Professionally-trained British actor Rupert Friend is probably best known to audiences for his roles in the period dramas Pride and Prejudice and The Young Victoria, but in recent years he’s also honed his skills as a writer, director, and producer of short films with his production company, Beat Pictures. His latest short, Steve, assembles an impressive array of talent, with Oscar-winner Colin Firth as an eccentric man who makes progressively bizarre unannounced visits to the flat of bickering couple Keira Knightley and Tom Mison.
Accepted into 15 international film festivals throughout 2011, Steve was also selected to be a part of the short film anthology Stars in Shorts distributed by the cable channel ShortsTV. Friend recently took the time to answer some of our questions about Steve ahead of Stars in Shorts’ theatrical release on September 28, and matched the droll wit of his film with his musings about the danger of allegories, the comforts of ambiguity, and how the project began as entertainment for a captive audience…
Screen Invasion: Can you tell me a little bit about how Steve was first conceived?
Rupert Friend: Steve began as a short story I wrote for my friends to keep in the bathroom. Reading it lasted the right amount of time for the things that happen in there.
SI: Steve marks your directorial debut. What drew you to a new role behind the camera?
RF: Truthfully, it just seemed easier than trying to explain to someone else what this was all about. The character treads such a fine line, tonally. I also charged myself nothing to hire myself.
SI: How did the casting come about? Did you envision Keira Knightley and Colin Firth in their roles, or were they looking to do something a little different?
RF: I sent the book to Colin (for his bathroom) because we had long shared a similar sense of humour as well as a love of books and stories. He joked that “if they ever make the film of this, you know who should play Steve, don’t you?” I took him seriously. I had always wanted to see Keira do something very naturalistic and modern day, and the idea of combining that with a slightly dark surreality also felt like territory I hadn’t seen her in before. And her [Scottish] accent was flawless and needed using.
SI: What, if anything, did you apply from your own experiences as an actor during shooting?
RF: I don’t think that telling actors what to do is helpful, and neither do I think a helpless “I don’t know, you’re the actor” shoulder-shrug is any use. Somewhere in between those two is a magic thing I have experienced, rarely, as an actor, where somebody helps you to find out for yourself what to do, and then is as surprised and delighted as you are.
SI: The film starts very much in medias res with a heated argument between a man and a woman, then becomes more dry and eccentric as Steve gets involved. What were you aiming for in terms of tone?
RF: There is a sense that Steve’s timing couldn’t have been worse, yet paradoxically, he is distracting the couple from themselves, something we are often all to reluctant to allow to happen. His entrance is very deliberately the absolute boiling point of the argument, so that his arrival is not only a punctuation point, but a release valve for the couple and the audience.
Steve himself was a challenge that only an actor as gifted as Colin could have pulled off. He needed to have the jovial familiarity of a harmless eccentric and yet be able to spin that on a sixpence when things start to go wrong. Colin was fearless in his exploration of this, and we worked hard together on imagining a life for Steve prior to the film’s timespan. Some people have said that they wished the couple had given him some tea, and taken the chance to make a new friend, others are convinced that Steve kills and eats them at the end. This ambiguity is something I’ve always loved when reading or watching stories.
SI: Can you say anything about the film’s metaphorical slant? It almost seems like an allegory with the generic character names and Steve’s cryptic chatter (mostly comprised of strained small talk).
RF: Allegories are very dangerous I always think. Steve is a story about a man who came to tea…
SI: What was the inspiration for the character of Steve? Is he partly based on any busybody neighbors from real life?
RF: Steve got his name from a plumber who sold a story to a newspaper about me and then called me up for a chat to see if there was anything else I wanted to tell him. Fortunately my neighbour at the time Steve was written was a gentle pothead who was far too stoned to care about tea.
SI: Do you have any further plans to write and/or direct?
RF: If the right idea came along I would love that.
Stars in Shorts (featuring Rupert Friend’s Steve) receives a limited North American theatrical release on September 28 and will be available on iTunes and VOD on October 9.
Are you intrigued by this short film? Excited to see Firth tackle a challenging, unusual role? Let us know in the comments!