vere. On a lighter note, of course we discussed the burden of anonymity and all these highbrow questions, but the initiative thing Roland would say to me of de Vere [was]: "Just think of him as Karl Lagerfeld." And that gave him a shape. And so I said to him: "Well, if I do Karl Lagerfeld, am I allowed to bring a bit of David Bowie into it too?" So, I think collectively we've put Lady Gaga to shame!
And what did you make of Jamie Campbell Bower's performance as the younger version of you?
Rhys Ifans: As for Jamie, there's no way I was as good looking as Jamie when I was his age so my only note to Jamie was or is: "Thank you for making me look good in the sack" [laughs].
But did you work with him beforehand to make sure your performances followed a particular arc?
Rhys Ifans: Fortunately, what was extraordinary due to timing and the scheduling was that previous to the scenes I had with Vanessa, Jamie and Joely [Richardson] had shot their scenes together so I watched them and when I finally met Vanessa I had a very real visual and moving memory of this beautiful, optimistic man who is slowly crushed by his talent and the world around him.
Did you have any apprehension about upsetting Shakespeare purists when you first read the script?
Rhys Ifans: I've sat through many a play where I've wished I had gone to the cinema. But this is a film that makes me want to go to the theatre and I think that's the enduring message to emerge from the film.
Interview: Rob Carnevale Photo: Sony