An interview with Matthew Rhys

So why does Dylan Thomas mean so much to Wales? Who better to ask than Matthew Rhys, the Cardiff-born actor who played the mercurial poet so brilliantly in The Edge of Love. We caught up with the star on a home visit as he flits between Hollywood, New York … and Fishguard

Matthew Rhys has a weekend off. Rehearsals have been cancelled, so he’s spontaneously nipped back home to Cardiff for a spot of R&R at his parents’ house. Except he’s hardly sat down. Firstly, he’s done a charity thing with Bobath, a local cerebral palsy charity which he and his mother support. Later the same day, he’s promised to make a quick appearance at Tafwyl, a Welsh language festival in Cardiff Castle. He ends up officially opening it, making a lengthy speech, and doing several TV interviews in English and Welsh.

Victorian apartments at Cardiff Castle with moat in foreground
Victorian apartments in Cardiff Castle, Cardiff
The following morning, he’s promised to talk to us about Dylan Thomas. Tomorrow, he starts rehearsals in London for a role as Mr D’Arcy in a big BBC drama. After that, he’s heading back to New York to start filming the new season of the blockbuster US drama, The Americans.

We feel a bit guilty, to be honest. Give the man a break. But on Sunday morning, a black-clad jogger trots up to the Wales View editorial door. The jogger pulls off his beanie and a mop of curls springs out, a wide smile not far below. “I’ve been up the Taff Trail,” beams Rhys, who’s just been running along the long-distance path that skirts the Cardiff suburb where he was born. “I love it, I run up there whenever I’m back home.”

The 39-year-old radiates health and happiness. He’s a delightful, energising presence, talking quickly in his mellifluous baritone. He throws in impressions and accents for free (many of them American, because that’s where he’s now based, in Los Angeles). He laughs, a lot. Matthew Rhys is not an actor of the tortured variety, clearly.

The Edge of Love

Actor Matthew Rhys and actress Sienna Miller dancing on grass by the sea in The Edge of Love.

Matthew Rhys and Sienna Miller in The Edge of Love

“Life is good,” he agrees. He’s currently the star of one of the world’s biggest TV shows, The Americans, in which he plays a Soviet KGB spy living a chillingly tense undercover existence in Washington during the Cold War. Still, it’s not half as scary as being Dylan Thomas. Rhys played the iconic poet in The Edge of Love, a role which required him to be one-third of a love-triangle with two of the most beautiful stars of British film, Keira Knightley and Sienna Miller. Tough job? Yes, actually.

“I was terrified!” laughs Rhys. “Everyone in Wales has this incredibly strong sense of who Dylan should be. But there’s no footage of him, we’ve only got his voice recordings. So no-one really knows who he is. When I was researching the role, I tried to read as many people’s accounts of him as I could, to try and get an image of him. I spoke to his daughter Aeronwy as well, who gave me a good few pointers. She said, ‘His hands were like two dead fish,’ which I thought was wonderful!”

As an actor, Rhys is awestruck by Dylan’s dazzling way with words. But he also thinks the poet would have been an interesting chap to share a pint with: “I do, actually, although from what I read, not everyone who met him liked him.

I think he was easily bored by people, and so he had fun, sometimes at the expense of others. He had the wit, along with the ever-present Welsh darkness, and very little patience.”

So why does he remain such an iconic figure to the Welsh? “Ah, we love our archetypes in Wales,” says Rhys. “The big drinker, the carouser, the no-good-boyo. And Dylan’s image fitted incredibly well. And he was irreverent at a time you weren’t supposed to be, the 1950s. It’s not really in the Welsh DNA. We haven’t got many hellraisers, but Thomas stuck two fingers up at it all and lived the life he wanted. Richard Burton was exactly the same. They lived their lives on their own terms. In our nation’s psyche, that’s quietly admired in the chapels.”

Rhys himself, though, doesn’t go in for hell-raising. “As much as I’d love to have that absolute devil-may-care spirit, it’s not in me,” he says ruefully. “I have my moments, but as much as I try and dance on the tables, I’d go, ‘Oh, I’d better get down, my mother would kill me if she found out!’”

Night out with Kiera Knightley and Sienna Miller

Actresses Keira Knightley and Sienna Miller arm in arm by the sea in the film The Edge of Love.

Sienna Miller and Keira Knightley filming in Wales for The Edge of Love

There was a modest amount of roistering during the making of The Edge of Love, which was filmed on location in West Wales, land of Rhys’s own ancestors. “I was determined to put on a proper Welsh night, so I went on full twee overdrive and found this amazing pub in Aberaeron and I got a Welsh folk band in,” says Rhys. “I was determined to put on a clichéd Welsh night. What was so gratifying was how much they loved it. The girls [Knightley and Miller] loved Wales, they were like, ‘Oh my God, we need to move here!’”

If they had, the local farmers would have remained utterly unfazed by two of the world’s most beautiful actresses, reckons Rhys. They were certainly less impressed by Rhys’s acting than his local farming connections. “One farmer said to me, ‘I know who you are. You’re Kevin Evans’s cousin, aren’t you? He runs a thousand acres up near Aberystwyth, doesn’t he? Beautiful dairy he’s got...” 

It’s a typical Welsh characteristic – a refusal to be impressed – that never fails to amuse Rhys, even when he’s on the receiving end … which he is, every time he comes back home and goes to the pub with his school friends. “They feel almost duty-bound to make sure that if I ever dream or breathe of thinking myself above my station, I should be put back in my place – or lower, just to make sure. It’s almost like ‘hazing’, as they say in America. You have to go through the first 15 minutes in the pub where you’re torn to bits, and then you can get on with catching up.”

Best friends 

Actors Ioan Gruffudd and Matthew Rhys attend a party at Tao Nightclub at The Venetian Hotel and Casino on August 18, 2007 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Best friends Matthew Rhys and Ioan Gruffudd

Rhys went to his local Welsh-language comprehensive in Cardiff, where he was the year below his best friend, the actor Ioan Gruffudd. They went to the same chapel, and competed in the same school eisteddfod, the competitive performing in which almost every Welsh child – especially those in Welsh-language schools – takes part.

“We’re kicked onto a stage, or into a pulpit, from a young age,” says Rhys. “I didn’t always like it as a child, but when you look back, it’s amazing. That level of celebration of culture, combined with a sense of tradition and history – it’s great, as long as it keeps evolving. And even if you hate being on stage, somewhere in your psyche it will help you. It encourages confidence and teamwork, which sounds like corporate cliché, but I genuinely believe it.” 

Rhys followed Gruffudd to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), an experience they found both priceless and shockingly hard. While their friends who went to university seemed to be living lives of raucous freedom, RADA was a gruelling six days’ work a week, plus long nights learning lines. Is this why British actors don’t go off the rails in a way that young American stars seem to? “Perhaps,” says Rhys. “I’ve been having this discussion a lot recently. Why are there so many British actors out there, much to the annoyance of American actors? One producer said to me, ‘It’s because you’re far more ready just to turn up and do it,’ and I wonder if it comes from that discipline that’s been instilled, of knowing that you have to.” 

Welsh actors in Hollywood

He’s also amused by the Hollywood habit of casting Brits as villains, but then he’s got a fantastic villain on his own CV: Rhys was the murderer on the last-ever episode of Columbo, the popular whodunnit. How on earth did that happen? 

“I’d worked with Peter Falk on a thing called The Lost World with Bob Hoskins and James Fox, and Peter said [cue a flawless impersonation], ‘I’m doing another Columbo. Why don’t you come and be a murderer?’ On the first day of rehearsal, I asked him, ‘Where do you want my character to be from?’ And he said, ‘London, like a Cockney gangster.’ So I’m doing my best Cockney, and about 20 minutes go by and he stops me and says, ‘Where are you from?’ And I say, Cardiff in Wales, and he goes, ‘Why don’t you make him a Cardiff gangster?’ I can’t even pull the wool over Peter Falk’s eyes with my bad Cockney! So that’s why there’s a Cardiff murderer in the last Columbo.” 

Rhys is now based in Los Angeles, where he’s part of an entire tribe of Welsh actors that includes Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Sheen, Andrew Howard and Catherine Zeta Jones. 

“I discovered an even greater group of Welshies there during the Six Nations [rugby championship],” says Rhys. “There’s a pub in Santa Monica called the King’s Head that shows the games live, usually at around 5.30am. I remember walking in and there’s a sea of red, and suddenly there’s this ready-made Welsh community. There are a lot of boys from Merthyr working in construction there, strangely.” Welshness – and especially the Welsh language – is still central to who Rhys is. It’s also why, on this precious weekend off in Cardiff, he’s doesn’t mind pitching in to help … by opening major festivals at a moment’s notice, for instance. 

“I’m happy to support when I can,” says Rhys. “Welsh is my first language, it’s what I speak to my family and to friends like Ioan. I was honoured to open Tafwyl because it does a great thing, it’s just an open festival, it’s free, and it’s in the middle of Cardiff. If you speak Welsh, great, come and use it. And if not, come along and enjoy the festival anyway. I hope it breaks down boundaries. Being asked to do this kind of thing still tickles me, though. There’s always someone at the back I know, one of my school friends, who catches my eye and does this…” 

At this point Rhys mimes a series of magnificently obscene gestures that, mercifully, cannot be recreated in print. “It’s the Welsh putting me back in my place.” He laughs again. “Happens all the time!”