Fresh off his Emmy win, Matthew Rhys spoke to TV Drama about the types of roles he is attracted to and what drew him to Death and Nightingales, which Red Arrow Studios International will be showcasing at MIPCOM.
It’s been a hectic few years for Rhys. The Welsh-born actor’s hit FX series The Americans came to a close after six critically acclaimed seasons—and landed him an Emmy win for best actor in a drama series this year. Steven Spielberg’s The Post, in which he played whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, was nominated for a best picture Academy Award. He features in the upcoming blockbuster theatrical film Mowgli. And later this year he’ll star as Billy Winters in Death and Nightingales, a BBC Two and RTÉ commission.
TV DRAMA: How did you come to be involved with Death and Nightingales?
RHYS: I was going to say it came about in the usual way, but it didn’t actually! I was very lucky to have worked with Andy Serkis and Jonathan Cavendish of The Imaginarium on Mowgli, which is coming out this year. Death and Nightingales has been a passion project for Jonathan, the producer, for many, many years, almost a quarter of a century. He said, I have this project I’m doing, and I’d very much like you to play Billy Winters. Then he said, It’s written by Allan Cubitt, which certainly spiked my interest, just knowing him as a prominent television writer in the U.K. and now an emerging director. I thought, This is a great meeting of elements. So just reading the script was a done deal for me. Parts like this don’t come along very often. I begged them if I could do it in the end!
TV DRAMA: Had you read the Eugene McCabe novel it’s based on? Did you read it as part of your preparation?
RHYS: I wasn’t familiar with it and I didn’t read it. I spoke to Allan very early on [about that]. I’ve done a few adaptations now, and I’m not that good at differentiating between what is the script and what is the original work. On one of the last projects I did, I started playing stuff that wasn’t in the script, and the director kept saying, No, that’s in the novel, not in the script. So I said to Allan, I’d rather stick to the screenplay because then it’s a lot clearer, and it’s linear and purer for me. I said, If you want me to read it I will, but if not, I’d love to just use what you’ve written. And he said, Yes, absolutely fine.
TV DRAMA: Your body of work includes inhabiting a character made just for television in The Americans, literary characters in Death Comes to Pemberley and Death and Nightingales, and a real person, Daniel Ellsberg, in The Post. Is the creative process to prepare for each type of role different?
RHYS: It is really, and [I tend to make those choices] from quite a selfish point of view. I look at [a project] and go, Have I done this before? Is it similar to what I’ve just done? I’m basically just looking for something new and challenging, as most actors are. To be in a position where you’re presented with a part that can do that is a great luxury. I was looking for something that was ultimately very different from Philip Jennings in The Americans. That was part of why I did Death and Nightingales, but not entirely the whole reason. The depth of the character and certainly the complexity of it and the story were equal pulls.
TV DRAMA: Tell us about the character of Billy. What motivates him through the show’s story arc?
RHYS: That’s what I was so interested in. [As an actor] you’re always interested in character motivation. There are a number of elements colliding for Billy, which makes his motivations very interesting. He’s been lumbered with the mantle of continuing a lineage and a heritage and a piece of land, [against the backdrop of the] complexity of the religious divide in Northern Ireland. He has all this emotional turmoil bubbling away and eating away at his core. He’s this man of the land, the doer, the stoic, hardworking, Protestant landowner. But at the same time, he’s a boiling cauldron of emotion because of a betrayal. There are familial scars from his past that align and confuse him. So you see him processing a number of things, not always up to speed—that’s what makes for great drama.
TV DRAMA: I’ve seen some of the images and it looks stunning—and a far cry from where you are now in rainy Pittsburgh! What was it like filming against those gorgeous backdrops in Northern Ireland?
RHYS: It was great! Wales is home for me, but there’s something very familiar about [Northern Ireland]. Working with that crew in that place, it felt a lot like home, which I enjoyed enormously. I found the accent to be like a beautiful T-bone steak to get your teeth into, equal parts enjoyable and challenging.
TV DRAMA: You’ve done a lot of period drama. Do you think that by allowing audiences to look back at the past, these shows can help us better understand what’s going on around us today?
RHYS: I find at times in certain period dramas, you look back and think, Oh God, we really haven’t learned anything! That makes for very depressing times. There are a number of elements in Death and Nightingales where you think, All of these things are still very present, sadly.
TV DRAMA: The way the show came together is a bit like an indie film model. There are two producers in The Imaginarium and Soho Moon, two commissioning broadcasters in the BBC and RTÉ, and then Red Arrow Studios serves as the distributor. Does having multiple partners behind the scenes impact anything on set?
RHYS: You are aware of it, but it doesn’t affect anything. What’s great is you have producers like Jonathan Cavendish who will say, Whatever it takes, we’ll get it made. If you get the right people to make it, it doesn’t matter where the money comes from. If it needs to get made, it will get made. I’m always in awe of that can-do attitude and that tenacity. How did you not just give up 20 years ago when you were trying to make it? They believe in these projects, so whatever it takes to get it made, they’ll do it.
TV DRAMA: Are you more interested now in these limited series versus a long-running commitment like The Americans?
RHYS: No, if another project like The Americans came along, I’d happily jump on it! I have no qualms about that. You know, I look back at The Americans and I think, What a luxury to have 75 hours of television for this incredible story.
TV DRAMA: How do you juggle your TV and film projects?
RHYS: Not very well! It’s always a bit of a scramble. Lots of early-morning flights, late-night flights and muscling dates to work—and very patient agents and producers!
TV DRAMA: You directed a couple of episodes on The Americans. Is that something you’d like to do more of?
RHYS: Very much so. It’s in the same vein of what I said about looking for new challenges. I enjoy the challenge of directing and storytelling—and beating actors into submission!
TV DRAMA: Tell us about your working relationship with Allan Cubitt on Death and Nightingales.
RHYS: Like Jonathan, Allan’s [wanted to do] this project for years. He shaped and molded it so much over time. He came to production with an incredible vision of exactly how he wanted it. And then, which is so rare, not just for directors but especially for writer-directors, he says, Billy is whatever you want to make him, or however you see him. And he literally lets you shape it in any way you want. He’ll guide and at times say, What about this? It’s almost to the point of you going to him and saying, This is what I’d like to do, and he’s like, Great, do it! It’s something I’ve almost never experienced, that freedom and trust he has in you as an actor to say, You’re playing the part, it’s your character, you do what you want. So to be able to do that and be trusted to do that was revelatory to me and incredibly liberating.
TV DRAMA: Is there an intensity to your preparation, and even your performance, because you have such a limited amount of time to tell the character’s story? As opposed to having more of a slow burn over 10 or 12 episodes in a season?
RHYS: That’s absolutely right. You hit the ground running. I don’t envy Allan from a writer’s standpoint, trying to elbow everything into three hours. But I think he did incredibly well. But yes, you’re up and running very quickly. In a shooting sense that is a little tough, because you don’t have the time. You’re hitting the punchy scenes early, so you have to come in prepared.
TV DRAMA: Red Arrow will be busy selling this around the world at MIPCOM. What aspects of the story do you think will resonate with global audiences?
RHYS: There’s so much. At its core, it’s a complex love story, which I think everyone can relate to, especially when it’s as complex and as unrequited from Billy’s point of view. You see the tumult that religion and land bring. I think those big issues are instantly accessible, given that they’re still going on and so present everywhere.