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Q&A: David Thewlis (2008)

In person, David Thewlis, best known as “Naked’s” angry young punk and Harry Potter’s professor, is nothing like the concentration camp commandant he plays in “The Boy In The Striped Pajamas”. Settling into a cup of tea in a hotel room at the Park Hyatt, he’s all flying limbs (not thick-set like Herr Commandant), thoughtful and even a bit shy. Here’s a slice of our conversation.

What’s it like working with children on a project with subject matter this intense?

I don’t actually know how much Asa [10-year-old star Asa Butterfield, who plays Bruno] was told. It wasn’t really necessary up to a point, because his character doesn’t know.

In fact, the mood was rather light. Because there were children on the set, we didn’t want to create a grim, heavy atmosphere. They were excited; they were making a film. And we weren’t shooting the atrocities – we were mostly shooting domestic scenes that weren’t, of themselves, harrowing or horrific. Sometimes we were just having breakfast. When you’re shooting a scene like that with kids, they’re flicking their eggs at you. Amber [Beattie, who plays Bruno’s older sister Gretel] would say, “Ew, take this broccoli off my plate for the next take,” so there was a lot of messing around, as there is with children.

What kind of research did you do to play the role of a concentration camp commandant?

Out of a sense of responsibility to the subject – you can’t just learn the lines and put on the uniform – I started off by watching a seven-part series by the BBC called “Auschwitz”. There were many books, many documentaries, and most importantly the autobiography of Rudolf Höss “Death Dealer: The Memoirs Of The SS Kommandant At Auschwitz”.

It’s fascinating because Höss is a man who raised five children within Auschwitz and speaks with great affection for his children. On the same page where he describes the murders, he talks about how he’d think of his family with a tear in his eye.

I have a copy of the letter he wrote just before his execution, and if you read it out of context it would be quite heartbreaking. A neighbour of mine read it and teared up, thinking it was from someone dying of cancer. If you didn’t know he was a Nazi, you would not question his love for his children.

I saw my character as a duty-bound guy, a functionary bureaucrat, someone who might not have been a bad person had he had another role in the war. Then again, you can’t rise to that position without having a monstrous point of view of the world. But going by Höss’s words, you have to dare to think of him as a feeling, thinking human being.

Has the project affected you personally?

I read so much, watched so much, studied so much – I’m still reading Saul Friedlander’s “The Years Of Extermination”. There were things I didn’t know and hadn’t thought of. It will stay with me forever.

It’s strange to see a Holocaust film in colour. The countryside is so beautiful, and people like me who saw the footage of the camps at a young age tend to imagine that the whole war took place in black-and-white.

The first time I saw the extras in the blue and white pajamas, I thought, “God, it’s so bright and colourful. What we see is usually grey and white. They ought to make them dirtier.” Then I looked again and they had rolled them in the dirt – but they are blue.

Tell me about your working relationship with Vera Farmiga – she’s amazing as your wife.

We didn’t talk much on the days when she confronts me. We didn’t sit by the coffee machine telling stories and jokes. When moviemaking is at its best, all the cameras disappear. So do all the lights and all the people with clipboards and lights. You don’t see them – you see the other person. That’s how it was with Vera. Then they yell, “Cut” and you go, “What just happened there? Oh, we’re on a film set.”

How does Mark Herman compare to other directors you’ve worked with?

It’s difficult with Mark, because he’s very taciturn. He very much leaves you to it. You do a take and he says, “Yeah, yeah, good.” I’m watching Vera give an amazing performance and he just nods and mutters.

Mike Leigh, on the other hand, is very hands-on for six months before you even get the camera on. He’s the best director for actors that there is. He turned me into a better actor and taught me how to build characters and backstories.

Terrence Malick wasn’t what I expected. He was just a genial, convivial guy from Austin who wears the worst shirts in the world.

· Published | 05-12 November 2008
· Journalist | Susan G. Cole
· Source | © Now Toronto
· Credit | Submitted by Tannim

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