I wasn’t the happiest teenager. I was flouncy, angry, anxious. It wasn’t really a happy family, we definitely had difficulties. My mother was often ill and in hospital, and she had some mental problems too. My father was away quite a lot and generally a very remote man. I was very hyper and probably a bit bipolar at that age. I struggled with deep depression, and also had these highs. I’d be glad to tell that 16-year-old that it’s all gonna flatten out in the end.
I wanted to be an actor of some kind, though I didn’t know how to do it. Weston-super-Mare, where I grew up, was actually quite a good place to be at that age because you could do mad things and not have the prospect of a city that could just swallow you up. You could be wild but still relatively safe. But I knew if I wanted to act I was going to have to leave.
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I didn’t like high school. My brain didn’t work in that academic way. And I found it very difficult, the structuring of personality to fit into school. I don’t think it’s just ego or a reluctance to let go of your free will; it’s the idea that you have to contort yourself to your very soul, to fit in. I just left without O-levels. I see my children struggling with the same thing now and I kind of think it’s grotesque. I think I’m like a bad-tempered old horse who just wants to gallop in a different field.
I was cripplingly shy. I remember walking with my first girlfriend – I was shaking, I literally couldn’t speak. It might be true that some girls quite like that shyness but you don’t see it like that. You see a world full of capable people and you look like the fumbling big-handed, big-footed, misshapen-headed monster. I did think about how I looked. I had ideas, though not always very good ones. I had a rather pathetic, limp, downy, pink My Little Pony mohawky mane. It was terrible.
I used to go to secondhand shops and buy old ladies’ shoes and paint them with house paint. I also had boxing boots and a fake rabbit jacket at one point. I was definitely putting on a show, or hiding or something. You’re always presenting yourself in some way, aren’t you? When you’re an adult you wear a suit which in some ways is a presentation of money. I guess maybe what I was doing was flicking a big old V to all that.
When I was about 15 I took an overdose of pills to try to die. I remember my senses closing down. I heard the flush of the toilet but it was like a dream. I had a thought of, I really think I’ve gone, I think I’m gonna die. And I’m not even sure I want to die. Then I vomited so much I knocked myself out. I was off school sick for about three days; everyone just thought I had a bug.
If I could go back to just before I took the pills I’d probably just sit down and hold my younger self’s hand and say, listen, I can help you through this. It will pass. And while you’re waiting for it to pass, just try and be kind to yourself, and hyper-aware of what’s happening. You feel overwhelmed, but rather than giving up, stand up and remain aware. Try to be generous to yourself. This amount of life coming at you, that’s when you can actually learn.
Purely because I was so ignorant, I didn’t worry too much about my career. I just assumed I would act. I didn’t see any hardships ahead because I didn’t know how anything worked so I thought things would just magically happen. When I was about 15 I worked up some comic monologues and took them around theatres in the West Country, performing in variety nights. I worked in Butlin’s in Skegness and did a season in a circus to get an Equity card. I did some plays but I was so under-confident I used to throw up in the wings, out of sheer terror. “What the fuck am I doing?”
But there’s something amazing about adrenaline, it has magical properties. It can transcend your doubts and fears. I kept going then a play in the West End got me a part in A Room with a View, the Merchant Ivory film. And that was my big break.
I was totally starstruck on the set of A Room with a View. If I remember correctly, the first scene I shot was when I had to say, by the lake, “Does anyone want to bathe?” And you can see my face is red. I was so embarrassed and shy. I felt so out of my depth. I’d left school when I was 16, I didn’t know anybody or anything about the business. And a lot of the people on the shoot had been to really posh schools and were already part of the social London scene. They just assumed I was posh.
They weren’t horrible or snooty, I just didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. I felt like I was sneaking in the back door like a dirty little thief. Later there was a casting director who cast me assuming I’d been to public school. She got really cross when she found out I hadn’t.
Looking back, I think I trusted my instincts more when I was a child than I did in my 20s and 30s. After A Room with a View I got into that thing of thinking everybody who seemed very cultured was legitimate. I wasn’t at all cultured. I mean, I knew about Sex Pistols bootlegs, but I didn’t know about Goethe or Gustav Klimt. Or about high society, or good manners, or fine sensibilities. So I just thought, I’d better hitch my soul to their wagon. I kind of lost my instinct and my essence, actually, and I think I’ve learned to regain that.
The troubles that I grew up with receded because here was something greater; the incredible miracle of life itself
I’m lucky in that through the ups and own, privately I’ve remained quite a realist. I knew that the adrenalin would go. I knew fame was imagined. I thought that when you were on telly people would recognise you on the street, but that wouldn’t last long. The interesting thing about having a long career on screen is that you see the cyclical nature of things. The media flame flickers very briefly. When I did Sherlock it was hard to walk around the centre of London, but only for two or three weeks. But I expected that, I’ve never struggled with it.
If I could go back to any point in my past… when I was in my mid-20s I had a greyhound dog which used to bite other dogs. So I had to take him for a walk in Clissold Park in Stoke Newington at one o’clock in the morning, when there were no other dogs around. There was this chestnut tree, and it had a very straight, thick branch which you could stand on. When my dog ran around I used to climb the tree and put headphones on and stand on this branch listening to music and just grooving quietly to myself. And one night I remember I looked up from the tree and I could see the stars.
This is very hippie-ish. But I remember just thinking, for the first time, life is so extraordinary, life is so amazing. The branches are up there, the stars are above me, the roots are underneath the earth, my dog’s running around… You don’t need any ideology, you don’t need any approval. You don’t need religion. You only need to be in awe of life itself. And all the troubles that I grew up with just kind of receded because here was something greater; the incredible miracle of life itself.
Yesterday I was on the train thinking about this interview coming up. I was thinking about what I’d say to my younger self and I thought about that horrible time when I was 15 and took those pills. And – this is a mad coincidence – as I drew into Reading station I looked out and there was a poster saying, “Help is Out There Rupert”. It freaked me out. It was so odd I took a photo of it. I mean, Rupert is just not a big demographic. But there it was.
Sky original Riviera series 3 is on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV