With roles in Netflix’s political thriller Anatomy of a Scandal and Disney+’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, British actor Rupert Friend is showcasing his versatility amid two very devious characters.
Previously nominated for an Emmy for his role on Showtime’s hit Homeland, Friend has been busy working on a variety of exciting upcoming projects. To the envy of many, the multiple SAG nominee can now lay claim to the hat trick of having worked with acclaimed filmmaker Wes Anderson on The French Dispatch, the upcoming Asteroid City and The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar for Netflix.
The mini-series Anatomy of a Scandal finds Friend portraying politician James Whitehouse who is accused of rape and subsequently facing trial. It’s an interesting examination of privilege and power expertly handled by its cast and director S.J. Clarkson.
With any morally questionable role, Friend admits that he didn’t exactly jump at the chance to play this character. “Politics is not a world I wanted to escape into as an actor,” says Friend.
As for his very first Star Wars project, the actor recalls that the phrase he kept hearing most from the fans at the premiere was, “Welcome to the family.” A highlight of the Anaheim-set Star Wars celebration was getting a private tour of the Mandalorian sets and costumes before the exhibition opened to the public. “That was all thanks to production designer and wonderful human, Doug Chiang,” Friend shares. “Those sets and the details are just stunning.”
In Obi-Wan Kenobi, Friend plays the Grand Inquisitor, a character that originated from the animated series Star Wars: Rebels. “An erudite bounty hunter” is how Friend himself describes his character.
Playing an antagonist is well-trodden territory for Friend as it was the role of the CIA operative Peter Quinn in Homeland that propelled the British actor to Hollywood. Friend is also a lyricist and an award-winning writer-director, his short film Steve was nominated for the Santa Barbara Film Festival Bruce Corwin Award for Best Short Film.
Friend spoke to Awards Focus about how he almost didn’t take on the role of the disgraced politician James Whitehouse, crafting the live action version of the Grand Inquisitor, and being on the set in Spain while filming Wes Anderson’s upcoming Asteroid City.
Awards Focus: You wrestled with the idea of taking on the role of politician James Whitehouse. Could you walk us through your decision, what was your thinking behind it?
Rupert Friend: He definitely was not somebody I was excited to play. The role of James felt daunting, impossible even, unsavory in some way. Politics is not a world I wanted to escape into as an actor. Particularly, British conservative elitist politics. It’s everything I do not stand for.
But as someone who is constantly looking for a challenge and trying to practice embracing the hard stuff and the things I am not drawn to, I realized here was a wolf in sheep’s clothing or perhaps a sheep in wolf’s clothing.
Even though you can’t judge a character you are playing, I made some cut and dry judgments about James as I was reading the script. About his lifestyle, his privilege and his entitlement. However, James doesn’t think any of that, in his mind he’s not doing anything wrong. He believes he is the next big thing in politics and kind of the perfect husband and father.
That was very interesting to me. To see someone who has gotten to forty and has never paused for reflection. And why would he when the world seems to reward the lack of that practice. I started looking around me at figures in positions of power and influence, and realized if you’re a leader of an organization or a country or you have followers on social media, why are you stopping to reflect? You’re probably not. Because in the eyes of the world, you are a success story.
The nature of what success means and what are the triggers of self-reflection sent me on a deep dive and I realized I had been handed a gift here – a seemingly unattractive proposition but in fact an incredible acting challenge.
AF: Jumping into your first Star Wars project with Obi-Wan must’ve been fun, outside the heavy makeup and constricting costume of the Grand Inquisitor. The look really is amazing, and you’ve given him a certain edgy elegance. How do you come to define a character through his look and the way he talks?
Friend: In Joby Harold’s beautiful script it said that the Grand Inquisitor is somebody who enjoys the sound of his own voice, and in reading that I suddenly heard it. I have been lucky enough in my line of work to play a few different fighting styles and I thought you could go in and act in a way a thug would, but whenever I have met truly exceptional martial artists, they are never like that.
They don’t intimidate people or throw their weight around. They channel an inner power instead. There is this sense they can do extreme damage with just their bare hands, regardless of their physique. They don’t need to demonstrate.
Grand Inquisitor brings that eloquence into the most mundane tasks. The edgy eloquence of an erudite bounty hunter. He probably read the classics and spoke a number of languages. He very much comes from a place of, “Let’s do some Shakespeare first” and then go break some skulls. I feel grateful and honored to be asked to do it. He is a joy to play.
AF: The Grand Inquisitor originated from the animated series Star Wars: Rebels. What was it like bringing the character to live action?
Friend: When you bring a character from an animated world into a live action world, it presents its own very specific set of challenges. Mobility is one. We decided we wanted a kind of elegant machine. On the surface he looks indestructible.
I had an interesting conversation about this with Rebels producer Dave Filoni. He said that in animation we seek to exaggerate the physical form and what is possible with it. In live action what actors bring to the role is the years of experience, the pain, the backstory – things that are very difficult in animation.
AF: Is there anything you could tell us about Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City? You filmed it in Europe, right?Friend: Yes, we shot it in Spain. Wes recreated the American Southwest on a melon farm in Spain. Bringing in hundreds of tons of red dirt. It was a delight to do. I might be biased but I think this is his best yet.