"At Christmas his tin roof flew off so I went up there to help him put it back on in a blizzard," says Friend."I've never thought it was a good idea to act back-to-back.We sit in a greenhouse, surrounded by wild flowers, while it pours with torrential rain. "It's so peaceful," says Friend, 30, wearing a Beanie hat."I grew up in the Oxfordshire countryside so this café is as close as it gets."Friend, who, much to his annoyance, was best known as Keira Knightley's boyfriend for five years, until they split up in 2010, is starring in the London revival of Dennis Potter's controversial play Brimstone and Treacle, at the Arcola Theatre."The description that Potter gives is somebody who is or imagines himself to be a demon," says Friend – who seems far more of a nature boy than the Devil in real life.This is the actor's first stage outing since his well-received West End debut at the Garrick Theatre in 2010, playing a closeted film star in Douglas Carter Beane's comedy The Little Dog Laughed.I think you can spot tired and jaded artists quite quickly."Brimstone and Treacle was written for television and banned by the BBC in 1976 for its provocative content, before Potter adapted it for the stage.Friend had to come up with an extreme past for his life story, which he wrote in the first person and read to the rest of cast, as suggested by director Amelia Sears.
As often as he can, he goes to the Highlands to stay with a friend who "built his house".Rupert Friend asks to meet me at a farm café in Dalston, east London, near to where he lives.There are chickens on the roof laying eggs, which are used in the sandwiches.He still insists on skipping over any questions about Knightley; the two made a pact never to mention each other in interviews even when they were together.He went on to play Lieutenant Kurt Kotler in the 2008 film The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Prince Albert in the 2009 film The Young Victoria with Emily Blunt."It entails physical and sexual abuse, neglect and a certain amount of religious indoctrination." He is also a con man so Friend has been watching films about con men – Six Degrees of Separation, The Talented Mr Ripley and House of Games. It's about imagining you are somebody else," says Friend."That is as far as I can get in terms of a mission statement."Performing the play in an intimate theatre space such as the Arcola, which is the size of a front room, "is about implicating and involving the audience in a horrific set of circumstances", says the actor."The other actress who isn't in the rape scene walked out today."I started out training with the builder as a labourer two years ago and now I'm doing it all myself," he says."It's like glorified DIY – I'm renovating it all myself."He feels at home rehearsing the Potter play in the tiny Arcola Theatre.Despite a string of films in which he has starred with Johnny Depp (The Libertine, 2004) Michelle Pfeiffer (Chéri, 2009), Emily Blunt (The Young Victoria, 2009), Friend craves quiet, nature and DIY.He is particularly excited about building his own house in east London at the moment.