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Rufus Sewell Plays a Gasping Prince Andrew in ‘Scoop’

Rufus Sewell Plays a Gasping Prince Andrew in ‘Scoop’
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Before filming started on “Scoop,” a Netflix feature about Prince Andrew’s notoriously misjudged 2019 interview on the BBC, the actor Rufus Sewell, who stars as the disgraced royal, turned up on set to shoot a few photographs that would appear in the background. Loaded with makeup and prosthetics, including false teeth and a feathery wig, Sewell felt leaden and self-conscious, he said, fearful that his impersonation would slip into parody.

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Then, he recalled, he sat down opposite an elderly man working as an extra. Had they worked together before, the man asked Sewell; he looked vaguely familiar. “No,” Sewell told him, “but obviously I wouldn’t have looked like this.” The man seemed confused, and was even more bewildered when Sewell explained, “This isn’t my real face.” The extra laughed: “What do you mean it’s not your face?”

This interaction, though strange, was very helpful, Sewell said in a recent video interview. “I realized that it wasn’t about passing for Andrew,” he added. Instead, the man “hadn’t doubted for a second that I was a human — that I was a real person,” Sewell said. “That gave me a real freedom and a lease on life.”

Sewell’s performance as Prince Andrew, who is also known as the Duke of York, is impressive, not so much because of the resemblance (which is, at times, striking), but because he slyly channels the spirit of the man who so horrified the British public by seeming to justify his friendship with the financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

Sewell avoids the typical pitfalls of playing a real person as a broad, exaggerated impersonation. His duke is a spasm of nervous tics and shifty glances, of unctuous charm and feigned candor. Watching the journalist Emily Maitlis (an excellent Gillian Anderson) walk in to conduct the interview wearing pants, he gawks at her and shouts, “Trousers!” It feels true to the Prince Andrew the public knows, however little viewers may not believe what the character says.

The actor said he was aware of the risks inherent to this type of role. “I have a kind of nightmare version of the performance that I’m giving that I run madly from,” he said. “In my head it was this weskit-wearing prince regent, a parody, you know, that I was frightened of.” The right performance, he added, was in “the uncanny valley between me and him.”

Becoming the duke the right way, Sewell said, began with studying Andrew, “which really was just obsessively watching and trying to get behind what I could see.” Though he insists he is “not a natural mimic,” he came to learn Andrew’s interview at the most granular level, memorizing every stutter and every hesitation, scrutinizing them for some deeper meaning. “I obsessed to the point of driving myself insane,” he said. “And then when I thought I’d got it, I’d watch the original again and be struck by something I’d missed. That can go on forever.”

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The interview itself is notable for its apparent civility, even courteousness. The duke isn’t grilled or antagonized; Maitlis isn’t especially confrontational, simply giving her subject enough rope to hang himself.

The film’s director, Philip Martin, noted that the interview “doesn’t have that ‘A Few Good Men’ or ‘Frost/Nixon’ moment where there’s some factual smoking gun, or some line of dialogue that does it.” Instead, he said, “We got a portrait of a person through the interview. That’s why it’s had the impact that it has.”

Martin said that he brought the instincts he honed making documentaries to “Scoop,” with the goal of making “a kind of wildlife film, with people.” The original interview was, in some ways, “a character study,” he said.

It was also an astonishingly far cry from the royal family’s media-savvy approach of prior decades, and its longtime motto “Never complain, never explain.” Rather, the duke’s BBC appearance is an hourlong exercise in complaining and explaining. In the film, the duke’s private secretary, Amanda Thirsk (Keeley Hawes), urges the duke to speak to the BBC because she believes an open conversation will endear him to the British public. But the public is outraged.

Sewell said he saw all this as symptomatic of a kind of hereditary delusion in the royal family. Why would the duke, who is Queen Elizabeth II’s second son, think it’s OK to fraternize with Epstein? Because he likes Epstein. How could he possibly think people would believe such lame excuses? Because he thinks he’s convincing, or else that people are stupid. “He’s been led to believe that he’s shockingly inappropriate in a hilarious way, a lot of fun, naughty, sometimes just devastatingly handsome,” Sewell said.

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The power of the BBC interview, Sewell said, came from Maitlis refusing to be charmed. “His mouth gets drier and drier. His breathing becomes labored under the bonhomie,” Sewell said. “All you have to do is not play along, and he’s gasping for air.”



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