It’s freezing cold in London, and most of the actors in the film industry are slowly coming back to work as the SAG (Screen Actors Guild) strike finally comes to an end. Welsh actor Paul Rhys is one of them. He is curious, and has so many questions and stories for me, that I almost feel like we’re catching up after a short social hiatus. In truth, this is the very first time we’ve met. Ridley Scott’s Napoleon and Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn are amongst the most talked about films in recent months. It’s quite a spectacular way for Rhys to return to the world of cinema, having spent a lot of his career on stage. His theatre credits include King Lear (which gained him an Olivier Award nomination), Bent alongside Ian McKellen at the National Theatre, and Hamlet at the Young Vic. Amongst his comeback films, Men Up is an equally important story that explores the knock-on effects of the invention of Viagra, and the toxic masculinity and taboos surrounding it. The Van Damme kicker Lionheart, the gritty BBC Falklands War drama Tumbledown (with Colin Firth), and Chaplin (starring Robert Downey, Jr.), are just a few of performances.
FRONTRUNNER sat down Paul Rhys to chat about how belonging to a particular class (even if it’s “upper” upper class) holds no influence if someone is inherently a good or terrible person, why society is more outraged over on-screen kissing than watching a violent shoot-out, and how nobody else’s pleasure matters more than a cis, heterosexual man.
You’ve had a busy few years with Saltburn, Napoleon, and Men Up.
For the past 6 months, because of the WGA and SAG strike I couldn’t work or publicise anything. If you are loyal, but it would be awful not to be. I am desperate to get back to work. I’ll take anything.
They are three completely different, but great films. Let’s start with Saltburn. You play Duncan, the butler, who is probably the most uptight and stern character I have ever seen. What was the journey in becoming Duncan?
When I hear that people see him as cold and terrifying, all I can think of is that, as humans, we don’t view ourselves externally, at all. You just do you. To me, Duncan is the most loving, loyal, and the most entitled to this house. He works the hardest, so to me, he is full of love. I can see why some people would want to do something one-dimensional with him, but I can’t act without bringing feelings to a character. I have said no to roles before because I couldn’t find the emotional connection. With Duncan, I immediately did, even though it’s not a huge part. When the offer came in with Emerald Fennell attached, I thought, “Oh my God!” I had just seen Promising Young Woman, thought it was a work of genius, and had no idea it was her first feature film. I took Duncan very seriously, indeed, but I don’t find him stern.
He is also unintentionally funny, which is a beautiful combination.
If I can make people laugh, then I will cry at the end. These two things are indivisible. If I had to tell you what my essence was, I would say a clown. Someone who can be tragic and hilarious. I did Uncle Vanya at The Almeida, directed by the genius that is Robert Icke. If I stand still on stage doing nothing, there would be this laughter. Then I’d come off, and some of the cast would say, “What are you doing on there?” I’d say I don’t know. There’s something about me that’s hilarious. I am the biggest joke. Nothing feels very frightening to me, I feel like a timid, neglected, little boy, and that is behind every single thing I do. I can’t escape it.
The audience is torn when it comes to this film. You are never quite sure where it’s heading, which is what I loved about it, but some people weren’t too keen. What’s the message or aspect of the film that attracted you to the project?
I didn’t need to look at the script. I saw Emerald Fennell’s name. I wanted to meet her. I said yes without even thinking about it. That’s the first thing that attracted me. I never know how to answer the question about the “message”. I don’t believe that any work of art is about anything, it’s about many things. People think Saltburn is about class, but that doesn’t register with me. The (very) upper class remains fascinating. Not the middle-upper class, nobody cares about them. The “upper” upper class remains an exclusive body of people. You can’t become rich or be born beautiful and enter unless, rarely, through marriage. Whatever you do, you can never enter it. There is something about the elitist world, which I have to say doesn’t particularly interest me. In terms of the class, there’s one episode that involves a loving family, yet their child, in the case of Oliver (Barry Keoghan), is still a psychopath. So, I don’t think Emerald is saying anything specific about class. I think she is saying many things about the human condition. We are all little frail beings underneath. Rich, poor, all of it. Some may be evil, some may be kind, but you are not bound to be any of those.
We are all the same, and regardless of class, we all do fucked up and good things. Some more, some less.
Exactly that. If you look at the aristocrats in the film, they are just as covetous, envious, or kind as anyone else. They can be shallow, deep, tragic, or lost youth. It doesn’t make much difference. They just do it in bigger houses.
Since you have recent experience being in two different, but provocative films, how do you feel about Saltburn creating more controversy because of how sexually charged it is versus a war film like Napoleon, where millions of people died in his wars? Why do you think violence is received better than sexuality amongst audiences?
Look at America. Nobody is complaining about the level of violence. It’s on their television screens every night in every single drama. Nobody is surprised when four people are shot dead in the first five minutes of a film. If you see someone kissing, or the flesh is visible, it creates outrage. We are misguided in where we put our focus and criticisms. I don’t see what harm sex or sexual awareness does. There’s such Protestant and Catholic dishonesty around human need. Everybody seems to turn a blind eye to the violence. Yes, Napoleon is full of violence and also sex. True, they are very different films. Saltburn has this narrow point of focus where this enormous experience is turned in on human life, and Ridley Scott’s film is also huge, but goes out into battlefields. They were interesting experiences to do back-to-back. They are both master directors in different ways. Saltburn, as you said, caught the attention so much because of the sex, but there’s something about Emerald that is now. Saltburn is set in 2006, but it feels like we are in the now. I think it is genius. She did it in Promising Young Woman, too, but even more so, and more mysteriously in Saltburn. She has the finger on the pulse of this present moment.
Men Up is a different cup of tea. I was initially worried that we are getting a film about five men whose biggest issue is not being able to get laid, so they turn to Viagra. I was wrong, and I’m so happy. Everything in it is about taboos that men were raised to be ashamed of. Filming must have been such an intimate journey.
It was truly enjoyable. The first Viagra trial was in Swansea (Wales). That’s where the film takes place. We are all from there, so it was wonderful to be back. It’s a subject now that boys and men are in the most terrible state. I don’t mean to sound anti-feminist about it because women have struggled with different things but in a similar devastating way for centuries. Men are now also objectified when it comes to having to be always priapic. The suicide rates of these young boys are astronomical because of these expectations. They watch pornography from the age of 10. I don’t know what that does, but it doesn’t help. I don’t have a problem speaking up for myself or asking to be heard, in terms of my sensitivity, but I’m an actor and in a particular position. If you can’t be sensitive and open, it’s not a job for you anyway. I try to be very naked in my roles, especially on stage. The taboo is still there. Men Up is a story that truly happened, and Pfizer chose the hospital in Swansea for a trial for Type 1 diabetic men to see if Viagra worked. Before Viagra, they had to do something called a Caverject, where a big syringe goes into the penis to make it erect, but the penis is so sore you couldn’t possibly have sex after it. It’s terrible. In the film, I play a gay man, Tommy, without the possibility of having children or even legal marriage. Sex is very important to him, so this condition is devastating for him and the other characters in different ways. Viagra becomes a resolution, and something beautiful comes out of the trial for everyone, even if it isn’t positive.
Viagra was invented for men so that they could maintain their sexual lives. Of course, not including include gay men.
Yes, more specifically heterosexual married men. I think everything is invented for them. Nobody considers women when they talk about erectile dysfunction. Either loss of that contact, or that they might not be relieved themselves. It’s undiscussed. If suddenly a 75-year-old man is erect 24 hours a day, how does his partner feel about it? A girlfriend of mine tried Viagra and said she was very aroused for a while, but it was horrible.
Science is so advanced, and yet again women become the “secondary sex” when it comes to their pleasure. The same goes for contraceptive pills, which women are expected to take with all these side effects, yet research doesn’t dare corner men. Once again, this is not about the pleasure it could cause for women, but how it benefits men.
Exactly. I think women’s pleasure, even now in 2024, is not really on the table. It’s unknown what it is. The ignorance about a woman’s body is astonishing. I would love to see a film that explored women’s pleasure in a non-titillating-for-male-gaze way. For men, I’m speaking openly here, it’s mysterious how a woman’s body reacts. [Dog barks in the background] Can you hear my dog? I’m going to get her. Very old lady. Deaf and 16 years old in her last days. The centre of my life.
It’s worth mentioning that it’s so great to see five men taking on such vulnerable roles and telling a side of the story that hasn’t been told before. Men’s physical weaknesses are obstructed by ego, and you and your co-stars did such an honest job.
There was this shorthand between us as we were all from the same place. I have mixed feelings when I am back to where I am from. I do love it, but there was also a lot of trauma. I didn’t have the easiest family situation, but the general place and the people I love. You couldn’t have possibly been with a more sensitive or hilarious group. It was freezing cold, and we were stuck in these factories that stood in for hospitals, shivering. It was a jewel of an experience. It probably comes across, I haven’t watched, I can’t look at myself anymore. Which was your favourite out of the three films?
I can’t say because they are all so different. I loved Saltburn because it has no filter, and I’ll watch anything that provokes people, or challenges me.
Oh, me too!
Men Up is a hidden gem. How is next year looking for you? Is it film or theatre, and what can we watch out for?
I’m not returning to the theatre immediately, as that’s all I have ever done. I’m making a film about Tesla with a Croatian director. The script is still being written now. After, I don’t know. All I want to do is work with visionary and interesting directors. I am happy to bring their vision to life and contribute as much as I can.