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A Funny Thing Happened (2005)

David Thewlis has published his first book, seven years after he finished writing it. If his world-class anecdotes are anything to go by, it will have been worth the wait.

The decorators are working on David Thewlis’s London flat so all his possessions are stacked, in a towering, shrouded heap, in the middle of the dancefloor. Yes, dancefloor. Seven years ago, as developers carved up these ornate Victorian offices on the edge of the City, Thewlis bought the ballroom (all companies should have one): a hangar of a space with a parquet floor as broad as an ice rink and a distant ceiling so covered with fancy twiddles of cornicing that it looks like the work of a master baker. The ballroom is, he says, perfect for parties. Not that he has thrown that many here, but the ones he has had have been, um, pretty memorable, so much so that he is not exactly popular with the building’s other residents. In the middle of a famous night a while back, one neighbour was so maddened by the noise that he went down to the basement, shut off the power to the whole building, and then lodged a complaint with the council.

As we head out to lunch, Thewlis (beige shades, blond-streaked disarray of hair, a dusting of beard, skinny jeans, navy shirt with cream piping) says he and the neighbour pass on the stairs every so often, ‘and we blank each other. It’s war.’ He snuffles in an amused way. Thewlis is a very snuffly sort of person. He finds most things comical and has the agreeable knack of making the world look funnier, too, when he describes it to you.

He no longer spends much time in London. While buying the ballroom, he asked a friend, the film producer Bradley Adams, to sign his mortgage reference, and afterwards they went out for a celebratory drink in Kensington, and Adams got out his mobile and rang up some people, and one of them was the actress Anna Friel, ‘and that was the night I met her. Me and Anna practically lived together from that night onwards.’ The date in question was July 24, 2000 – significant for another reason, too – and since the birth of their daughter Gracie two years ago, they have based themselves in Windsor, where Friel has a house in a terrace backing on to the Great Park.

The couple share a communal garden, ‘and a lot of our neighbours are really quite posh, people I wouldn’t necessarily have been neighbours with, and they’re lovely, beautiful people. And, like, yesterday, it was the most beautiful day, and Gracie was running around in the garden, it’s totally safe, and there are lots of eight-year-old girls who play with her. And there’s something about Windsor all the children are very beautifully educated, very polite, really nice.’ Middle-class pastoral hasn’t totally overwhelmed them, though: ‘We don’t own wellies.’ And when he went to watch a polo match, he found it a bit deathly – the hats – although the horses were magnificent, ‘quite incredible’.

Thewlis adores Windsor. Oddly, and yet not so oddly, it reminds him of his hometown, Blackpool, where he and his two siblings grew up in a flat above his parents’ toyshop and kicked around on the Pleasure Beach and pier after school; the festive surges of visitors determined to have a good time, the relative quietness of the winter months. ‘I like tourists,’ he says. ‘I think it’s nice to live in a town that people come from all over to visit.’ Not that he is there that much.

Having just returned from Budapest, where he has been playing a Nazi commandant in Mark Herman’s “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas”, a film based on John Boyne’s novel, Thewlis is expected next in Manchester, on the set of “The Street”, Jimmy McGovern’s dark Bafta award-winning BBC series in which he will play identical twins. ‘It’s great to do all the Harry Potters [he plays Remus Lupin, the reluctant werewolf], it’s great to play Nazis or wicked kings and detectives, but this feels more like the stuff I used to do, the sort of stuff I got known for initially: northern TV dramas, Mike Leigh,’ he says, acknowledging that he may never find another project to match Leigh’s “Naked” (which, in 1993, won Thewlis the best actor award at Cannes). ‘This is what I can do the best.’

As soon as that is over, the family will decamp to Los Angeles, where Friel has a role in “Pushing Daisies”, a new television series produced by Barry Sonnenfeld. Thewlis is looking forward to spending 10 months in California. ‘I really like Los Angeles,’ he says. ‘I like the weather, the openness of it, the beach, the mountains, the desert. I find it inspiring, I get quite a lot of writing done out there.’

And that brings us back to the other significance of July 24, 2000. We are in the restaurant now, and Thewlis has ordered swordfish and Sauvignon Blanc, and he is explaining that he really deserved a drink that particular evening as he had just typed ‘The End’ on the last page of the first draft of his first novel, a satire on the contemporary art world that he had written in a small flat in Soho, heroically resisting the siren call of the television (he cut the plug off the flex) and the pub on the corner. Now, seven years later, “The Late Hector Kipling” is finally being published.

Thewlis, 44, has always written. He mentioned this in a newspaper interview in 1999, and the next day the phone rang off the hook with agents wanting to take him on: Jonny Geller (the hotshot literary agent who also represents Vikram Seth, Tracy Chevalier and Howard Jacobson) got him the Picador deal. When Thewlis was a child, it was poems and songs (he sang in a band as a schoolboy, and ended up at drama school in London only because the other bandmembers had applied there); as an adult, short stories and screenplays, two of which he has directed – the Bafta-nominated short film “Hello, Hello, Hello” starring Kathy Burke, and the more problematic “Cheeky”. (This turned him off directing for good. Cheeky vacuumed up a year of his life and, in the end, he clashed with his producer, Trudie Styler, previously a friend. ‘I didn’t really enjoy the post-production process,’ he says. ‘And I don’t like the film. It’s not what I wanted to make. We fell out over that. No, no, no, no, never see her any more.’)

Why the delay between the first draft of the novel and its publication? First, he had things other than editorial tweaks on his mind. The early version was written during a miserable period, following a split with the actress Kate Hardie, which in turn followed a short-lived marriage to the director Sara Sugarman: ‘I was quite glad to be on my own, but I was a bit unsettled, hectic; I suppose I became much happier, meeting Anna.’ Second, the publishers cut him lots of slack. And third, ‘When I did look at it again, it seemed like too much work.’ At this point, the waiter brings us a flirty teaser, a shot of gazpacho in a glass thimble. Thewlis cocks his head. ‘Hmm. I’ll never get my bread in there,’ he says drily. ‘I always find this sort of thing strange.’

Those seven years have dated “The Late Hector Kipling” a little. The issue at its heart, the art-world clash between the YBAs and the figurative camp, now feels less urgent than it once might have. But if you forgive this, and the way the novel crumples a little in the final few chapters, it is clear that Thewlis is an authentically talented newcomer. There is a terrific relish for words, a lively, salty dexterity with both dialogue and comic setpieces, most memorably a spectacular riff on the Turner Prize shortlist. ‘Kim Large fills baths with paint and lines them up in six rows of three. Eighteen baths plumbed up to run paint from the taps and the plugs open so it empties at exactly the same rate it fills. In Tokyo she did it with white paint, in New York, black. For the prize she’s going to use 18 different colours. She calls the baths “fountains” as a homage to Duchamp. And that’s about it. Sometimes she does it with sinks and once, in Amsterdam, she did it with toilets, filling and flushing, filling and flushing.’

Reluctant to write about his own profession, Thewlis – who collects early 20th-century portraits, paints a little himself, and spoke to the artists Damien Hirst, Gillian Wearing and Stuart Pearson Wright for research – was inevitably drawn to its similarities with the art world. ‘I was interested in the idea of celebrity – some very untalented people getting very successful and making a lot of money for not a lot of work, sometimes. And I was interested in rivalry between friends.’

Thewlis has lost friends to his celebrity. Judging by the uncomplicated way in which Billy Connolly, Paul Auster, Bill Nighy and Kathy Burke pop up in conversation, new alliances are easier to maintain than some ancient ones. He is quite sanguine about this. ‘Yeah. Certain people became ungracious. You couldn’t go round and tell a story about Marlon Brando – obviously the biggest star I’ve ever worked with – because they’d roll their eyes and go [yawning], “Oh, Marlon Brando – So you think, OK, should I not tell a story about playing chess with Marlon Brando? The friendship becomes pointless if I can’t share my life with you, I can’t tell you what’s happening.’

I’ll bet they miss him despite themselves, because Thewlis is an Olympic-standard anecdotist. Stuff happens to him. He tells me how he had started making box sculptures a while back – ‘a bit like Joseph Cornell: three-dimensional collages in a box of some sort. I collected bric-a-brac for them, bits of dolls, scraps of material. It was something to do’ – and Emma Freud had seen and admired the one he had made for the director Paul Greengrass, so that when she passed Thewlis in the street (lots of his stories hinge upon chance meetings) she stopped him and commissioned one for her partner Richard Curtis’s birthday. Because it was meant to be a surprise, there were a lot of furtive phone calls and Curtis grew increasingly suspicious of this shifty-sounding Mr Mortimer (Thewlis lived on Mortimer Street at the time) who kept leaving messages, and finally, when the delivery day came, Curtis walked in, was introduced to Mr Mortimer, and nearly lamped him.

And then there is the story of his association with Stuart Pearson Wright, who has painted the cover for “The Late Hector Kipling”. Bowled over by a Pearson Wright portrait at the BP awards, Thewlis remembered that the artist had previously written to him, asking him to sit for a portrait. ‘So I met him, quite eccentric, nice hat, had a cane, quite formal in a jokey way, called me “My dearest Thewlis”. He had a solo exhibition coming up and he said, “For the centrepiece of the exhibition, I’m going to paint a very big painting, it’s going to be 15ft high, of you running naked through Soho.” I’m like, “Really? Hmm! I’m quite busy! How are we going to do that?” He said it was OK, he had already painted himself – he is quite a similar build, tall, skinny – and he said he’d just put my head on top. I said that was fine.

So he did the picture, Tisbury Court [1999], and it goes on display: little strip joints and video shops and there’s a guy in the gutter and Stuart’s mother’s in it, smoking a cigarette outside a brothel – and central to the whole thing is me, running scared through Soho. I get quite embarrassed looking at it. Being naked in a film doesn’t bother me, but this is really embarrassing, even though it’s not me. Everyone around me thinks it is: “Oh, marvellous! Well done!” A few weeks later, Stuart calls me and says, “Listen, I sold the painting.” And he tells me the figure, and it’s a lot of money, his best yet, and I felt quite proud of him. So I ask who bought it. And he’s like, “Ah, yes – there is a problem.” So I push him, and he says it’s Jeffrey Archer, and that Jeffrey Archer has asked him round to decide where to put it. And I’m like, “Keep it out of the bedroom!” Shortly after, Archer went to prison, so we’re not sure where it ended up.’

I am still recovering from this story when he launches into another, about the filming of “Seven Years in Tibet” – which, rather confusingly, was made in Argentina. ‘OK,’ Thewlis says. ‘We were in Argentina, I was living in this big, big house because the director [Jean-Jacques Annaud] had said, “Whatever Brad Pitt gets, David gets.” So Brad had this big mansion, but he had his entourage, Gwyneth, all the rest, and I was living in my 10-bedroom house on my own, very lonely, and I had the TV on, just watching the Spanish commercials, and I was thinking that I should get some videos sent over before I go crazy. I decided the perfect film to watch right then would be “Dog Day Afternoon” with Al Pacino. And 20 seconds after I had this thought, the continuity announcer was talking in Spanish [Thewlis does an impersonation] and then I heard the words “Dowg Day Affernon”.’

No way, I say.

‘On my f***ing life! And “Dog Day Afternoon” comes on, and it’s in English, with Spanish subtitles! So I watch it, and I go to work the next day, and I tell people, and they don’t believe me. So that evening I’m at home in front of the TV, and I’m thinking about how strange it all was, and how good “Dog Day Afternoon” was, and how it’s one of my favourite films, and how I should start collecting my favourite films, what else would I get, umm, oh, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, I love that film – and then I hear the announcer say, “Whosa Fraida Virginia Woolf”. Well, at this point I got up and paced around a bit – I’m actually scared: “Oh no, that’s not normal! Not normal! I’m not influencing the TV scheduling! That can’t be happening!” ‘

It didn’t happen again, he says – but there is a little coda. When he went back to LA, he was telling the story to his girlfriend of the time, the American actress Fairuza Balk, ‘and she was quite into all this kind of thing, astrology and stuff, and she was like, “Wow, no way! You’re a liar!” And while we were talking, there was a Tim Robbins film on TV and she said, “Hey, is that ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’?” And I said, “Nah, it’s something else,” and I changed over the channel, just at random, and said, “Ah, that wasn’t ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’ but this is.”

‘The oddest things happen to me,’ he says, ruminatively. ‘It goes in seasons. Nothing will happen for a long time, and I miss it, and I remember how these strange coincidences used to happen to me and how amazing it was, how it made me want to believe in something. A year will go by and then a slew of them will come along, like buses, one after another. When I first met Anna, she thought I was making it up, but since then she’s witnessed them, been part of them, and things have started happening to her.’

What, it’s catching?

· Published | 25 August 2007
· Journalist | Harriet Lane
· Source | © The Telegraph UK
· Credit | Submitted by Amanda

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