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Turning His Hand to Novel Writing (2007)

Best known for his “Naked” and “Edward Scissorhands” roles, David Thewlis has just written his first novel, he tells Donald Clarke.

Not many first-time novelists get through an interview without being asked about the apparent autobiographical elements in their books.

And David Thewlis, the stringy, rabbit-faced actor, who shot to prominence in Mike Leigh’s “Naked”, has, in the writing of “The Late Hector Kipling”, made a particularly weighty rod for his own back. Set among the sweaty dives of Soho and the pretentious galleries of the East End, the book deals with a young British artist – or should that be Young British Artist? – raised by lower middle-class parents in Blackpool. Thewlis, though he does paint a bit, is not a member of the daub fraternity, but he is from Blackpool and his parents do sound very like Mr and Mrs Kipling. Early on in the book, we find the artist visiting home with his Greek girlfriend. His mum asks incessant questions about his work, while Dad, deaf as a boulder, keeps his eyes on the television.

“Well, yeah, the parents were the bit I changed the least,” Thewlis says. “And I had to explain that to them. My dad read it and hasn’t got angry with me. My mum hasn’t read it yet. There is something there about the way my mum asks incessant questions and, yeah, my dad is a bit deaf. But, you know, my dad had never read a book in his life before as far as I know.” The portrait of the couple is, to be fair, a generous one. They don’t quite understand what their son, a painter, is up to, but they come across as generous folk and the prose does not patronise them.

“They were always really supportive of me,” Thewlis says of his own folks. “I can remember, after I started doing films, my mum began going to more arthouse films. She went to see “Edward Scissorhands” and phoned me up and said: ‘What was that all about? He had scissors on his hands.’ Good question. I think she should review films on Channel 4.” His perfectly regular Hollywood teeth aside, David Thewlis still remains very much a Lancashire man. Craggy in appearance and genial in conversation, he could – if he kept his incisors hidden – join a queue for the No 42 bus to Lancaster without drawing undue attention.

Twenty-five years ago, the young David, whose dad was a shopkeeper, was trundling about the north trying to be a rock star. His band were, he maintains, good enough to briefly attract the attention of Tony Wilson, founder of Factory Records, but it eventually became clear that, to make it, they would have to head for London.

“Then suddenly the other guys in the band wanted to go to drama school,” he says. “I didn’t even know what drama school was. But we all got into the same school and, then, didn’t have time to rehearse the band. So the guys wanted to head back to Blackpool, but, by then, people had started telling me I was good. So I thought: hang on, I’ll give this a go. Then a whole world of literature and art opened up.”

Thewlis’ singular appearance and intense manner landed him small roles in television series such as “The Singing Detective”, “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit” and “Little Dorrit”. But it was his breathtaking turn in Mike Leigh’s “Naked” that really announced Thewlis to the world. Telling the story of Johnny, a verbose Mancunian misanthrope, as he spits and snaps his way around London, the picture won David the ‘best actor’ prize at the ‘Cannes Film Festival’ and precipitated a hurried journey to Hollywood.

“The award came on Sunday and by Wednesday I was in Los Angeles,” he says. “The agents were all saying you have to strike when you’re still hot. I got to meet Spielberg. I got to meet Nicholson. Obviously I had been there before, but now all these doors were open. I had this pile of scripts in front of me.”

It is apparent that Thewlis has, at best, equivocal feelings towards Hollywood. Like many British actors, he is repeatedly asked to play cackling villains in moronic action pictures. His agent explained that if he just donned the cape and fangs for the odd studio enterprise then he would be able to chase whatever independent picture he fancied. Unlovely projects such as “Dragonheart” and “The Island of Dr Moreau” followed.

The famously catastrophic Moreau did, however, inspire him to get out the laptop and start writing. A few years ago he knocked together a 60-page story based on his experiences shooting the film and it was this piece that persuaded his publisher to commission “The Late Hector Kipling”. Doing justice to the legend of “The Island of Dr Moreau” shoot – the first director was sacked, Marlon Brando barely moved and one actor dropped dead of a brain ailment – would require several large volumes.

“Everything you’ve heard about that shoot is true,” he says.

“I was phoned up and they said: ‘Can you get a plane to Australia in eight hours?’ I didn’t see a script, but I was told that it was “The Island of Dr Moreau” starring Marlon Brando, so I said, yes. When I got there Val Kilmer and Fairuza Balk, who were in the film, took me aside and said: ‘I hope you haven’t signed anything. Get out of here, now! It’s crazy.’” While Marlon Brando and John Frankenheimer, the picture’s eventual director, were still alive, publishers were reluctant to touch Thewlis’s potentially libellous treatment of the Moreau adventure.

Now those two men have passed on, the ‘New Yorker’ is considering running an edited version of it. Until that emerges, we have “The Late Hector Kipling” to enjoy.

“The publishers wanted me to write it about the film world,” he admits. “But I had a different idea.” The book, whose impressive prose gradually transforms from terse efficiency to verbose lunacy over the story’s eventful passage, details the decline of Hector after a friend – less talented, he believes – gets nominated for the ‘Turner Prize’ and his girlfriend returns home to care for her sick mother. Reminiscent of Martin Amis’s “The Information”, the novel is very good on artistic jealousy and the consequences of trying too hard to innovate. Given the many idiocies of the contemporary British art world, it is, however, surprising that Thewlis holds back on the satire somewhat. The book is as much a tribute to the likes of the Chapman Brothers and Tracy Emin as it is an attack on their kind.

“Well, I never set out to satirise,” he says. “I am not going to set out to write a satirical novel, because I kind of love that world. I am the sort of guy who does go to modern art shows. I paint a bit myself. My house in Clerkenwell has a room that is done up like a big installation. It all came from not wanting to write about the film world. I could, of course, have written about the film world and the jealousy there and the frequent belief that others don’t have talent. But, for some reason, it just struck me to write about art.”

The book’s slightly bleak tone does reflect a different time in Thewlis’s life. The first draft was written a few years ago when the actor, whose first marriage to the director Sara Sugarman was dissolved in 1993, was single and at something of a loose end.

“I was living on my own at the time and I was in between relationships,” he says. “I always wanted to write a book and thought: now is the time to take it seriously. I decided I would not go out. I would stay in every night and not get involved with any mad women. I put the TV in a cupboard and cut the wire.”

Shortly after the first incarnation of the novel was finished, he met and fell for Anna Friel, the former star of “Brookside”, and the two, though still unmarried, have been together since. Two years ago, the couple had a daughter. Friel is currently starring in the American television series “Pushing Daisies” and, as a result, is enduring a first separation from young Gracie.

“We are buying a place in LA,” he says. “It is very hard for Anna to be apart from Gracie. We have had to change our working plans. Before Gracie was born we didn’t see one anther for four months once. I was doing ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ and she was shooting something else. That was very hard. Now we plan it much better.

“We’ll say: ‘You can’t take that job or I can’t take this job, so we can spend some time with Gracie’.” Thewlis admits, somewhat guiltily, that the couple already own three houses throughout the world. Indeed, their home in Windsor offers a view of the bridle path along which Queen Elizabeth exercises her horses. Yet Thewlis and Friel, who was born in Rochdale, still come across as reassuringly northern. Neither of them seems to have been corrupted by Los Angeles and the glamorous life.

“Well, we’re buying a house there and we have a daughter that pronounces ‘yoghurt’ like an American. Give us a few more months and we might well turn.” And he cackles in way that Californians never cackle.

· Published | 10 September 2007
· Journalist | Donald Clarke
· Source | © Irish Times
· Credit | Submitted by Gossipcom

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