“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,’” says actor Rupert Friend, quoting the philosophy behind an obscure religion practiced by his character on his forthcoming CBS All Access show Strange Angel. Yet, he could just as well be summing up his own life’s motto. He may not, like his character, worship early 1900s occultist Aleister Crowley or dabble in the dark arts, but Friend says his own propensity to quote, “do what thou wilt” has prepared him for the role of the freewheeling Ernest Donovan.
Born in Oxfordshire, England, Friend grew up reading voraciously, which he says primed him for an actor’s life; his character on Strange Angel is a testament to just how many lives he’s lived. “There’s a wild and reckless quality to him that I certainly did have for quite a long time in my younger years,” he says. “I would chuckle to myself while reading the script [because] it was like a greatest hits of all the things I once did. Like, ‘Oh, yeah, crashed my motorbike, done that. Down a beer and tears up the night, done that. Oh yeah, killed my own food, done that.’”
Based on a stranger-than-fiction chapter in scientific history, the show centers on real-life 1930s scientist Jack Parsons, who invented a form of rocket fuel later used by NASA while in his free time practicing satanic rituals and organizing mystical orgies. In the show, Friend’s Donovan turns Parsons onto British occultist Crowley’s teachings—which, he says, are as universal as they are sensational. “[Crowley’s] detractors would say it was an excuse for debauchery,” says Friend. “But I think the people who followed the religion then and now would say it’s more about being true to yourself and allowing your desire to lead you rather than repressing it. I think there’s something in it.”
Not unlike Crowley, Friend is seemingly driven by a desire to occupy as many worlds as possible. A little over a year ago, Friend wrapped his five-season run as Peter Quinn, a CIA warhead who takes a shine to Claire Danes’s ex-CIA operative Carrie Mathison on the Showtime drama Homeland. An audience favorite, Quinn’s unexpected death at the end of Season 6 caused so much outrage that a fan group called “Not Our Homeland” took out a full-page ad in The Hollywood Reporter demanding an explanation from show runners.
After wrapping such a high-pressure role, some actors may have retreated to a white-sand beach. Instead, Friend jumped into back-to-back film roles: one in the Paul Feig-directed buddy comedy A Simple Favor and the other as Theo Van Gogh in Julian Schnabel’s Van Gogh biopic, At Eternity’s Gate, with Oscar Isaac and Willem Dafoe. Only after that, a vacation of sorts: “I decided to go on an ice-breaker to Antarctica. I’d never been,” Friend says matter-of-factly.
Just before embarking for the Arctic, Friend got the Strange Angel offer. “Our bags were packed and we were about to get on the plane when we got a call,” he says. “I was going to have no phone signal for about two weeks, so they needed a decision. I read the whole season flying over North and South America, and I thought it was terrific. Using my last couple bars of signal I texted, ‘Let’s do it’ and then said goodbye to the civilized world.”
But Friend is used to taking leaps of faith: Before getting Homeland, he’d taken out a large loan to buy his London flat—a venture that didn’t go according to plan. “I ran out of money halfway through renovating it,” he explains. “So I had to fire all the construction workers. By that point my house was worth far less than it was when I bought it because I’d knocked holes in the walls, so I had no choice but to finish it myself.”
It was Homeland that eventually brought Friend to the U.S. “I found that there was a real genuine joy in what might be in America and that’s how I’ve always thought,” says Friend, who up until his role as Peter Quinn had been known for period dramas like his debut The Libertine opposite Johnny Depp and Pride & Prejudice, where he’d met Keira Knightley, his former girlfriend of five years. “What I don’t want to hear is ‘I wouldn’t do that—it probably won’t work.’ I was very much wanting to try to tap into that positive potential energy; you might have done this kind of role, but we’d like to see what you can do with that kind of role.”
Stateside, Friend leaned into both professional and personal opportunities, meeting his future wife, Aimee Mullins, an actress, public speaker, TED Talk-giver and Paralympic athlete, who turned out to be a valuable resource when it came to his role on Homeland. While an undergrad at Georgetown, Mullins interned at the Pentagon. “Aimee’s invaluable to me in every way, and is a great help on every one of my projects,” he says. “That particular one, it’s unfortunately classified. So we’ll have to leave it at that.”
On the precipice of his Arctic vacation, Friend had just two weeks to prepare for the role of Ernest Donovan. But as luck—or perhaps the spirit world—would have it, Friend got some help from one of his fellow passengers. “In the way that the world is sometimes very fortuitous, I got on the plane and met a wonderful man who was obsessed with all of it—CalTech, Los Angeles, rocket science, sex majick, the occult, fantasy—and he was a complete expert on the whole period. He grabbed my iPad and got me a ton of literature on it.” In addition to studying, Friend prepared by doing, as he always does, “what thou wilt.” In the Arctic, this included coming dizzyingly close to a whale, traversing massive icebergs, diving into arctic temperatures and jump-roping on deck during a storm—“I was getting fidgety,” he quips.
While he may be the living embodiment of following one’s heart, Friend says his days of extreme wanderlust are mostly behind him. “I used to find the familiarity of a living space claustrophobic, actually. Now less so because I like to come back to a place that I can call home,” he says. Following the wrap of Strange Angel’s first season in June, Friend plans to head back to New York, where he and Mullins share a construction site-free apartment.
But, he admits, another adventure may be in the works. “I want to take Aimee on the Orient Express. I think that would be great,” he says. “I want to do the tablecloth dining car thing, but I do get very twitchy, so I’ve got to figure out what to do about that.”