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The Book of David (1997)

His role in “Naked” won him a prize at Cannes, a Hollywood career and a trip to Paris to star in “Total Eclipse”. And he writes poetry too. “This isn’t the kind of life I was having a couple of years ago,” David Thewlis tells Holly Millea.

Oh, the smell of it. A rich feral scent that soaks the surrounding oxygen supply. Out in the open it is faint, teasing. But inside a taxi, racing through the streets of Paris, you can taste him in the air. Other senses are deluged as well. His thick northern accent is rough yet somehow soothing. Visually, he is a Picasso: long, prominent nose, narrow lips concealing a slight overbite and enormous pigeon – blue eyes that see through to the back of your brain. He isn’t the prettiest actor to come out of England, but he’s got beaucoup de je ne sais quoi.

All of David Thewlis’s physical, intellectual and emotional energies converged in Mike Leigh’s “Naked”, when he became Johnny, a sadistic, sexually charged prophet of doom. The performance, which won him ‘Best Actor at Cannes Film Festival’, was repulsive and seductive, violent and vunerable, and, above all, exhilerating – raw talent rubbed into our faces.

Moviegoers hungry for more will find the paradoxes of human nature at work in “Total Eclipse”, which examines the nihilistic love affair between the French poet Arthur Rimbaud (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and his mentor Paul Verlaine, a man whom Thewlis describes as “very promiscuous, complicated, confused and brutal”. And balding, which accounts for Thewlis’s shining pate where once was golden hair. Pulling off his cap at the Musee d’Orsay, he publicly exposes his partially shaved head – a moon in a hair hula skirt. He stands before the images of Rimbaud and Verlaine in Fantin – Latour’s Le Coin De Table and strikes the pose of his alter ego. For a moment Thewlis seems to have sprung from the painting.

A strapping young man sporting lederhosen studies him carefully and approaches. “You’re the guy from Naked?” he asks in a deep German accent. Thewlis nods and introduces himself. The German steps back. “Nooo! Really?”

“Yeah,” he replies shyly, slipping his cap back on. “I am.” The man’s companion, a beautiful dark- haired woman wearing gold chandelier earrings, stares at Thewlis, entranced, having inhaled the actor’s pheromones.

Still not convinced this is “Naked’s” anti-hero, the German bids goodbye, pulls his friend away, wrinkles his nose and whispers, “Man that guy was stinkin’!” She cannot hear him. She swivels to keep the stranger in sight. Her gaze is, in the words of Rilke, as “intimate as a dog’s imploring glance”.

Outside it is dark and wet. A hard rain falls. Walking backwards for several blocks, Thewlis tries in vain to hail a cab. Cars speeing through the darkness catch him in a strobe of headlights. Draped in a long coat, his arms out to the side, he looks like a big glistening bat. Eureka! A taxi! But wait…it’s not stopping. “Tu an comme la mouche!” Thewlis screams in a Johnny-like fit at the driver. He turns. “That means ‘You fly fucker!’” He smiles. “I’ve learned some French.”

Tucked inside a small cafe, Thewlis waits out the weather and marvels over the fact that he is filming in Paris at all. “This isn’t the kind of life I was having a couple of years ago. I was just hanging out in London with my friends.” But winning ‘Best Actor’ at Cannes spun his world. “I got back to England the next day and my agent said, ‘You’ve got to go to LA, like, now. Everyone wants to know who this guy is they’ve never heard of before.’ And I said, ‘Michael, I can’t afford to go! I’m broke.’ I was in overdraft. So he gave me an advance.”

Call it an investment. In the space of a year Thewlis co-starred as a paedophile in “Prime Suspect 3″, a handsome-cab driver in “Black Beauty”, a “very bad king in a very silly wig” in “Dragonheart”, and a doctor in “Restoration”. (He also turned down key roles in “Die Hard With A Vengeance” and “Rob Roy”.) Later, he ended up replacing Rob Morrow in the rather dismal “The Island of Dr. Moreau”, co-starring Marlon Brando. As for his financial situation – he is so busy working in “Total Eclipse”, his per diem money sits in unopened envelopes stacked on a shelf.

The movie, scripted by Christopher Hampton (“Dangerous Liasions”) from his own play, was originally set to star River Phoenix as Rimbaud and John Malkovich as Verlaine. When Phoenix died, the part fell to DiCaprio. “And when he accepted, Malkovich ran out of reasons that are complicated,” says Polish director Agnieszka Holland. Refusing to elaborate, she moves on: “The first idea that came into my head was David. I had seen him in ‘Naked’ and I needed someone very different.”

“When Agnieszka said, ‘We have this guy, David Thewlis,’ I was, like, Oh my god,” enthuses young DiCaprio. “Me and all my friends are huge fans of that movie.

“He’s the most unpretentious English person I’ve ever worked with,” adds the 22-year-old, who then confesses he’s never worked with another English actor. But even so: “He’s just one of those eternally cool guys.”

How apropos to cab it to a district where men are strolling down the street hand in hand. Asked if he had any reservations about the homosexual love scenes in the film, Thewlis – who is heterosexual – smiles wryly. “Certainly if anyone was worried about doing it, then that would call their sexuality into question more than if they did it. It’s like, What are you scared of? That you might like it? So what if you do?”

Entering the ‘Foufounes’, a restaurant in the Marais district, one is greeted by the Village People singing “YMCA” over the sound system. Thewlis orders a carafe of red wine and continues. “Leo was a little uptight about the homosexuality in the film.” He grins, lights a cigarette. “He coped with that by being Beavis and Butt-head about it.”

“David is just matter-of-fact,” says Holland. “He helped Leonardo to do things that were much more difficult for Leonardo. When you are 20, to do this kind of stuff is very risky.”

So the two went about the business with a sense of humour. “There was a sequence of me being sodomised by Leonardo,” Thewlis recalls. “When we filmed that, it was hysterical. I’m lying face down on the bed naked, Leo’s behind me with a cushion between us, and I’m screaming my head off. I don’t know, it was just fun!”

“I wasn’t exactly nervous about it,” admits DiCaprio, “but I was a little quesy. But it was cool…just the fact that David…he was right there for me…” A pause. “He was just very honest and he didn’t…aw shit, I don’t know what I’m saying.”

According to Holland, the atmosphere on the set “was one of the most joyful I’ve ever had,” and yet, by the end of the filming, she saw that Thewlis “was so much in the character, he became this incredibly violent and unhappy gay poet. Week to week he was more homosexual in some way. He wanted to escape from that and to find his girlfriend again. And to become David Thewlis, not Paul Verlaine.”

He also completely surrendered himself during “Naked”. His mother Maureen remembers getting calls from David/Johnny: “He was so hyped up that in the end I had to tell him to get off the phone because he wouldn’t stop talking! I thought he was going round the bend.”

Thirty-four years ago Thewlis was born under the sign of the Pisces in Blackpool. The first eight years of his life were spent above the family toy shop, which was transformed into a wallpaper-and- paint store during the slow winter months.

The second of three children, Thewlis had a happy, trauma – free youth – if you don’t count the time he caught sight of his nose. “I was behing my dad’s shop in this back alley, pulling this piece of old string, pretending I had a dog on the end – because we didn’t have a dog – and I was walking towards a red garage door. And I remember suddenly going [he crosses his eyes, spies his nose, and jumps], ‘Oh! That’s my nose!’ And I swear to God, that may be my first memory. I must have been younger than four.”

Every Christmas his mother bought him a diary which he filled not with the usual day’s events but with vivid imaginings. “Words and sentences and poems,” Maureen recalls. “I used to say, ‘What is this all about?’ And he said, ‘That’s going to be useful to me one day. And you see, it is.”

Gifted in writing, painting, drama and music, Thewlis dallied in a punk band until the day a girlfriend brought home an application for the ‘Guilhall School of Music and Drama’. (“A profound moment,” says Thewlis, who graduated in 1985. “I still remember watching her give it to me across the table.”)

The big career boost came when he licked chocolate off co-star Jane Horrock’s breasts in the 1991 Mike Leigh film “Life Is Sweet”.

And how does mum feel about her boy’s uninhibited onscreen antics?

“Oh, I’ve seen him do it so often! It’s either nudity or sex,” she says laughing. “It’s quite the funny thing amongst my family members: ‘Oh, David, he’s at it again!’ He did a television play called “Journey To Knock”, which to me, next to “Naked”, was the best thing he ever did. He played his character in a wheelchair and he still managed to have a sex part in it. Nudity never bothers him. He tells me he goes onto the set and tells everybody, ‘Well, come on and have a good look now, then we won’t have any sniggering.’ Which I think is very, very brave, don’t you?”

Having wrapped “Total Eclipse”, the poet is back from gay Paree, bearded and now completely bald, roaming his old SoHo haunts. “I just walked in and said, ‘Shave my head.’ The guy was from Transylvania! He’s like an old man’s barber. He said, ‘I’m from where Dracula’s from, ahahahahah!’” This new look calls to mind an observation made by Michael Hoffman, who directed him in Restoration: “If If David had existed in the Middle Ages, he would have been a travelling monk or something.”

Despite having a cold, Thewlis is in good spirits, poiting out his old flat on the way to his favourite pub. “Spare some change for a song, sir?” The homeless man sits on the pavement.

Thewlis reaches into his pocket: “Give us a song then!” The old man sings, “She said, ‘I woke up this morning and I’m free.’ And I said, ‘It was just a dream.’” He breaks off in fits of boozy laughter. Thewlis applauds and hands him a good sum.

“When I lived here I always kept a pocket full of one-pound coins. There was one homeless guy in particular who was so clever with the lines – one I even ripped off and put in ‘Naked’: ‘Can you spare a fag for cancer research?’”

“David seems always in search of connection,” Hoffman says. “Connection another human being or another human reality, whether in work or life. That’s what drives him. He has such a tremendous empathetic gift.”

“The guy just breaks my heart,” confesses Caroline Thompson, who directed Thewlis in “Black Beauty”. “There were a lot of children at the preview and they regonised him and assaulted him for his autograph. I have never seen a bigger smile on a human being’s face. He said, ‘Thank you! Thank you! After ‘Naked’ I was vilified on the street and here I am surrounded by children.’”

Several pints later, it begins to rain. Thewlis remains in the ‘Coach & Horses’ pub, where he can be seen through the window from the street, sitting atop a stool, drinking. Three woman move in, forming a semicircle around him. (Do they know who he is? Or are they just on the scent?) He’s handing out cigarettes, laughing a big silent-movie laugh. In the window is a sign advertising Guinness:

For Acts of Pure Genius: Inquire Within.

· Published | April 1997
· Journalist | Holly Millea
· Source | © Premiere (UK Edition)
· Credit | Submitted by Amanda

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