The not-yet-altogether-famous Rufus Sewell has developed a simple method of measuring celebrity. All an actor needs to do, he says, is see where he gets recognized. ''A couple of years ago I did a series called Middlemarch,'' the 30-year-old Brit explains. Thereafter, if he wanted a little reassurance, all he had to do was go to an antique store or tea shop somewhere in the British Isles, wait a few minutes, and then...''Ooooooh,'' he trills, in a dead-on imitation of an excited English biddy. ''And you've got lovely curly hair.''
Pretty soon, though, Sewell and his moptop can add comic-book stores, video arcades, Star Trek conventions, and your better brothels to the list of places where his presence will incite oohing and cooing. Thanks to simultaneous starring roles in the science-fiction thriller Dark City and the lush Venetian costume drama Dangerous Beauty, Sewell is breaking out of the genteel world of small English films like Carrington, Cold Comfort Farm, and A Man of No Importance and into the brash, crass world of American stardom.
Unshaven, unassuming, and, incidentally, unrecognized in the bar of one of London's trendier hotels, Sewell sociably downs beers, smokes Marlboros, and examines his celluloid hot streak hilariously and profanely. Fresh from a gig in New York City shooting Illuminata, cowritten and directed by John Turturro, he lists the cast: ''Susan Sarandon, Christopher Walken, Ben Gazzara,'' and, he practically shrieks, ''me!...People would say, 'What's the part?' Well, all I could say is 'Who f -- -ing cares?'''
Sewell is less thrilled about Dangerous Beauty, in which he plays a well-bred Venetian who smolders passionately for a prostitute played by Braveheart's Catherine McCormack. The film was called Courtesan, Venice, Indiscretions, and The Honest Courtesan before settling on what Sewell, contorting his face in only partially amused disgust, calls ''a stupid title. When a film executive starts saying 'I've got three degrees, blah, blah, blah, and even I don't know what a courtesan is'...f -- - off, you lying a -- hole!'' He catches a diplomatic breath: ''I understand that people might not know what the word is, but I don't think that's a problem. Teach them a word -- what's the crime?'' Dangerous Beauty is ''like a strange hybrid mutation of 50 Demi Moore films without actually meaning anything. It's daft.''
It is not only the title, though, that embarrasses Sewell. Though his dark good looks have undoubtedly helped win him roles, as well as a lothario-about-London reputation (he once dated Kate Winslet), he cringes at being typecast as a romantic lead. ''The sourness that I read in the script doesn't seem to have made its way into the finished film,'' he says. ''And the reality of seeing it makes me uncomfortable until I can at least play some kind of misshapen mutant to kind of counter it.''
He comes fairly close to doing just that in The Crow director Alex Proyas' Dark City (which went through only two titles, Dark World and Dark Empire), in which he plays John Murdoch, a man trapped in a bizarre time-and-memory loop -- all somewhere on another planet in an earlier decade. Sewell does a fair bit of smoldering, but ''even though it's a science fiction film, it's still psychologically interesting,'' he explains.