Interview: Rufus Sewell on Playing Villians and ‘The Man in the High Castle’

Rufus Sewell, who plays John Smith, sat down to talk about his character and why he didn't want to play just a "pure black-hearted villain."

“That, for me, is the only thing that’s interesting about it.” – Rufus Sewell on Finding and Playing the Different Levels of His Character

The cast of Amazon’s, The Man in the High Castle, came to Comic-Con to talk about the show and the upcoming season, which premieres in October. Rufus Sewell, who plays John Smith, sat down to talk about his character and why he didn’t want to play just a “pure black-hearted villain.”

Your character made quite a journey in season two.

Rufus Sewell: Yes. In lieu of any details I’m not allowed to give you, I’m gonna use the word “Journey” a lot.

It’s a good word.

Rufus Sewell: Yeah, well it’s a good word when you’re not allowed to say anything else.

But from season one to season two, you can talk about that. It was quite a transformation going from pure black-hearted villain to kind of maybe a murkier…

Rufus Sewell: Yeah. I never really saw it that way anyway, so it’s difficult for me to answer those questions. Because in the pilot he was a pure black-hearted villain because… In fact, the most pure black-hearted villainous stuff, he did all in the first episode, which is why I didn’t want to do the show. No, I’m not joking. When I read that, it was a “no.” You wait years to play a non-villain, you get sent that? I’m like, “Oh, cheers. Thanks.” It was obviously very good and really compelling read, but I don’t think I want to just play… “Oh yeah, manifestation of evil, black leather coat.” I’ve even worn the black leather coat before, twice I think.

I voiced my concerns, my doubts, and I was shown a copy of Night 2, because the original pilot was actually in two parts, so the second half was already written. There was a scene with his son and the family, then a scene from his perspective of an attack. People remember that scene as me being particularly stern, but I’m not. I’m just wearing a Nazi uniform. It was actually the way I played it, would be exactly the way I would play it in season two or season three, except I was dressed as a Nazi and it’s the first time you’ve seen someone in their home dressed as a Nazi talking to their son. So people remember, “Oh, well you’ve been really stern with your son.” No. The costume did that for you.

For me, the seeds of that have always been there. Actually, not that it’s necessarily gonna be seen, but that’s what I’ve always been aiming towards and fighting for those little opportunities to show that, because that’s where it was headed or that’s where I’d always hoped it’d be. If it seemed to be heading another way, I would gently try to push back. But for me, that’s what’s interesting about it, is the fact that there’s a clash between the man he would’ve been and the man he ended up being. The man he would’ve been is still in there under various layers.

So we’re just seeing more of the beating heart coming through a bit more now?

Rufus Sewell: Yeah, well I hope.

His family, of course, took a dramatic turn in season two with his son’s health issues. Does that get resolved or addressed further in season three?

Rufus Sewell: Well, it continues. Certainly gets addressed. Yeah. This storyline and everything connected to it continues through. Just the repercussions and the effects everywhere, and also professionally as a result of the changes in his family, he is rewarded. The idea of him as a hero, as an example to be lauded in the Nazi world, means that he goes even higher in the worlds. So, as one part of him is in descent, or at least in crisis, that’s gotta exist at the same time as his rise in the ranks and becoming more adored and more powerful. It’s kind of tricky.

Are we gonna see him kind of chafing a little bit under the system that he’s been brought up in?

Rufus Sewell: I don’t know. If I was to have my say, it would show more than it does. That’s what I’m there for. But, that’s there. But, it’s difficult because the pressure on him… Here’s the reason, the more reason he has to resent and to feel the horror of him having hitched his wagon to this monster that wants to eat his children, in order to protect his children, it’s gone wrong. The only way of keeping them safe, the more powerful he gets, is to get more powerful because there are forces raging against him. Even if he starts in some way, to hate the system, he needs to be the most powerful person in that system because if he loses his power, you don’t get to retire. It’s like the mafia, it’s not like, “Oh, well you can go move to the country with your …” No. The only thing that’s gonna protect his family, protect them from all of this stiff, is him being the guy. Despite his doubts, as he may have, he has to. So, there’s two opposite forces.

I’m sure you love playing those different levels.

Rufus Sewell: Yeah. That, for me, is the only thing that’s interesting about it. Do you know what I mean? Because people are the way people are. No, there are people you totally believe, but what’s interesting them is why do they? How does it happen? People would be more comfortable if you dehumanized the monster. The unfortunate truth is that people who think of themselves as good people, people who think of themselves as moral, as victims, can use that belief to become monsters and not know it.

We see that happening in our world today.

Rufus Sewell: Sure, but you see it at school too.  Bullies who get beaten up at home. You don’t know what people are thinking.  People who think they’re Poland, when in fact, they’re Berlin.

More: Interview: The Man in the High Castle’s Jason O’Mara & Alexa Davalos

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