Rhys Ifans & Tom Hollander: Battling The King’s Man

December 18, 2021
Scene stealing British character actors Rhys Ifans and Tom Hollander get their bad guy vibe on in director Matthew Vaughn’s action-packed spy game prequel The King’s Man.

With 2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service and 2017’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle, director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class) expertly adapted Mark Millar’s dazzling comic books into equally dazzling films. Following the induction of Taron Egerton’s Gary “Eggsy” Unwin into the strange, dark, violent world of the eponymous British spy agency, the films were a kaleidoscopic meld of stylised violence and very British humour. Now, with The King’s Man, Vaughn goes right back to the beginning to tell of the post-WW1 formation of The Kingsmen, as Ralph Fiennes’ dapper do-gooder Orlando Oxford battles a variety of bad guys out to destroy the world. Playing these bad guys are veteran British character actors Rhys Ifans (The Amazing Spider-Man, Notting Hill, Harry Potter) and Tom Hollander (Gosford Park, Bird Box, Pride & Prejudice), both of whom rise to the villainous occasion with aplomb. While Ifans gets into the warped historical spirit by gamely essaying famed Russian madman Rasputin, Hollander really goes to town, doing triple duty to play three major real life world leaders: King George of England, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and Tsar Nicholas of Russia…

Rhys Ifans as Rasputin in The King’s Man.

Tom, you play the German Kaiser…do you have any connection to Germany? And for both Rhys and Tom, can you talk about working with Daniel Bruhl, who is, of course, German himself?

Tom Hollander: “My grandfather had a German accent, because he was from that part of the world, so I was sort of doing an impression of him in my head. It was embarrassing to be around Daniel Bruhl because he obviously is German speaking, but also I think Italian speaking and Swiss speaking…”

Rhys Ifans:  “And Spanish?”

Tom Hollander: “Yeah, everything.  So he was very, very gracious being around me as I did a borderline racist two-dimensional impersonation of Germanness…he was very kind about it.”

Rhys Ifans: “I had a wonderful time with Daniel. We hadn’t met before, but I had spent a lot of time in Berlin in recent years, and Daniel and I have a lot of friends in common. We had the scenes in the Shepherd’s Lair in the film where we had to sit on a long table and act across each other, which was fun. We found it very hard to keep a straight face. There was a lot of laughter and fun to be had in those scenes. It was wonderful to work with him, and he’s an exquisite actor.”

Daniel Bruhl and Tom Hollander in The King’s Man.

Tom, can you tell me a little bit more about playing The Kaiser?

Tom Hollander: “I didn’t know very much about him. But I learned that he was this extreme personality. This depiction of him was not multi-layered or complex and probably doesn’t do him justice as a real human being at all. But it’s enormous fun to march around playing a dictator who has an inferiority complex. I liked playing his fanaticism and being a coward at some level. It was a childlike experience really…I was messing around, and it was almost like dressing up at school as a kid.”

Rhys, why did you choose this villain?

Rhys Ifans: “I didn’t choose this villain, Matthew Vaughn chose me to play this villain, but I was very flattered that he thought of me. Generally when you play an historical figure, you have to play them with a modicum of reverence. But in a film like this, you have to play them with a modicum of irreverence. You have to have fun with it. You have to take what is fact and use what is useful and discard what isn’t and ultimately respond to what is in the script. Even if people don’t know Rasputin’s story, they have likely seen an image of him. That’s a very, very strong element in Rasputin certainly, more than any other character possibly, so that really took care of itself. The amazing makeup and costume departments did most of that work for me. Rasputin was a mysterious figure who had a hold on the Czar and his family and on Russia itself. I cranked up the mystical, hypnotic, sexual elements of Rasputin. I spent a great amount of time getting fit and able to participate in the fights and the stunts. The only other thing that I really did was work on a Russian accent. But more than that, I wanted to lower my voice…I wanted a deep, mantric, hypnotic voice. I didn’t do it with any kind of professionalism, I am afraid. All it meant really was going back to my apartment each night and screaming into a pillow for forty minutes at a time. It must have sounded to my neighbours like Rasputin was actually doing something awful to me in the flat. I would scream into a pillow and then I would wake up with a voice that was several octaves lower than my own.  [Laughs] That’s about it.”

Rhys Ifans as Rasputin in The King’s Man.

Is this what a voice coach suggested?

Rhys Ifans: “Certainly not….absolutely not. I wouldn’t recommend it, but it does work. It’s a shortcut for sure…there are other ways to achieve that.”

Tom, you play three characters in the film. It’s very, very funny. How did you keep each character in place while you were switching from one to the other?

Tom Hollander: “It’s a very, very good joke on the part of Matthew Vaughn, and a great fun turn for an actor. I would just try to get the sound of them, and try to get the accent each time. If I could get the voice, then I was in the character. And sometimes The Kaiser and The Czar would start to sound like the same person to me, but also to Matthew Vaughn, who is not backward in coming forward. He would say things like, [Yells] ‘You sound like The Kaiser!,” when I was trying to play the other part. I would go, ‘Oh okay, sorry’, and then stop. That was the process.  [Yelling] ‘You sound more like the Czar and less like the Kaiser!’”

Rhys Ifans in The King’s Man.

And Rhys, Rasputin has been played so many times, including by the late, great Alan Rickman. When you are playing a character like that, do you avoid looking at all of those previous iterations or are they helpful?

Rhys Ifans: “No, I hadn’t seen any of the iterations, but I’m sure that Alan Rickman’s Rasputin was incredible. If I was casting it, he would be on the top of my list. I took inspiration really for the most part from the image of Rasputin that was available in the photographic canon. He was very aware of the camera, and he was very aware of his own mystery, and the power that had on not just the family, but on Russia as a nation. And for the first time, in a sense, he cultivated this persona. He was a bit like Aleister Crowley…he was very aware of what the camera could do for him and how one’s image could be used by the press, which was a very modern way of thinking.  I was really just inspired by his look more than anything else. So much is written about Rasputin, but it’s all anecdotal stuff. It liberates you as an actor: you can use what’s useful and discard what isn’t.”

What was the most courageous thing you got to do in this film?

Rhys Ifans: “Well, Matthew came up with this genius idea that Rasputin has some amazing fights in the movie. The real Rasputin was notoriously very difficult to kill, so the physical side of Rasputin has been really, really exaggerated in this movie. Matthew came up with a genius idea that Rasputin would have his own particular way of fighting. It’s an amalgamation of Eastern Martial Arts like Kung Fu and Judo, and Georgian, Cossack, Russian dancing. And then my idea was that everyone that Rasputin kills, dies with a smile on their face. They think they’ve been dancing, and then mid flow comes the killer blow. That was a lot of fun. I had never done anything like what was required in this film. It was a whole new discipline for me to work with a stunt team. The only stunt experience that I had before was with stuntmen that blow up cars or helicopters…I hadn’t actually done combat as such. And it was just an amazing atmosphere to be around, with this whole team that Matthew assembles for each of his films. The work that goes behind creating these fights is just astounding. And then I worked with three Georgian dancers, who had trained from a very, very early age to achieve these gravity defying spins and moves. It was amazing. It was so amazing that I’ve forgotten what the question is. [Laughs]”

Tom Hollander: “I regret to say that I wasn’t required to be in any of the action sequences. The most amazing thing that I was asked to do was to play three characters. That idea was a pretty amazing start, and that is where it ended for me as well. I longed to be in an extended fight sequence. It takes several days to shoot. But yeah, next time.”

Tom Hollander in The King’s Man.

How would you explain The King’s Man?

Tom Hollander: “It’s the origin story of how The Kingsman Secret Service began. Per the first two films, The Kingsman Secret Service is led by principles of traditional gentlemanly behaviour and good tailoring. And in this film, you see how that began and how it emerged out of the tragedy of WW1. So thematically, this is more serious in some ways than the two films. But it’s consistent with them and it’s about what an aristocrat chose to do when he lost his son in WW1. What was he going to do with the rest of his life? So he decides to create this band of people to do good in the world based on the legend of The Arthurian Roundtable. Was that good?”
Rhys Ifans: “That is so brilliant, in fact, that I have nothing to add.  [Laughs]”

The King’s Man is released in cinemas on January 6.

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