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Anna Has Changed Me for the Better (2005)

The actor David Thewlis is a happy man, and it’s contagious. As Elizabeth Grice finds out, even the Queen is smiling at him.

David Thewlis gives a very good impression of being the happiest man on the planet. He should be bottled like fruit in brandy and preserved for the winter months when cheer is in short supply.

The moment he lopes through the door, sporting a droll moustache and unruly hair, it’s obvious that his stringy frame is lighter by about two stone. He looks so easy-going, so ready to be surprised and amused by the smallest incident, that when he arrives late, having misunderstood the time of the interview, he can cheerfully admit he’s been killing time in Covent Garden, knowing that his mood is infectious and he’ll be forgiven.

Contentment started to creep into his restless existence four years ago when he fell in love with the actress Anna Friel but now they are expecting their first baby, Thewlis is on a permanent high, as though fatherhood is the big role he has been waiting for.

“I am totally excited by it,” he says, “and not at all scared. To people who say, ‘Oh, things will never be the same again’, I say: ‘Great! It’s going to be better.’ I adore children. If I weren’t an actor, I would be a teacher, or work with small children in some way. I feel happy in their company. I think the most beautiful sound is a child laughing.”

From day one of Friel’s confirmed pregnancy, Thewlis entered into the expectant father role with textbook dedication. He gave up smoking, took up jogging, ate more healthily, lost weight. He insisted on accepting only work that would allow him to be free three weeks before the birth in July. Perhaps he is suffering from the male equivalent of the nesting instinct because the other day, in an act sublimely out of character, he found himself wielding a garden hose.

Thewlis and Friel, a consistently in-demand acting couple, divide their time – unevenly – between her house in Windsor and his converted Victorian ballroom in Clerkenwell. In Windsor, their garden backs on to the Long Walk, and Thewlis says he can lie in bed and watch the Queen ride by. “She doesn’t go past waving, you know, but when she’s in the Range Rover she’ll give a smile.”

In his exalted state, this could be a leg-pull, but no. He’s genuinely chuffed, in his dry sort of way, to have the Queen as a neighbour – and it’s one of his many likeable traits that he’s not afraid to say so.

“I don’t know how my life has turned out so I live next door to the Queen,” he muses. Royal appearances apart, he likes the friendliness of Windsor, its safety, its local characters and the communal gardens “looked after by the Queen’s people.”

For the first time in his life, he feels part of a neighbourhood – even though he was brought up in the north of England where community is a revered, if unreliable, stereotype. “I never quite settled down before, but I have now.”

Thewlis is from Blackpool, where his father ran a shop that sold toys in summer and wallpaper and paint (for the benefit of the hotel trade) in the winter. Friel is from Rochdale and when they first met, on a flight to Cannes, he says there was that instant affinity that northerners seem to have.

“It was something really recognisable. I thought: ‘Oh, I know you. You’re like the girls I grew up with.’” Their next meeting was at a party. That day, they had each completed a house purchase and in addition he was celebrating having just finished a novel set in the modern art world. Mysteriously, his impulse to write – diaries, stories, poetry, notebooks, a film script – vanished as their relationship flowered.

“I used to write out of angst. My writing was quite miserable, quite angry, even when it was funny. It was based on this sadness and tired emotional disdain for the world. I think I have written some good short stories but some of the poetry was awful. I don’t feel the urge to do it any more. I think it’s because I’m a lot happier. I put more energy into relationships.”

Last year, their relationship was seriously tested when Thewlis was filming in Morocco and Spain, alongside Orlando Bloom in the new Ridley Scott epic, “Kingdom of Heaven”, and Friel was making “The Jury” in New York. They had a brief encounter – he barely recognisable as a bearded blond Hospitaller, from his role in “Kingdom of Heaven”. “We spent the few days we had just getting used to each other again.”

Soon after, she went to Toronto to begin a new film and he went to Australia to promote “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”, in which he plays Professor Lupin. They found themselves learning to do without one another and realised they were in dangerous territory. “Trying to keep a relationship going on the phone is disastrous,” he says.

At this stage in the interview, Thewlis would normally have been on his fifth cigarette. Instead, he is chomping nuts, drinking water and coming across as the most relaxed disciple of clean living you have ever met. A bowl of oddly coloured vegetable crisps on the table inspire him to launch into a brilliant impersonation of his friend Billy Connolly.

“Look at the blues, the reds, the browns… it’s just beautiful, isn’t it?” he drawls fondly. Why hasn’t anyone properly tapped Thewlis’s comic talent?

At 42, and despite his 13 films and numerous television roles, Thewlis is not instantly recognised as Thewlis. In fact, he is more likely to be taken for Rhys Ifans. “Twice a week,” he says, “people come up to me and say, ‘You were great in “Notting Hill”.’ I sometimes accept the compliment. Rhys fans gets the same with me: ‘You were great in “Naked” [the Mike Leigh film that made Thewlis's name] or, ‘You were great in “Harry Potter”. ‘ The public seems to think we are the same person.”

It doesn’t bother him at all. Thewlis never longed for the life of an actor and now he is one of the best around, he doesn’t hanker for celebrity either. He was “doing nicely, doing good” in a punk band, working the clubs in Blackpool and Manchester, and only went to drama school because his mates enrolled. “I loved books but I didn’t know what a drama school was for.”

Suddenly, he found a whole new world of literature opening up. “Then people started telling me I was good. The rest has gone very well.”

He started “doing well”, as he meekly puts it, straight away, with a play at Greenwich called “Buddy Holly” at the Regal. At the Cannes film festival in 1993, he won best actor for his phenomenal portrayal of the tormented Johnny in “Naked”. Hollywood came knocking. His films were a mixture of the good, the bad and the forgettable – “Restoration”, “Dragonheart”, “Total Eclipse”, “The Island of Dr Moreau”, “Divorcing Jack”, “Seven Years in Tibet” – but he found he was making more money than he knew what to do with and having a lot of fun.

Late in the day, he jumped on the property ladder and bought his ballroom in Clerkenwell. After he landed the role as a Hospitaller in “Kingdom of Heaven”, he discovered that his vast flat is on the original site of the 12th- century priory of the Order of St John. When he walked -unrecognised – into the tiny Hospitaller museum looking for research material on the Crusades, the first thing he saw was a mannequin wearing the very costume, with its eight-pointed cross, that he wears in the film.

Most other serendipitous aspects of his life he attributes entirely to Friel. “She has changed me for the better. I am much more sociable now, more conversational, less withdrawn. It’s to do with being happy.”

He looks forward to dovetailing his career with hers and the baby. They don’t rule out marriage; they don’t rule it in. “One thing at a time. I’m not saying we won’t. But let’s just get this safely through.”

· Published | 04 May 2005
· Journalist | Elizabeth Grice
· Source | © The Telegraph UK
· Credit | Submitted by Amanda

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