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Rupert Friend on ‘Asteroid City’ and Playing James Bond

When you think of Rupert Friend, chances are you remember his five seasons as CIA operative Peter Quinn on “Homeland” or his turn as the Grand Inquisitor on “Obi-Wan Kenobi.” But recently he’s become the latest member of Wes Anderson’s acting troupe, following up his role in 2021’s “The French Dispatch” with the Cannes Palme d’Or contender “Asteroid City” and the Roald Dahl anthology “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” now in post-production at Netflix. Variety spoke with the U.K.-born actor about his eclectic career, his upcoming feature writing/directing debut and why he had a “revelation” that he should be the next James Bond.

What’s your role in “Asteroid City,” and what can we expect from the film?

It’s set in a fictional American town in the middle of a desert landscape, centered around a convention of junior stargazers and their slightly eccentric parents who’ve come together to celebrate juvenile geniuses. The whole thing is interrupted by a very surreal series of events. Suffice to say it has all the whimsy, playfulness and inventiveness that you’d expect from a Wes Anderson picture, and probably the most star-studded cast that I’ve ever seen. I’m playing the leader of a troupe of singing cowboys who pass through this small town and, for certain reasons, can’t leave. My group [is acted by] professional musicians, except me. So I had some work to do! I played guitar in bands as a teenager, but I had to learn the lap steel [guitar] for this role. It has two necks lying on your lap, there’s more strings and it is a finger picking nightmare, but the sound of it is completely beautiful. I love working with Wes, because he’ll just casually say, “Oh, you could play the song live, right?” [laughs] Of course, I said yes, and then I get to Spain where we filmed it and the other band members include Jarvis Cocker, who I grew up listening to in Pulp! 

Tell me a bit about “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.”

It could change, but when we made it, there were four stories drawn from a Roald Dahl [short story collection], which are his slightly darker, twisted ones that he wrote for adults. Wes took four of them and put together a smaller troupe of actors: myself, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dev Patel, and Richard Ayoade. We each play in around two of the stories and kind of change roles. I think Ralph might be in all of them. My two are “The Ratcatcher” and “The Swan.” I grew up completely obsessed with Dahl. I actually had his obituary on my bedroom door. I was so saddened when he died [in 1990]. This film was a dream come true.

How did you start working with Wes Anderson?

My wife [athlete-turned-actress/speaker Aimee Mullins] is friends with him and his wife, so I knew him socially, but I later discovered that he had watched all of “Homeland.” I said it would be really interesting to collaborate on something, and he invited me to do this part in “The French Dispatch.” It was extraordinary, because I was filming in Los Angeles and when I got to France after two flights, a train ride and what felt like a boat, an airplane and a motorcycle to get to the middle of nowhere, they’d finished filming some two weeks before and were just waiting for me to be available! [Laughs.] Our relationship developed through our mutual love of literature and movies and art and storytelling. And when I’m on set with him, I feel like I can do anything.

What’s extraordinary about the team Wes has put together is, between my management team and his, they seem to be able to make miracles happen. I was doing [“Obi-Wan Kenobi”] two years ago in Los Angeles and Wes needed me for one day’s rehearsal with Ralph in London. As a U.S. resident, I don’t travel with my passport. Someone had to break into our apartment in New York, get the passport and meet me at the L.A. airport. I then flew on the red eye and spent a magical afternoon climbing over sofas in a hotel room with Ralph, then got back on plane, put on prosthetic makeup for four hours and got back into “Star Wars.” Mountains moved for him because everybody adored him.

Is there a chance we’ll see you in another season of “Obi-Wan Kenobi?”

The whole show hasn’t been discussed, but I’d love to. I loved working with Ewan [McGregor]. We became good mates after that. Our families love each other, and I really loved stepping into that galaxy far, far away. That character was such a trip to get to inhabit, and to stride down to that famous tavern in the first episode. So let’s hope they do another one and involve the Grand Inquisitor, because there’s a hell of a lot of storyline in my research on that guy that would be very interesting to move from animation into live action.

After what happened to your “Homeland” character, it’s unlikely you’ll return if it gets a reboot, but fans hold out hope for that or a prequel you might join. Have you heard anything about one?

You could do the bits of the story we didn’t necessarily see because we were focused on a different character. That could be interesting, but no, no one’s mentioned it to me.

I was very grateful to have gotten to explore a character for that long. And to date, I haven’t seen anyone get such a lucky opportunity, in as much as you saw this vaguely heroic kind of anti-hero, and then have somebody who has been so physically and mentally damaged by the actions of other people for his final season. We all, myself included, pretty much thought we knew who this guy was. And then, I’ll never forget, the first script of my final season said, “Peter Quinn is utterly unrecognizable, but still hit very much himself.” I had to call the showrunner and say, “Sorry, I don’t understand. What does that mean?” And they said, “Go with your gut.” So I literally got to speak to doctors and chemical warfare experts and scientists and hostages and veterans and build what felt to me like a realistic consequence of what he’d been through: aphasia, PTSD and hemiplegia and drop foot. I was saying, “Am I going to have to take hostages and be a badass?” And they said, “We don’t know, because we haven’t written it yet.” Whatever we came up with in that first episode was gonna have to ride for the rest of them.

Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City”; photo courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features
Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

Before “Asteroid City” hits theaters on June 16 and your spy thriller “Canary Black” with Kate Beckinsale comes out this fall, your new Apple TV+ series “High Desert” premiered May 17.

It’s a completely singular kind of dark comedy in the vein of the Coen brothers, directed entirely by the marvelous Jay Roach. It stars Patricia Arquette as a slightly messed-up drug addict who decided to become a private detective and is mourning the loss of her mother. My character, Guru Bob, is a small-town news anchor who had an existential meltdown live on air, dropped acid and dropped out. Because of the way that the internet works these days, he gathered a huge following of people who decided that he was a prophet of some kind. He’s an enjoyably stupid narcissist, but they all are convinced that he’s got profound things to say. It was an absolute delight spend six months pretending to trip balls in the desert with Patricia.

You mentioned your wife, Aimee. How do you balance a home life with her and so many projects?

My wife and I have always tried to do the do-si-do [dance] of who’s working and who’s accompanying and supporting. We’ve been together ten years and have a two-week rule, so we don’t go more than two weeks without one of us joining the other. And we’ve managed to make that work without ever having to disrupt anyone else’s schedule.

You’ve talked about making your first feature as a writer and director. One that was announced was “Cornerman,” a biopic about Mike Tyson’s boxing trainer, Cus D’Amato. Any updates on that?

I’ve written an original thriller that I’ll definitely direct, but probably not [act] in. We’re about to go out to actors, which is very exciting, but we are in that right-before-you-make-an-announcement stage where we have a script and the producers and the financing. I would probably want to do “Cornerman” as a second picture.

At the start of your career, you were best known to U.S. audiences for period dramas like “The Libertine,” “Pride and Prejudice” and “The Young Victoria,” and seemed to avoid more commercial projects. Do you regret it?

I wouldn’t say I have an affinity for any genre over another. I see stories as either about compelling characters to whom incredible things happen, or they’re not. The great joy is in the range of things. The eclecticism has sort of taken care of itself after a fair amount of stubbornness on my part in my early twenties.

When I was 22, and just out of acting college, I did three pictures back to back: “The Libertine,” “Pride & Prejudice” and “Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont.” And I was told, “We’d love to talk to you about playing James Bond, but rebooting the series. We want to do him basically straight out of college.” And I met Barbara Broccoli and her brother Michael and Debbie McWilliams, the casting director for Bond. Obviously I’ve watched them growing up and just love all the actors and all the movies. Basically they said: you’ll do a screen test, and if it goes well, you’re signed up for three pictures which you won’t read and you won’t know who the director is. You’re basically handcuffed to it. And I suddenly was like, “I just feel at this point in my life and career, I’m too young, I don’t have the experience, I don’t have the acting chops and I don’t have any of the hard knocks — emotionally, psychologically, physically — that a great Bond should have. So I’m gonna politely decline. That was probably a bit of an eyebrow raise for them.

To be honest, I’m grateful that I did. Because back then, not only could the part have sort of eclipsed me, I felt like the part was bigger than me as an actor or even as a person. That it would sort of swallow me up and I might sink the franchise, or at least be the worst Bond that ever lived. And that was just not an option, because I love the franchise. But very, very recently, last week [in mid-April], it started to come back into my consciousness that, let’s put it this way, maybe I’ve got the scars and the bruises now. [laughs] From having literally been around the block or in the school of hard knocks, but also having navigated film sets and directors and difficult situations. You sort of realize you’re at a point where you can take things on that perhaps you couldn’t before.

Have you contacted them again about playing the role? You’re just a few years older than Daniel Craig was when he started, and around the age Pierce Brosnan and Timothy Dalton were.

Well, I had this revelation last week, so this interview is very prescient. And I wrote to my manager, saying, “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. . .” and told them what I sort of told you. My manager remembered coming to stay with me and my wife in our house a couple years ago and asked me, after maybe one or two bottles of wine too many, what I thought about the prospect of playing the character. I said back then that I felt daunted by it, or that I would somehow not serve it. And last week, I literally decided that I was ready. Now they may or may not be interested, and that’s totally fine, but it’s one of those things where everyone I was working with. . . Patricia Arquette texted me last week to say, “I love the show, you’re so funny, and why the hell are you not Bond? Talk to your agent about it!” So I thought, OK, the universe is sort of saying something here, even if it’s only to say, yes, you weren’t ready and now you are. It doesn’t matter if you do it or not, but it’s important to listen to the cycles of life and understand the universe is always on time, just sometimes you and I are a bit early or a bit late.

What are your ultimate goals for your career?

I’m trying to focus on the process rather than outcomes, because if you’re not careful, you put all your eggs in the basket of a particular project and then it has to be a huge success. Whatever that thing is that you wanted it to do will also fade, and you’re back to the present moment. I am very excited to move behind the camera, to be in the trenches with actors, to bring what I have learned and enjoyed exploring to another side of storytelling and collaborate with people from every single discipline. I’m a huge fan of production design and cinematography and composition. And then, in terms of acting, it’s really a continuance of exploring the unknown and working with directors who I’m passionate about.

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