Rupert Evans is as British as they come. He may be best known for playing an American living in the Japanese Pacific States, but when we meet on a Monday afternoon at BAFTA’s HQ on Piccadilly, we find ourselves discussing Nectar points and his pasty white English legs. If you’re still not convinced the star of The Man in the High Castle is a Brit, he uses the word ‘blimey.’ Case closed.
Our interview is scheduled for 12pm – which in Hollywood language can mean anything from midday to “let’s reschedule” – and, yet, here he is, legs crossed in a turquoise wingback sipping a cup of tea at a shade past 11.30am. Punctuality – the first sign of Evans’ very un-showbiz persona.
Since starring in Amazon Prime’s original TV series, The Man in the High Castle, which imagines an alternative reality in which the Nazis triumph in WW2, his level of fame has increased faster than his tan.
Leaning in, Evans says, “When a new series goes up on the platform, I definitely get stopped a lot more. It’s the weirdest times that people stop you, invariably when you are looking at your worst. I have a baby and I’m just sort of pushing a pram somewhere desperately trying to find some nappies – that’s when it happens, when I’m in my pyjamas in Sainsbury’s or something.”
The series first aired in November 2015 and became Amazon’s most successful show, although just how successful is a secret that even the show’s cast aren’t allowed in on. “Amazon are really cagey about numbers. They don’t tell us how many people watch it.”
Combining elements of alternative history and classic drama with sci-fi tones, the series has continued to entertain viewers by blurring the lines between the familiar and dystopian.
“The show sort of puts you in a place of comfort. It throws you into an environment which you think you know and then it adds elements you don’t, and it kind of tests you.”
I think that people will be a little bit surprised by the direction we go with… very surprised, actually
Take, for example, the human ash that falls from the sky like snowflakes; the quintessential American family that’s headed by a Nazi officer; the swastika that replaces the stars on the star-spangled banner. It’s the clashing of the ordinary with the egregious that gives the show its edge. This edge, though, hasn’t come without its complications for the cast and crew when they film in Vancouver.
“It’s very difficult, the Nazi symbol, it affects people, and I think people are shocked by it and are very disturbed by it when they see it, particularly when they’re walking down the street. People do get very upset, and rightly so.”
I ask if he’s ever struggled personally with public reaction to his character: Frank Frink has evolved from an existential artist into an insurgent terrorist revolting against the Japanese regime in occupied San Francisco.
“I think people are very television savvy these days. It’s not like 40 years ago where people watched Coronation Street and really believed these people lived there. I think people know now that there are people called actors and they go and do this job.”
When he isn’t rebelling against authoritarianism, Evans is a softly spoken gent with a gelled-back fringe and a dry sense of humour. He’s the sort of man that puts you at ease, whether you’re an overly-prepared journalist who brings three tape recorders to an interview or the waiter who serves him the wrong drink. The sort that has mastered the ancient art of listening and has a transfixing ability to make you feel important.
It’s hard being rejected and I’ve certainly experienced a lot of that in my time
In short, he’s a chap with manners your grandmother would approve of. Just don’t let the gentle demeanour fool you: he’s been known to take risks that would make Bobby Axelrod blush. Exhibit A: the lion he stroked and was subsequently chased by on a cricket tour in Zimbabwe. (He was just 15 at the time.)
For season three, new showrunners and writers are taking the narrative away from history textbooks and towards the futuristic. “I think that it’s going to be shocking because it’s going to be a little more sci-fi and bigger in scale as well.” And, come on Rupert, what of Frank’s fate?
“Well, we’ll have to see how that unfolds really. There’s a bit of ‘will he be alive or won’t he’. I think that people will be a little bit surprised by the direction we go with… very surprised, actually.”
Having been immersed in the arts from a young age – playing Peter Pan in a school production, before joining the Royal Shakespeare Company and starring in Hollywood blockbusters such as Hellboy – Evans feels connected to his alter ego.
“I feel an affinity with Frank. The difference is that I live in a world where I’ve been encouraged to follow my passion. But with Frank Frink, he is very talented but his art now comes from a place of pain, torture and torment. I identify with his struggle because my acting comes from that too in a weird way. It’s hard being rejected and I’ve certainly experienced a lot of that in my time as an actor.”
Over the years, he’s amassed a coterie of some of the industry’s most revered thespians, including Derek Jacobi and the late John Hurt. The mention of the Alien actor, who became a mentor and confidant, triggers fond memories.
“He was very, very kind to me and was someone I learned a lot from.” The anecdote that he remembers the most? “He said something very interesting to me about film acting, which has always stayed with me. He said, ‘Don’t worry about yesterday’s filming or tomorrow’s work, just play the scene.’”
But acting isn’t the only field in which this approach applies. Having always been fascinated by the concept of time, he opines, “Time is a human construction completely, isn’t it? Animals and plants don’t kind of go, ‘Oh it’s quarter past 11, we must go and eat.” As for the argument that there’s life on Mars, “I can’t believe that we’re the only kind of things going on. I am interested in the future and the idea of different realities. It always sort of captures my imagination. But I’m not a geek, I’m not a conspiracy theorist.”
Putting his professional training to good use, he tries out his best trailer narrator voice. “I don’t think there’s a tunnel to another world!”
Evans can see political parallels between the show’s imagined reality and the age we live in – although neither of us mention him by name, it’s clear which orange-hued man is informing our conversation.
“What we try and do in the series is show what it’s like to live day to day in a totalitarian state where freedoms are not taken for granted. It’s about surviving and getting through the day rather than worrying about your career or having seen the latest this or that. With Brexit and all the stuff that’s happened in London, communities are being tested, and we as a society are being tested. I think there are some similarities and maybe that’s why people are drawn to the show.”
In London, communities are being tested, and we as a society are being tested
Early on in the show’s run, his character was physically and psychologically tortured by Japanese authorities. In the name of authenticity, he was stripped naked, chained and beaten, and credits Schindler’s List with helping him prepare for the role. But in his personal life, it’s his significant other, and also his trusty running shoes – catch him (or don’t) on his local running trail in North London – that offer steadfast support in challenging times.
He continues, “I don’t deal with pressure very well. My wife is an amazing woman.”
Classic English charm is something Evans exudes. Yet, the stiff upper lip is one tenet of British culture he does not readily subscribe to. In fact, mental health is a subject close to his heart. He champions imagination as a tool for children and channels mindfulness as his own coping strategy during personal maelstroms.
“I think that it’s very important. It’s becoming more publicly acceptable for men to be able to talk openly about how they feel and for it not to be seen as a weakness. I think that for many years manly strength was being able to cope with adversity, get through things like stress, anxiety and torment. I know several men who go to therapists: that would never have happened 30, 40, 50 years ago.”
Film also doubles up for him as a source of both inspiration and escapism. He enjoys the intimate narrative of independent films such as Metro Manila, Ida and The White Ribbon; however, big budget action movies elicit a different reaction. “I do struggle with these big blockbusters like ‘Transformers 10’ or ‘Racing Car 5’ or whatever they’re called. I’m sure they’re brilliant within their genre but I won’t go out of my way to watch them.”
The exception? Any movie which boasts former square mile cover star Kevin Costner as its leading man. “I always think Kevin Costner’s amazing. He did Robin Hood in an American accent and it was still good.”
I think that the lack of diversity in British film and television is a big problem
In one of Costner’s more recent roles, Hidden Figures, he plays a NASA scientist who helps rectify racial injustice in 1960s America. “It’s that kind of movie that makes me have faith in humanity because we have moved on so. We don’t have different loos for different races anymore. That was absolutely mad when you think about it. So I felt quite optimistic watching it.” But he isn’t naive when it comes to diversity in the British film and television industry. “The fact that we’re talking about it means we’re not [diverse enough].”
Shedding light on his own experience in front of the camera, he proffers, “I think that the lack of diversity in the UK is a big problem. David Harewood [Homeland, Supergirl] really knew that there’s not much here for him and had to go to America to get work. I’m just a white, English guy so I can do period dramas. There’s a lot to be said now for trying to create more artwork, whether it’s film, television or documentaries, which are representative of all that live here.”
Beyond High Castle, Evans says he’d certainly embrace the chance to return to the stage. “I’d love to do a play again, and I will do one hopefully next year. We’ll see where life takes me. I could be in Honolulu for all I know.”
He laughs and then turns a little nostalgic. “John Hurt said to me once, ‘There are many reasons why you do a job - sometimes it’s the script, sometimes it’s the director, sometimes it’s just for the location.’ So maybe Honolulu.” Hawaii would certainly do those pasty white English legs some good.
Series three of the The Man In The High Castle is released 5 October on Amazon Prime.