From ‘Saltburn’s Scene-Stealing Butler to Napoleon’s Limping Schemer: Paul Rhys on Starring in Two “Bookends of British Brilliance”

From ‘Saltburn’s Scene-Stealing Butler to Napoleon’s Limping Schemer: Paul Rhys on Starring in Two “Bookends of British Brilliance”

There are numerous laugh-out-loud moments in Saltburn, Emerald Fennell’s darkly comic and voyeuristic exploration of the British aristocracy being released on Friday. Despite the hugely impressive efforts of Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant, however, most don’t belong to the lead cast, but to Paul Rhys. 

As Duncan, the imperious and terrifying butler, the Welsh actor silently steals scenes from under the toffee noses of both those he dutifully serves at the Saltburn mansion (including Pike, Grant, Jacob Elordi and Alison Oliver) and the lower-class interloper he’s keeping a beady eye on (Barry Keoghan) each time he appears with hilariously po-faced magnificence. 

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And it’s a face that crops up again in another starry title. In Ridley Scott’s much-anticipated biopic Napoleon, out Nov. 22, Rhys plays Talleyrand, the crafty club-footed diplomat who served as the French commander’s political right-hand man as he swept across Europe (and, later, betrayed him). 

For Rhys, it’s a somewhat unusual experience to have such high-profile Hollywood features back-to-back, with much of his better known work on stage (he earned an Olivier nomination in 1997 for his performance in a production in King Lear). But it’s one he’s fully embracing.

“With Emerald, I would have done practically anything, much less than Duncan, to be in her film. And with Ridley, who doesn’t want that experience — he’s one of the greats,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Between these two, you’ve got these bookends of British brilliance.”

It’s an experience the 59-year-old admits could have come much sooner, had he only followed his dear friend Tim Roth’s advice after their big-screen breaks back in 1990. 

Roth used Robert Altman’s critically lauded Vincent Van Gogh biopic Vincent & Theo as his springboard to stardom, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction soon following. But despite Roth urging Rhys, who played his on-screen brother Theo Van Gogh, to “never go back” to the U.K., Rhys says he wasn’t particularly interested in all the attention they were getting in Hollywood (there had been some early hopeful Oscar conversations) and the opportunities suddenly being thown at their feet. 

“Tim would say, ‘Bridget Fonda’s having a pool party this afternoon we’ve got to go,’ but I’d be like, ‘I haven’t finished this book yet, I’ll stay here,’” he recalls, adding that he considered himself “a theater actor who did film” and that he had to head home to continue working. “So at the peak of film, I went back to the National Theatre for three years.”

Rhys’ career on stage blossomed (highlights, alongside King Lear, include playing Hamlet at the Old Vic and winning a Critics Circle award for Measure for Measure) alongside a growing assortment of TV work (including parts in Luther, Victoria and, most recently, A Discovery of Witches). And he continued to get film roles. 

Soon after Vincent & Theo and in another famous sibling performance, he play Sydney Chaplin to Robert Downey Jr.’s Charlie in Richard Attenborough’s 1992 biopic Chaplin, and he’d later appear in Alan Bennett’s 102 Boulevard Haussmann and opposite Peter O’Toole in Rebecca’s Daughters. “And then every time there’d be a new shot, I’d be straight back to the theatre and fucking it up,” he says. “If I could go back to all that opportunity, I don’t know if it would be so wise to leave it and do theater all the time. But you live by your choices.”

But now, more than 30 years after his unexploited break with Roth and Altman, Rhys is back in Hollywood (literally — he flew over to L.A. for the recent, post-strike premiere of Saltburn). And he says the part almost came to him as if it were willed by fate. 

Having seen Fennell’s Oscar-winning debut Promising Young Woman while on a flight, he came off the plane wondering how he’d ever get to meet the fast-rising filmmaker, let alone work with her. “And a week later this offer came in,” Rhys recalls. However, the offer to play Duncan came with a warning from his agent that, for actors, it’s the “beginning of the end when you’re doing the old butler.” 

He was undeterred. And Saltburn proved to be one of the best experiences of his working life. 

“I loved every second of filming it,” he says, explaining that he actually lived in the vast stately home where much of Saltburn was shot, almost as a form of method acting to truly embody the butler. “I had Duncan’s room in the actual house.”

Despite coming from a “very working class background” himself, Rhys says he’s become fine-tuned to playing those from the upper echelons of society, including “Beethoven or Talleyrand or Hamlet or just some toff.” This put him in good stead to step into the fiercely-polished brogues of Duncan, who he says didn’t arrive fully formed, with Fennell allowing for character development and improvisation to build on her own carefully constructed ideas for him.

“I asked her if she thought Duncan was the son of the previous butler, and she said ‘Oh no, he was cycling past one day and looked at the place and thought, I want a bit of that,’” he recalls. Rhys also wrote a biography for Duncan, and brought in his own experiences to the role, including from his mother, who he says went into domestic service for the Catholic Church at the age of just 13. “She cried about it every day in my childhood, so I’ve got some odd relationships to that world, and I think there was part of her in my understanding of him.”

Much of the Saltburn’s butler-based humor comes from the abrupt and comically-timed arrival of Duncan’s excessively stern — and somewhat ghostly — face. And he says when he saw this face the first time at a screening his immediate thought was, “Jesus Christ, when did this happen?,” and that he had to be reminded that he was playing a character. “You forget and it creeps up on you, slowly through the work that you do, the improvisations that you do and the homework you do…nothing arrives fully formed.”

But he credits the sharp mind and “insight” of Fennell for arguably Saltburn’s biggest laugh, when Duncan appears in the midst of a massive fancy dress party held in the vast estate, not in his usual funeral-like black three-piece, but in a clownishly colorful Swiss Guard’s outfit (a decidedly un-Duncan costume). 

“I said to Emerald, ‘Don’t you think he’d be dressed severely, like Shakespeare, all in black and with white ruffles,’ and she said, ‘No Paul, they’re cruel. They would make him dress up like that.’”

Given Napoleon‘s post-Revolutionary France setting, there are plenty of white ruffles on display in that film. Napoleon, which actually shot before Saltburn (and almost entirely around the U.K., standing in for France), gave Rhys a chance to watch the master filmmaker Scott in his element. “He’s sort of a phenomenon, in his 80s and running around like a child. … He’s got more energy than me.” 

As it happens, his casting as the political schemer Tallyrand (seen playing diplomatic chess with various European counterparts and never without a caliper on one leg) links back to Rhys’ early career, with “Ridley having known about me since Altman,” Rhys says.

More than 30 years on, Rhys is now intent on capitalizing on his latest major movie moment and has been asking himself what he really wants to get out of it. 

“And I thought, all I want is to work with great filmmakers but ones I love, that’s all I really want going forward. So if these lead to more chances of that sort, I’d be a really happy person,” he says. “My hope would be that interesting filmmakers realize I’m alive.”