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Rhys Ifans interview: 'All punk rockers hate Christmas'

The Welsh actor on inappropriate method acting and why the NT is a great way to spend taxpayers' money

By Andrzej Lukowski |
Rhys Ifans
Having made his mark as a film star, Rhys Ifans returns to the National Theatre this month to star in Tim Price’s monologue ‘Protest Song’. He plays Danny, a homeless man caught up in Occupy London’s takeover of St Paul’s Cathedral in 2011.

What tempted you back to the stage?
‘The thought of doing a monologue is like torture, but I kind of forced myself into saying yes, because this play might be an important thing to do. And I liked the idea that it would be on over Christmas because, you know, once you find out Santa Claus is your dad and realise the repugnant paradox of capitalist Christmas compared to its pagan origins and its Christian celebration, it’s something you want to undermine. All punk rockers hate Christmas.’

Were you familiar with Tim Price’s work?
‘I wasn’t and then I went to see his “Praxis Makes Perfect”. It was a show with [musician] Gruff Rhys, an old, old friend. I kind of went with a sense of schadenfreude, like “oh my god Gruff’s going to be acting” – but it wasn’t like that, it was like this brilliant multimedia orgy of theatricality, I really thought it was extraordinary.’
Will ‘Protest Song’ be similarly high concept?
‘Monologues tend to be about a character who has a secret and at the end of the monologue the character reveals the secret: it’s a fucking long joke with an unnecessary punchline. This is about a homeless guy and – without giving too much away – we’ve really tried to find a theatrical language to counter the idea that we are going into the theatre to watch an actor’s study of homelessness. Hopefully you’ll feel some of that discomfort of having to sit next to a homeless person on the tube.’

Did you speak to any homeless people as research?
‘No no no, that would be fucking pornographic. This is where method acting is pulled into question. You can’t explore homelessness because everyone you see who is homeless didn’t go “oh, when I grow up I wanna be homeless”. You have to look at the human condition and social circumstances – everything that Occupy is about.’

How did you react to Occupy London at the time?
‘I’ll hold my hands up and say I didn’t go there – but I remember watching it on television and thinking “this is brilliant”. As a Welsh speaker I’m very conscious of how activism can effect real change. What was extraordinary about Occupy London was that it was a village with a louder voice than one of the biggest cities of the world.’

It’s a nebulous movement – could you be seen as speaking for it?
‘But that’s its strength. The kind of anarcho-syndicalist nebulous beauty of Occupy is that you can’t offend them – Occupy was never about anyone, it was about everyone.’

It seems apt that ‘Protest Song’ is playing at The Shed, a temporary venue…
‘I could project any metaphor on I want, but it is kind of convenient. Did you know the rumour is that Eton has bought The Shed? They’d probably call it the Outhouse or something awful, The Latrine, I dunno.’

You’ve done a couple of plays at the NT in the past – are you a fan?
‘When I was there in the past I thought, “fucking great, that’s one big posh box ticked”. But I’m older now, and going back there I think “what a great way to spend taxpayer’s money”. It is ultimately a bourgeois endeavour but at least at The Shed the tickets are cheap, so you could watch this play and get pissed if you wanted to. In fact I’d recommend you get pissed before you came.’

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