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Welsh actor Rhys Ifans is Hollywood's hot new comedy import

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Rhys Ifans

If Nigel Gruff, the shaggy haired, chain smoking place kicker in ”The Replacements” looks — and maybe even smells — familiar, it’s because he’s played by the same 31 year old Welsh actor who brought Spike, Hugh Grant’s slobbish, briefs-sporting roommate so skankily to life in ”Notting Hill.” Now Rhys Ifans (pronounced ”Reese Evans”) has, after years of diverse roles in British TV and stage productions, become one of Hollywood’s favorite supporting players. Next up, he’ll play Adam Sandler’s demonic older brother in this fall’s ”Little Nicky” and in ”Human Nature,” an early 2001 comedy starring Tim Robbins and Patricia Arquette, he plays Puff, a man raised by monkeys. Ifans spoke with EW.com about what it’s like to kick a 40 yard goal, connive, cheat, and play dumb — in the movies, that is.

You went to football training camp for ”The Replacements.” As a soccer fan, do you still look down on the American game?
Back home they do, but I don’t anymore. The armor, the clanking of the helmets, the sound of the grunts, the wails, the breathless abandon. If you close your eyes it sounds like a scene from ”Braveheart.” It’s an amazing game. I can watch it now without going to sleep.

You play a star kicker. Did you ever really kick a goal?
I did get a 40 yard kick. Bang in there. It was sexual. The posts for a brief moment became legs.

Which was tougher: learning football or mastering the electric slide for the big ”I Will Survive” scene?
THAT was hard. My head’s so far away from my feet that it takes longer for signals to get down there. All the guys knew the electric slide, so I thought it was a national dance that’s taught in school.

How did you meet Adam Sandler and get a role in ”Little Nicky”?
I was out here doing ”The Replacements,” and Adam had seen ”Notting Hill” on a plane trip and said ”I want to meet that guy.” Then he was in New York for the ”Saturday Night Live” anniversary, so I flew up from Baltimore to meet him the following morning in a hotel. We both had terrible hangovers. I probably smelled like Satan that day. We hit it off and that’s how it happened. I got on board right there.

In ”Little Nicky,” the devil has three sons. Which one are you?
I’m called Adrian. My brother is Tiny Lister, from ”Friday,” who plays Cassius. He’s a big 7 foot black guy. I don’t think me, Tiny, and Adam Sandler will ever be cast as brothers again. Satan — or should I say my father — is Harvey Keitel.

Where does the action take place?
It starts in hell, where I have an argument with my father. I then decide to leave hell with my brother Cassius with the intention of starting my own hell in New York. As a result of us leaving hell, it starts freezing over and Satan starts disintegrating, so he sends his youngest son Nicky to try to get us back. Being the youngest and stupidest son, which Adam does very well, that becomes a difficult job. Eventually, the goodies win and my character gets what he deserves.

In ”Human Nature” you play a kind of missing link. Does that mean that he’s got the same personal hygiene habits as Spike in ”Notting Hill”?
Puff is Tarzan without the muscles. He’s a guy who has been in the wilderness since he was a baby, and was brought up as an ape. He can’t speak, definitely can’t do the electric slide. He’s then discovered by scientists, Tim Robbins and Patricia Arquette, who socialize him. It’s a comedy but also deeper, disturbing, amusing.

This movie’s written by ”Being John Malkovich” screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and produced by Spike Jonze. Were they the reason you signed on?
I read this script before I saw ”Malkovich.” What I liked about it is that it reads and has the depth of a stage play. That was the real buzz for me. It’s the kind of film I’d hoped one day I’d be in.

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