Matthew Rhys may be a star in America but he’s hardly known in his homeland. That’s about to change. Currently playing a spy in The Americans on ITV every Saturday, and before that a gay Republican in another US show, Brothers & Sisters, the 38-year-old Welshman left our shores to find fame in the US. Now he’s back to play none other than Mr Darcy in Death Comes to Pemberley, an adaptation of PD James’s sequel to Pride and Prejudice. Coming to BBC1 later this year, it tells the story of Elizabeth Bennet and her dishy husband six years after they married.
Those who are familiar with his work, however, may be surprised to learn he’s neither American nor gay. “Oh! My! God!” he screeches in an LA accent, gleefully impersonating the many fans he’s had to disenchant in his adopted hometown. “You’re not even American! Next you’re going to tell me you’re not gay!” He mimes acute awkwardness.
For someone who has perfected his Stateside drawl, how does he feel about stepping into the tails and breeches of quintessential Englishman Fitzwilliam Darcy – and, perhaps more dauntingly, the boots of Colin Firth whose smouldering performance is seared in the memories of women of a certain age?
“Playing an iconic literary hero is always a little problematic,” he admits, reverting to his Cardiff lilt. “Coupled with that, the fact that the aforesaid iconic literary figure has been immortalised by Academy award-winner Colin Firth makes for a louder gulp.”
Then there’s the small matter of his Welshness: “Strangely, I find an American accent easier than a posh English one as I always feel a lot more of a fake playing RP. I feel like I’m being Lord Snooty or that Harry Enfield character,” he adds, referring to Enfield’s horsey comic creation Tim Nice-But-Dim.
His saving grace – he hopes – is that he’s playing a very different Darcy to Austen’s. “He’s more mature, a family man now. I can wholeheartedly say I won’t be competing with Mr Firth emerging from a lake in a dripping white shirt – thankfully – because I don’t think anyone can top him.”
Rhys has never thought of himself as leading man material, perhaps because he’s spent much of his career in the shadow of his childhood friend, Ioan Gruffudd (best known over here for Hornblower). They grew up together in Cardiff: their parents were teachers and they attended the same Methodist chapel and schools. When Gruffudd won a place at Rada, he encouraged young Rhys to apply too – he’d just had his first taste of the limelight playing Elvis in a school production. “I loved it and I was like, ‘Yeah, why not? Let’s not work for a living!’”
Back in 2003, he followed Gruffudd across the pond. But when it came to auditioning for romantic roles, Rhys lost out. Why, I wonder aloud and he roars with laughter. “That’s an absolute no brainer! He’s got proper matinee idol looks. He has cheek-bones you could cut cheese with.” Did that bother him? “Of course it did!”
So, if not his looks, what does he think gives him the edge over other fellow Brits abroad? “My mates who are in LA with their families or girlfriends have one main consideration: where does it shoot and for how long? I don’t have those considerations because I’m single. It’s lucky in a way – that I’m a bit late starting a family – not that my mum’s happy about it!”
I suspect later in the year thousands of women may disagree with her when they see Rhys cutting a dash in
Matthew Rhys stars in The Americans on Saturdays at 9:50pm on ITV