Watching Rhys Ifans in films such as 'The Boat that Rocked' and 'Little Nicky', it's easy to think that low-key is beyond him. Yet the Welsh actor, musician and sometime tabloid headline grabber proves in 'Greenberg', the latest exercise in wry wit from 'Squid and the Whale' director Noah Baumbach, that he can also do muted. And do it well. Resentment bubbles just beneath the surface of his portrayal of a man whose dreams of rock stardom went up in smoke when his friend, Greenberg, played by Ben Stiller, stymied their chances of a record deal. Once a member of the Super Furry Animals and now front man of The Peth, Ifans understood his pain. Chilled out on a sofa in a Berlin hotel, he muses on his character's thwarted desires, music, acting, and in a surreal, Kafkaesque digression, his own roots as an entertainer.
Dazed Digital: Ivan is angry at Greenberg for losing their band a record deal years earlier. As a musician yourself, did you understand that?
Rhys Ifans: Yeah, it'd be crushing. There's two kinds of rock 'n' roll casualty: the one that has huge success and adoration and then suddenly it stops. Or there's when you're in a band it is all-consuming, so then you have the dream of that, and then the dream's taken away from you even before it happens. Either way, I think it can unhinge, and it can be just a horrific fucking thing to happen to anyone. So I absolutely understood that.
DD: You front The Peth now, don't you?
Rhys Ifans: Oh yeah. We've got a new album. And, you know, I'm glad I'm 42 and doing it and not 18.
Rhys Ifans: You just get naturally cooler. When you're 21 you need to take drugs to be cool. When you're 42 you don't need anything like that. You just have stories and experience.
DD: Does music give you something you don't get from acting?
Rhys Ifans: No, I just like performing. It's a different camaraderie in a band, though. It's kind of more loving but violent.
DD: Was Ivan's quietness a draw for you?
Rhys Ifans: Yeah, it was. Usually when I'm cast it's like, 'Bring all your big machines,' but I just loved the really loving detail to everything in this. We've got films that are rockets crashing through buildings, and blue people in space, and that's fantastic. But that micro-cosmos that cinema can give us with emotion is, I find, just very thrilling.
DD: Greta Gerwig, the film's female lead, was saying that you brought the party with you when you arrived on set.
Rhys Ifans: Did she? What a snitch, man. Yeah, we had a laugh. But the work was really intense. Some things are so funny but it would hurt to laugh at them because they're so cringe-y. I think the film's like a test of how you're dealing with your forties: if you watch it and you find it funny, it means you're dealing with stuff; if you watch it and you don't find it's a funny film, you've got major issues that you've got to sort out. Rapido!
DD: Greenberg feels disconnected from the younger generation and is scared of their confidence. I can't imagine you ever having felt that way.
Rhys Ifans: No, they just need a good clout, man. They shout, they talk fast and they crash cars - that's teenagers. That's why I love 'em.
DD: Have you ever found yourself doing anything vaguely mid-life crisis-like?
Rhys Ifans: Since I've been 16 I've been doing mid-life crisis shit, man. I've had the longest mid-life crisis ever.
DD: You always seem like you're having a good time and not thinking about age.
Rhys Ifans: Oh no. One forgets.
DD: You've got a bunch of films out this year but do you have any plans to do more theatre?
Rhys Ifans: “Yeah, every four or five years I want to get back and get petrified. I think it's important to do that, and intensely rewarding.”
DD: An actor once told me theatre “wakes one up”, whatever that means. Does it?
Rhys Ifans: If I ever hear myself saying, 'Ooh, it wakes one up', I am going to kick my fucking 'ead in. Jesus Christ!
DD: Do you like the closeness of a live audience, either at a gig or in the theatre?
Rhys Ifans: No, I like the audience as far away as possible. If they're closer than two miles I get nervous. It's not even that I don't want to see them. Sometimes I just know they're there. Somewhere. Puts the fear of God into me.
DD: You obviously don't stage dive then.
Rhys Ifans: Well would you stage dive if there's a two-mile gap between you and the audience? That would probably be the most stupid thing a rock star could ever do: stage dive onto an empty car park.
DD: What was playing Xenophilius Lovegood in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows like?
Rhys Ifans: It was magic! Brilliant! Yeah, man, it's like a badge of honour if you're a British actor and you get the Harry Potter call. It meant a lot to me.
DD: You're obviously having fun. What drew you to performing originally? Were you a wild kid?
Rhys Ifans: Not wild, no. Well I did live in a chicken hut for the first six years of life with real chickens. So the early years were hard. A lot of seed, you know? Then they found me, and schooled me, privately, and I just came out like this. Which, from a chicken to this, it's not disappointing, is it?
DD: Right. So where did the idea of performing come from?
Rhys Ifans: Well right there. I was called Chicken Boy for years and they took me on the road and I used to perform in villages. So that's the performing part of it.
DD: How difficult was the route to film?
Rhys Ifans: I never thought I would be in a film.
DD: Why not?
Rhys Ifans: Well it wasn't like I thought, 'I will do theatre and then, of course, I will go on to do film. Maybe a bit of telly thrown in on the side. An ad here. An ad there.' It was nothing like that.
DD: How does making films in America compare with the UK?
Rhys Ifans: The only difference is you get a lot of food in America at lunchtime, it's like a wedding, and in England you get really homely food. And then on European films you get wine - that's the future. But that's the only difference.
DD: Wrapping up, you once said being Welsh meant you wouldn't get leading roles in the British film industry...
Rhys Ifans: Um, well, there weren't the roles then, there wasn't. But I think, um... I don't know if I feel that now.
DD: So any feelings you once had about there being prejudice no longer pertain?
Rhys Ifans: Oh I think they're always there.
Greenberg is out Friday 11th June 2010. Check out the June issue of Dazed & Confused for an interview with Ifans' co-star Greta Gerwig...
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