Rhys Ifans on ‘Anonymous': ‘A Relief to Be Fully Clothed, for Once’

He’s best known for being goofy, but Rhys Ifans finds the loneliness and pathos in an Elizabethan nobleman (and secret playwright)

Last Updated: October 31, 2011 @ 10:50 AM

Much of the attention that "Anonymous" has drawn before its release has come from literary scholars aghast at the film's contention that William Shakespeare didn't actually write the plays attributed to him.

And certainly, there's plenty to quibble with in the scholarship of "Anonymous," which treats a thoroughly controversial theory as gospel, and then inflates Shakespeare's plays into political propaganda crucial to a plot to seize the throne of England. (Even in an Elizabethan-era drama about the theater, director Roland Emmerich, the auteur of destruction best-known for the likes of "Independence Day" and "2012," likes his stakes to be high.)

Rhys IfansBut the complaints about history aside, "Anonymous" is also tremendous good fun, a crackling story well told by a director who's stopped blowing stuff up long enough to be provocative and entertaining.

And as the Earl of Oxford, a nobleman whose desire to write is stifled by his position in the aristocracy, actor Rhys Ifans is a revelation. The Welsh actor probably best known as Hugh Grant's dopey and exhibitionist roommate in "Notting Hill" is subtly tortured and marvelously understated, and just about unrecognizable from any of his prior roles.

The film opens in limited release on Friday, after Sony downsized its original plan to give the drama a blockbuster-style wide release in favor of something that makes more sense for the kind of film this is. Ifans spoke to TheWrap in September at the Toronto Film Festival, the first thing in the morning on the first day he did interviews about the film.

(Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images)

This might refect more on the movies of yours that I've seen than on the totality of your career, but there was never a moment watching "Anonymous" when I could associate the person I was seeing onscreen with what I'd seen of you in any other movie. To you, did it feel dramatically different from anything else you'd done?
It did. It'll probably take me a few interviews to discover how to talk about it, but really, in terms of transformation, I don’t think I've ever done anything so all-consuming. And I guess that's a combination of many factors.

For instance?
Of course the period and the costume and all these things came into play, but it was also largely that I was given an opportunity by Roland to play a part that I would not necessarily have been cast in. And as a result, it was all-consuming.

Was it daunting to tackle something so different?
No, it wasn't daunting. It was a relief. When I went to meet Roland at his beautiful house in London, he asked me which part I would like to play. And I suggested to him that the natural casting for me would be Shakespeare. That would have been a walk in the park.

But I was cheeky enough and brave enough to suggest to Roland that maybe I'd like to play the Earl himself. And thankfully, it worked out.

Rhys Ifans in AnonymousWhy did you want to play Oxford?
For some reason, I don't know, I just connected with him. There's a pathos to Oxford that I really connected with, and a loneliness, and a poetry which kind of sang to me.

Did you have to sell Roland on the prospect?
No. (pause) Well, yes, I did. I read for him in London, and we did a screen test in Berlin a few weeks later.

For much of the film, your voice barely rises above a whisper. Why?
I think I just connected with a man who had a lot to say, but could never be heard. (sighs) This is very difficult to explain. The whisper, I think, arrived from a man being in a climate of secrecy, which the Elizabethan court was. I always imagined that court to be a place of whispers and secrecy and of danger. And I think the timbre of my voice reflects those vast, echoey spaces.

Did you make any attempt to be accurate to the real Edward DeVere?
No, no. I just wore the costume and it kind of took care of itself. Those costumes do give you a different sense of spatial awareness, all those cloaks and those ruffs. You move differently. It's a physical effect, as opposed to an intellectual one. The whole movie, for me, felt like a dance.

Rhys Ifans in Notting HillThose costumes are certainly a different look for somebody who's best known for answering the door in his underwear in "Notting Hill."
Yeah, a huge difference. Huge. It was just nice to be fully clothed, for once.

Going into this film, did you have an opinion as to the authorship of Shakespeare's works?
Yes, I did. I've done a lot of Shakespeare onstage, and I'm not convinced that the Earl of Oxford was the author of all those works, but I am convinced that the Stratfordian William Shakespeare was not. My feeling is that it was an amalgamation of many writers, in the same way that most films are a collaborative endeavor. And I think the plays certainly were that.

I think the film is important, or the question the film raises is important, because it puts the plays in a very specific historical context. And it just opens a healthy can of worms. As I describe it, it puts a spanner in the Complete Works.

What were your early experiences with Shakespeare like?
I went to the Guilford School of Music and Drama, which was affiliated with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I was lucky enough to be taught by a beautiful, wonderful teacher called Patsy Rodenberg, who works a lot with the Royal Shakespeare Company as a voice coach and technician.

And I remember a moment in drama school where I was working on a speech from "Richard III": "Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York; / And all the clouds have low'r'd upon our house / In the deep bosom of the ocean buried."

When I was taught Shakespeare in school, it was such an alien, sanitized puzzle, it made no sense. And suddenly, just in this one session, I spoke the words, and it moved me so deeply and opened me up so much as an actor. The sense of how words can liberate the body. That might sound highfalutin, but it really did.

I remember that moment very clearly. And what moves me about this part is a man's intimate relationship with words, and how words and language can keep you company. That's what I think I found in Oxford.