MATTHEW RHYS has spent most of his career on US sets in hit shows such as The Americans and Brothers & Sisters, so you think he’d feel at home stateside.
But the Welsh actor felt a massive sense of relief returning to these shores to film a new period drama. That’s because, for the charmingly loquacious Rhys, 44, it’s all about the banter.
‘I still find times in America when I’m on set and I open my mouth and it’s very apparent that the humour there is very different to our humour — you really have to watch what you say,’ says Rhys. ‘They can take it to the next level when it comes to being serious. When you film at home, it’s pure banter. It was so much fun to join in with that.’
But he’s not entirely back on home soil with Death And Nightingales — it’s more of a Celtic connection, with Rhys the token Welshman in an Irish tale based on a Eugene McCabe novel.
This claustrophobic story of love and fate is set in the 1880s. Rhys plays landowner Billy, one corner of a three-way emotional tug of war involving his stepdaughter Beth (newcomer Ann Skelly) and Liam, the man she wants to run away with, played by Jamie Dornan (all above).
For Rhys, who had spent the previous six years playing Russian agent Philip in The Americans, a run that culminated in a deserved Best Actor Emmy win this year, playing Billy was a cathartic way of expunging Philip from his system.
‘When you play a character for a long time, it does have an impact on you,’ says Rhys. ‘And Philip had been in the KGB since he was a kid, he got inside you. With the part of Billy, there’s an extremity to him. It was cleansing to dive into a character like him.
‘There are certain similarities between the two: they’re both men who feel trapped in their own lives. Billy’s in a vicious spiral. After the death of his wife he’s pinned his whole life on his stepdaughter and now he feels incredibly angry the whole time. He’s got a lot of plates spinning in the air.’
The intense story spins out over three episodes spanning a single pivotal 24-hour period. And while it’s a character-driven piece, Rhys was drawn to the echoes of the story that ripple through eternal issues in Irish history.
‘It’s about taking sides, making wrong decisions and where do you draw the line when it comes to borders?’ he muses. ‘Billy is someone who hasn’t progressed, he can’t move on. The parallels with Irish history are very much there.’
It’s a fertile time for Rhys. Following on from The Americans he features in Mowgli: Legend Of The Jungle, Andy Serkis’s fresh take on The Jungle Book. Rhys is John Lockwood, father of author Rudyard Kipling, a human character amid a sea of animated voices that include Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett and Benedict Cumberbatch.
Will this be one that two-year-old Sam, his son with wife and Americans co-star Keri Russell, might be able to watch his dad in? ‘Umm… wait till you see it!’ he says. ‘It’s much darker than you might expect. Andy has gone back to the original book and magnified it.’
Despite the company he’s been keeping, Rhys still does get starstruck. ‘I’ve just shot a film with Tom Hanks in New York called You Are My Friend,’ he says. ‘It’s a true story. I play Esquire journalist Tom Junod, whose life is changed when he meets a TV legend.
‘For the first two weeks I was s***ting myself. I had memories of watching Tom Hanks movies when I was a kid. I had to pinch myself — I was so nervous. I mean, this is Tom Hanks! This is Big, right?’
Big indeed. A nice bit of banter.
■ Death And Nightingales starts tonight on BBC2 at 9pm
Strange fruit: The sinful side of Bill Pullman
BILL PULLMAN knows how to make an impression. The first time I met him, when he was filming Torchwood, he gave me a mango. He had a tray of them.
‘They were the best quality, I couldn’t believe they had them in London, I had to buy five boxes!’ Pullman (above) recalls cheerily.
Pullman is back in the mix thanks to his standout role as Detective Harry Ambrose, lead character in gripping thriller The Sinner, now into its second season. Ambrose is a layered character who specialises in prising open cases lesser cops have thrown the key away on.
Season one, starring Jessica Biel (pictured), finds him unravelling the background to what looks like an unprovoked beach attack, while season two has him burrowing into the dubious goings-on at a cult. The linking factor is that guilt and sin are rarely black-and-white issues — Ambrose is all about exploring the grey.
The Sinner is Pullman’s first big TV series — and Harry Ambrose means a lot to him. ‘I’m trying to create a character who is close to the bone for me,’ he says. ‘He’s a character who takes me back to the worst part of my life. When I was younger I didn’t have a lot of confidence and I got into theatre and it rescued me. It showed me my place in the world. Harry is the same, only for him it’s being a detective.’
Given the close connection Pullman feels to his Harry, I hesitate to ask how he relates to Harry’s sexually fetishistic side. But I have to ask. ‘Well, Keith, that’s a question,’ he says. ‘You get another mango for that!’
■ The Sinner, seasons one and two, is on Netflix now. Season one starts a weekly run on BBC4 at 9pm on Saturday