You might know Paul Rhys as the most mysterious and underestimated Saltburn character: Duncan the butler. While the scheming and sociopathic protagonist, Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), quickly befriends the aristocratic family of Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), Duncan remains suspicious. He’s also the one who says the now-famous line: “Lots of people get lost in Saltburn.”
Paul Rhys was born on December 19, 1963, in Neath, Wales. As it happened, 1883 spoke to him the day before his 60th birthday and a few days before the Amazon Prime release of Saltburn that would turn the movie into a viral phenomenon that left TikTok divided: is the bathtub scene really that bad? Is the graveyard scene erotic or horrifying?
Rhys is an established actor with extensive theatre experience and over one hundred BBC dramas under his belt since his career began in the early 1980s. He is known in particular for playing historical figures as varied as Theo Van Gogh, Chopin, Beethoven, Prince Charles, Paul McCartney, Leonardo da Vinci, and Vlad the Impaler. Most recently, he added Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, otherwise known as Talleyrand, to his resumé, in the Ridley Scott epic Napoleon.
His latest BBC film, Men Up, was broadcast during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, bringing an unlikely conversation into the living rooms of families across the UK: erectile dysfunction. The humorous yet deeply sincere film is a fictionalized account of a real event that took place in 1994 in Swansea, Wales, over the course of several months. A group of middle-aged men are selected for participation in experimental medical trials with the drug that would become Viagra. Rhys’ character, Tommy Cadogan, joins the trial without disclosing the fact that he is gay.
1883 Magazine’s conversation with Rhys was enlightening and profound, as we learned more about his Wikipedia-official origin story, his excitement to take on roles with cultural significance, and his research process prior to taking on the role of a real person.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with 1883 Magazine today. We’re so honoured to have you. You have some exciting projects ahead, which we’ll get to in just a moment, but first of all: is it your birthday tomorrow?
Yeah! How’d you know that? I try to keep it a secret.
Well, Wikipedia revealed your secret.
Ah, that reliable organ. It’s so unreliable. There’s so much stuff about me on the Internet, I cannot believe it. One says I’ve got a daughter. I do not. I’ve got no children. I’ve got my goddaughter, and they’re talking about her, I think. It’s unbelievable.
I did see that, and I had to fact-check it to make sure you didn’t actually have a daughter.
What can you do? The trouble is, the stuff goes out, and people believe it as the truth because they read it. It’s a very, very strange world. Where are you speaking from? You sound as though you may be American.
No, I’m near Toronto.
One of my favourite cities in the whole world. I came to the Toronto [International Film] Festival when I was about 23 with Robert Altman. I’ve been back many times. I love Toronto.
Oh, that’s great. You’ve had an extremely exciting and busy year. Have you been enjoying some time off for the holidays?
It looks like it’s busy, because everything comes out at the same time, but we’ve been on strike for six months, so in fact it’s not been very busy. It was a very busy eighteen months before the strike. Five roles in a row. Yeah, it looks that way but in fact I’m actually trying to get back to work. But yeah, they were all wonderful things to be doing, obviously, working with great, great filmmakers like Altman, you know. That’s how it all started. And I’m always happy when I’m working with people I really respect, you know.
Of course. I know that your film, theatre, and television work all sort of ran parallel, which is interesting.
You grew up working class. You received a scholarship to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, which is interesting because class is such an explicit theme in Saltburn.
And your story is kind of similar to the protagonist’s, almost.
Did you feel disillusioned when you first moved to London and entered this new kind of elite world? What was the feeling there? [My dog starts barking.]
I mean, it is a leap, and it isn’t, you know. You’ve got a dog there. I’ve got a dog sitting right next to me.
Yeah, I apologize. Every time I’m on a call…
No, it doesn’t get in my way at all. I love the sound of dogs. Yeah, I didn’t feel like Oliver [from Saltburn], no—I felt very lucky to be there, but a bit imposter-ish, like, “Why did they choose me, out of all of the thousands of people to give me one of the twenty places and give me this scholarship?” But no, I didn’t feel like him, and at least half the people in my class were working class like me. At least half.
It’s about talent, too. It’s not academic. It’s not about who you are and where you’ve been or what you’ve seen or anything like that. It was very much about what you can do, how you can survive. And they break everybody down no matter where you’re from. You know, “You can’t walk, you can’t talk, what are you doing that for? The way you do everything is wrong. Your accent is wrong.” It doesn’t matter where you’re coming from. They really strip you down to nothing. So class wouldn’t have helped. [laughs]
So nepotism was not as useful as it is maybe today?
Well, it’s a very big deal these days. But no. There were a few. A few famous sons and daughters there. But no, you either get it if you’re good enough or you didn’t. It’s as simple as that. I don’t think they’ve ever been nepotistic there, and I don’t think they’re nepotistic at Oxford or Cambridge either—you’re just as good as your paper, and that’s the end of it. You’re either good enough to go or you’re not. It’s brutal. It’s brutal, these worlds. The world of acting, like dance or classical singing… you either can hit the note or do the dance, you either can act in Hamlet or you can’t. It’s not a contestable thing. It’s not particularly nuanced. It’s quite absolute in its view, you know. I always admire dancers because they have to filter their personalities through such a tiny prism. It’s quite restricting.
It seems like in the early 1980s when your career was beginning, the landscape was a little bit different. Did you initially plan to prioritize theatre? Television wasn’t popular at that time.
Over here it was.
Television was seen as similar to film. [There were] films for the BBC. There were loads. I’m doing this one called Men Up, and it’s the only film the BBC’s done this year.
Oh, I’m glad you liked that. It’s like a little movie, and they used to be done every week. So there was no distinction [between film and television]. But no, because of the scholarship and everything, they really made me realize that they were training me for the theatre, and my film career had already started. I did–on the summer holidays, you weren’t supposed to do this… they let me go, for a term, to do Absolute Beginners, a Julien Temple musical.
It was a huge deal at the time. . . I often think they would never let a young person with as much film experience as I had to go into the theatre, but I did. They just wouldn’t have it now. I mean, I was at the peak in the early ‘90s, and I was being offered a lot, all over the world, and I’d just go off to the National Theatre for two years. They’d never, ever let a young person do that nowadays, male or female. It wouldn’t happen.
Even the theatre system has changed. They don’t bring young actors through like they used to. It’s all very different now. You have to go into film and television. I think, or I’d imagine, we didn’t look at a movie camera at RADA. We didn’t consider it. We were being trained for the theatre.
I mean, it was so… you know, we’d start every morning with a ballet, you know? Being on the barre. It was so classical. We were doing a lot of Shakespeare work. It was very, very, very intense. We’d be rehearsing very late into the night, and performing very early on in the term, big shows. And working on the weekends. It was, you know, very intense conservatoire-style thing, you know.
I wanted to ask you, why do you feel this particular story was important to tell?
Well, I think anything that deals openly with men’s vulnerabilities is a good idea because men generally don’t want to look at themselves in the way that women are more easy with. Men are not as strong as women. So if you [don’t] go internal, the whole thing is ready to collapse in a lot of men’s lives. And we’ve got to learn to speak. The suicide rates alone of young men and young adults are terrifying, because of the loneliness, the isolation, the burdens, the expectations… it’s unrealistic and unfair. And so, to take away a man’s virility in the world, is terrible. It’s so awful.
So if this film can touch one person. . . this film comes out around Christmas, it comes out the 29th of December—it’s a very, very lonely time, for many, many millions of people around the world. And we all want to pretend it’s all about Santa and champagne and children, but it’s not. For the most part. And if it touches one person, and makes them feel seen and understood, I’ll be very happy that I could contribute to that. Because men have a terrible problem about opening up about anything as deeply intimate as this.
Absolutely. And your character’s storyline also helps to shed some light on the broader implications of the Section 28 era.
It’s very interesting that that was included.
It really wasn’t that long ago that promotion of homosexuality was criminalized in the UK, and it seems like [this film] could be very helpful at teaching the younger generations about this time in history.
Absolutely. And it also teaches young people to be careful, to look after your rights and your freedoms. They were hard won, and they can often be lost. So it’s got to increase and move forward. I believe your generation [is] going to do a wonderful job of that, because we mustn’t take freedoms for granted. I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, where freedoms were increasing daily, and I assumed that life would always be that way, that it would grow and grow and grow incrementally. More loving, more open. And it’s not.
In the past five years we’ve seen many restrictions all over the world in many different ways. I mean, in America they’ve taken choices about a woman’s body that are just extraordinary. And there are gay attacks all the time in America. All over the world, actually. It’s not just there. But yeah, we’re in times where the freedoms we’ve all taken for granted are in jeopardy, and you know, the film does highlight the prejudice of quite recent history. It was 1994, not 1944. Pfizer decided that they didn’t want one gay man on their trial [of Viagra].
Yeah, it was a very enlightening movie to watch for so many reasons. The shooting was entirely in Swansea, if I understand that correctly.
I imagine there was something really nostalgic and sentimental about getting back to your roots, and obviously, working alongside so many other talented Welsh actors. Can you talk about that experience a little bit?
Oh, it was lovely. I was mad about them. They were the nicest possible people to be with. It was snowing all the time, we were in this freezing factory dressed to be like hospital wards from the ‘90s. And yeah, it was ever so rewarding to be back. There’s a kind of ease and familiarity with people, you know, who are from exactly the same place. You don’t even know why you’re close, but you just are, because you’ve built this shared history culturally. I love Swansea. I’m from about three miles down the road, and Swansea was a very important place for me. I loved the people so much, and there’s just a wonderful energy about it. It’s a bit run-down these days, but it’s all coming back together, which is beautiful to watch.
Last but not least, we’ve got to talk about Napoleon. You played Talleyrand, and long before this, you had already established yourself as an actor who is very comfortable inhabiting the roles of real people. I don’t think there are many historical figures you haven’t played at this point.
How do you prepare for roles that reflect literal history, especially when you’re so far removed from them?
Well, I flew to New York to visit the Metropolitan Museum, where they have a very nice collection of portraits of Tallyerand. I put on a lot of weight, you know, because he loves food, loves food, there were dishes named after him. So I sort of scoffed myself and got two stone heavier. Ridley [Scott, director] saw me and said, “Oh, Paul, you’re so slim!” at the premiere. I said, “Yeah, that’s because I put on two stone for your fucking film.” I was back to normal!
But yeah, you’ve just got to read everything. Or I do, anyway. I really have to know everything about the character, everything you can possibly find, and then, you know, working on giving [Talleyrand] this limp, he was known as the club-footed devil, le diable boiteaux, the devil with a limp.
You have a responsibility, don’t you? To tell the truth, as much as you can about them? It’s always much more nuanced than people think. He’s meant to be so terrifying, but he was very loyal, actually. He was profoundly intelligent, a bit of an outcast because he was lame. There was more in there, I knew… he was nearer to Napoleon, [because] they were both outcasts. His family rejected him because of his leg.
There’s so much, and it’s only through research that you can find all these little gems that help you form a character and give you an inner life. You know, otherwise, it’s just external observation. . . In many ways, the historical facts are less important, because, in the end, you’re playing a person, not a situation or a time. You’re playing a person with feelings and vulnerabilities and affections and affiliations. You’ve got to know those things, and everybody else can take care of the history to some extent.
Yeah, definitely. It’s more important to inhabit the internal world rather than the persona or the mythology.
Yeah. Definitely. I think American actors are much better at doing that than we are. Getting into the feeling, being less concerned about the external stuff.
That’s an interesting perspective. Thank you so much for taking the time.
No, not at all!
What can we expect from you in 2024?
Well, I don’t know! You know, there’s all these things out, and I know someone is writing a film for me to play Tesla, Nikola Tesla. It’s a Serbian director, and I haven’t seen a draft yet. I don’t know! We’ll have to wait and see. It’s quite exciting! Normally I know what I’m going to do, but because of the strike everything’s been so strange. It’s probably the third time I’ve approached Christmas thinking, “Well, I wonder if I’ll have a job next year.” It’s quite terrifying, actually. But exciting at the same time, because it’s all open, you know?
Saltburn and Men Up are out now.
Interview Carly Bush