'I Put Lady Gaga to Shame!' He May Be Best Known for Playing Scruffy Badboy Characters but Rhys Ifans Is Transformed into an English Gent for His Latest Film Which Casts a Doubt on Shakespeare's Authenticity. He Tells Rob Driscoll How He Got into Character
COMBINATION of flamboyant fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld and Arock god David Bowie is how Rhys Ifans envisaged the role of William Shakespeare for his controversial new film Anonymous.
Or not Shakespeare, as it turns out. For this is no usual representation of the Bard as the working-class, man-of-the-people playwright.
Indeed, this riveting 16th-century political thriller, from Hollywood blockbuster director Roland Emmerich, has already ruffled feathers in the world of academia by daring to question the authorship of the legendary plays credited to Shakespeare, and advancing the theory that the man who wrote them was in fact the aristocrat Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as played by Welsh star Ifans.
It's an astonishing "about-turn" performance by the acclaimed, Ruthin-raised actor, abandoning his previous stereotypical image of the great un-washed rebel - from Notting Hill's Spike to slimy DJ Eyeball Paul (of Kevin and Perry fame) - to play a refined and sophisticated Elizabethan scholar.
"When I first met Roland, he asked me which character I responded to most - and much to everyone's surprise, it was the genius aristocrat," grins 44-year-old Ifans.
"Roland made me jump through a few hoops, two hoops to convince him, three hoops to convince (film studio) Sony, and this is the fourth."
By "this", Ifans refers to the press conference for Anonymous at this week's London Film Festival, prior to the movie's nationwide release.
It's certainly a star-laden affair, for along with Ifans and director Emmerich, there is Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter Joely Richardson, who share the role of Queen Elizabeth I at different stages of her life, fast-rising Jamie Campbell Bower, who plays the younger de Vere, and Rafe Spall, who plays the real Shakespeare - a minor, jokily shambolic character that at one time of his career Ifans could have played in his sleep.
But no, this time around the Haverfordwestborn star grabs the leading role of a cerebral man of letters with relish and aplomb. He's recently said that his mum is thrilled that he's no longer "smoking pot and showing my a*** and stealing cars," - references to his previous incarnations as charming bad boys like Hugh Grant's lairy lodger Spike and Howard "Mr Nice" Marks.
What, however, were the challenges of playing a well-manicured Elizabethan aristocrat? "Upholding the English accent wasn't a problem at all - I'm classically trained," teases Ifans.
"The look was kind of specific for de Vere," he reveals about his latest starring role. "Roland said to me, 'Just think of Karl Lagerfeld,' and that gave him a shape. And I said, 'If I do Karl Lagerfeld, am I allowed to bring a bit David Bowie?' I think collectively we put Lady Gaga to shame!" According to German-born Emmerich - more noted for his CGI (computer generated imagery) enhanced blockbusters Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 - Ifans had no trouble convincing him he was right for the role of the urbane de Vere, Earl of Oxford.
"Rhys did an incredible job," says Emmerich.
"He would come to work as Rhys Ifans, but as soon as he came out of hair and make-up and put his costume on, he behaved completely different - he transformed himself into Edward de Vere."
Ifans' mum may well be proud that her son is finally playing a stately aristocrat, but do his family and friends back home in Wrexham really approve of the working-class hero, left-winger Ifans supporting the film's stand that it wasn't Shakespeare the humble Midlands man who wrote all those plays, but a privileged lord of the Elizabethan court? "Whoever wrote Shakespeare is a workingclass hero," argues Ifans, ever-defiantly. …