If it’s rude to stare, then you really need to watch your manners when spending time with Rupert Friend. The strikingly chiselled 27-year-old British actor is starring alongside Michelle Pfeiffer in Cheri, the new Stephen Frears film, as the teenage love interest of Pfeiffer’s aging courtesan—and it’s difficult to discern which of the two actors has the better cheekbones.
There is more to Friend than beauty—though no one can deny that it has certainly played its part in his steady rise to fame. And yet, he doesn’t quite seem comfortable in his skin; as he sits in a pair of baggy jeans and a long-sleeved tee, sipping an Americano in London’s hip East End club Shoreditch House (part of the Soho House family) he looks as skittish as a trapped cat—he clearly doesn’t relish the interview process. He is famously publicity shy, and he and his girlfriend, the beautiful actress Keira Knightley (the couple met while shooting Pride and Prejudice) are famous for wanting to stay out of the spotlight.
“I had no idea that acting was going to be what I chose to do with my life,” he announces. “It is not in my background.” Indeed. Friend was brought up in an idyllic Oxfordshire village—his parents are art historians and gave lecture tours—while young Rupert was educated at the local state school. “I couldn’t reconcile myself to the idea of having to find something to ‘do,’” he explains. “The idea of finding a job and settling down to doing just one thing seemed impossible. I thought acting might give me the chance to explore so many interesting things.”
Keira Knightley and Rupert Friend make a heady combination and could easily attract the kind of attention levelled at Brad and Angelina.
His hunch paid off. While telling no one (except his father, who funded his auditions), Friend set about applying to drama school and was accepted at the prestigious Webber Douglas in London. He has worked his way steadily up the career ladder in historical performances, as a young Nazi in 2008’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Prince Albert in this year’s The Young Victoria.
If there is still such a thing as Method acting, Friend embraces the concept. “I become so obsessed by the characters I play, I want to learn everything about them, ” he says. For his role as Prince Albert, the consort of Queen Victoria, he “learned to draw and learned to play the piano. I played Schubert, I learned fencing, riding, archery. I even learned to speak German. I get to learn all these things for three months and then I went to make a film where I play a bare-fist boxer and now I can box! What day job could give me that freedom and range to learn so many new things?”
Although he is very happy to discuss his work, Rupert Friend gives off a sense of being an intensely private person. Not just because he is protecting his relationship, but because, as he says, “the less people are aware of you, the more they are happy to suspend disbelief. As an actor, that is exactly what you are hoping to achieve.” It is the sense of searching for creative reality that seems to drive Friend; while many actors desire to work with an impressive cast of "A-List" directors, his ambitions are simply to have his imagination stimulated.
“I can never do those kind of lists people love so much, top three meals, top five books, top five directors. I don’t keep lists, instead I hope that when I read something it grabs me in the way that a really great book on holiday does when you can’t put it down. It stays with you. That’s what I'm looking for in the work that I do.”
Nor does he see the point of lending his pretty face to sell any watches, coffee, or clothing brands, although he laughs, “who knows what I’ll do when my mother needs a hip replacement!”
So what was it that grabbed him about the shallow, selfish, vanity of Cheri? “The idea of playing someone with such a lack of character interested me— how do you do that? In the same way as the idea of playing someone capable of such vile cruelty as a Nazi, this involved finding something in myself I didn’t know if I had.”
Stephen Frears (who also directed Dirty Pretty Things and The Queen) clearly adores Friend. “He really blossomed during filming, and it was his natural niceness that really percolated through,” Frears told The Daily Beast. “I think that with his extraordinary looks and very natural talent he has a very exciting career ahead of him.”
Following a dream is not as simple as one might think in an age of such extreme celebrity culture. Keira Knightley and Rupert Friend make a heady combination and could easily attract the kind of attention levelled at Brad and Angelina, especially in the U.K. This idea—becoming part of the star machine in any way—seems to horrify Friend. “I can’t imagine being in one of those franchise movies and having to do them for years on end.” He grimaces and takes a slug of coffee to get him through the horror of the thought.
Nor does he see the point of lending his pretty face to sell any watches, coffee, or clothing brands, although he laughs, “who knows what I’ll do when my mother needs a hip replacement!” It’s a curious irony, then, that his paramour spent years working on Pirates of the Caribbean, and has lent her face to Chanel, but it’s not an irony he’ll acknowledge here.
Still, Friend will need to get used to the increased scrutiny. He is a talented, thoughtful actor with a rare gentle quality that shines through in his work. And he is excited about his future, he’s just accepted the part of Mitchell in The Little Dog Laughed, a play by Douglas Carter Beane which will open later this year in London’s West End. “I haven’t been in a play for years, and I’m really excited to work in a theater.” Mitchell is described in the play as having “a slight recurring case of homosexuality.” It will be interesting to see how his thorough research pans out for that.
Fiona Golfar is editor at large of British Vogue. She is married with two children, two dogs, a cat and a tortoise.