Thewlis (What a Scorcher) (1997)
Trapped on a desert island with Val Kilmer; playing with madness for Mike Leigh; freezing in Canada with Brad Pitt. Why does David Thewlis do this to himself?
David Thewlis has spent the day climbing with Brad Pitt in 10 degrees of frost up a mountain called Scimitar. He’s tired, cold, and numb, he says, but at least he’s happy with his work. Picture him, with his long, sloping nose and Lancashire accent, alongside Pitt, the Hollywood sex symbol par excellence: it’s the most unlikely co-star casting of the year for “Seven Years In Tibet”. And all because the director, Jean Jacques Annaud, loved Thewlis’ performance in “Naked” and told him, four years ago, “I would love to work with you one day.”
That day has dawned magnificently, with Thewlis earning more money than he’s ever made before to work with Pitt in a snow-capped middle of nowhere called Bluff Lake in British Columbia, Canada.
Pitt plays world-class climber Heinrich Harrer who, after escaping the British in 1939, found himself in Tibet acting as advisor to the Dalai Lama. His English co-star is Peter Aufschnaiter, who accompanied Harrer on his amazing journey. Thewlis begins to thaw out. The working conditions have been tough, but he has no complaints. “Today, I looked up at the most incredible view. I thought ‘This isn’t bad. I get a helicopter to and from work and one hell of a trailer in which to sleep.’ Who would have thought it five years ago?”
Who would? Back then, Thewlis was fast approaching 30, and the only thing anyone could remember about him was that he licked chocolate off Jane Horrocks’ breasts in Mike Leigh’s “Life Is Sweet”. His first paid job after leaving drama college was a Kellogg’s Bran Flakes commercial; he earned his Equity Card by touring bars and clubs in his native Blackpool, singing Simon & Garfunkel. Sitting here, surrounded by snow, the Tower and the Golden Mile seem a lifetime away.
“There have been bad times, but the only time I felt like giving up was during the filming of “The Island Of Dr Moreau”. I found myself looking up ‘success’ and thinking ‘If this is success, maybe I don’t want any of it.’ I’d just been to see “Waterworld” and came away thinking it was the most expensive movie ever made and one of the worst I’d ever seen. I thought, ‘Well, that’s Hollywood and you can stick it up your arse.’ Later, my agent in Los Angeles called. They said there was this film called “Dr Moreau”, they had just fired the director, had taken on John Frankenheimer and wanted me to take over the lead. I said, ‘Great, but why call me at midnight?’ They replied, ‘Because you have to be on a plane to Australia at eight o’clock in the morning’. Then they told me what I’d be paid. With my background and history as an actor in Britain, it was big money.
I was given half an hour to make a decision. They faxed me the first ten pages of the original director Richard Stanley’s script, which was funny. I thought, ‘It would be great to go to Australia and work with a legend like Brando.’ So I said yes. When I arrived, one of the first things Frankenheimer said was, ‘We have to get rid of this Richard Stanley bullshit script.’ He had a rewrite in progress and I was like, ‘Okay, maybe this is better.’ I was still bright-eyed and starry, but from then on, it went downhill.
I saw Brando and Val Kilmer that night and they said, ‘David, go home. This is not a good film to be on. It’s cursed.’ As the days went on, I came to realise there was no structure or any idea of what we were making. I went nuts. I hated the film, hated the whole process of making it, hated working with Frankenheimer. There was no script. We would get pages and pages every day, and you’d read them and think, ‘Well, these are shit as well.’ We all had different ideas of where it should go. I even ended up improvising some of the main scenes with Marlon”. The moment he met Pitt, he related his experiences and his co-star, in turn, reported that he’d had a rotten time making “The Devil’s Own”. The link led to a mutual respect between them. “Very good actor?” echoed Pitt when Thewlis was described to him. ” Very good my ass. He is fucking brilliant.”
The story of “Seven Years In Tibet” is one of innocence and compassion, and one which Thewlis certainly appears to need right now. “I have discovered that film acting is not glamour and not all it’s cracked up to be. I mean, on paper, Brando and Kilmer and being paid lots of money looks great, but I have never been so close to a nervous breakdown in my life. It taught me to wise up a bit about this fucking industry and to not believe the bullshit. ‘Seven Years In Tibet’ has helped me restore some of the faith.”
Thewlis is admirably honest, as revealed by his views on the problems experienced by Robert Downey Jr during the filming of “Restoration”. “He was a pretty wild sort of guy, but I feel sorry for him. Yes, we knew he had drink problems, it was no secret. So I was kind of sad when I heard about his arrest.
Unlike when I heard about Hugh Grant. I didn’t have much to do with him and he wasn’t my favourite person. I remember I was driving in my car listening to the radio and I thought I’d tuned into a satire show. But then I realised that it was the news. I stopped the car and said to my girlfriend ‘I have just got to buy ‘The Sun’. At no other time in my life do I need ‘The Sun’ more than now.’ I sat and read the story, looked at that photo, and laughed my fucking arse off.
· Published | 1997
· Journalist | Garth Pearce
· Source | © Total Film
· Credit | Submitted by Amanda