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David Thewlis on Mike Leigh’s “Naked” (2008)

As Mike Leigh’s 1993 masterpiece “Naked” is released on DVD for the first time, David Thewlis remembers playing Johnny, the dark Mancunian motormouth who pounds the streets of London – or, as he calls it, “the big shitty” ‘I’ve not talked about “Naked” for years. I haven’t seen it for years either, although I watched some of it recently on YouTube after a friend told me that there’s a remake of the beginning of the film on there. It’s like one of those “Be Kind Rewind” things and is done by students. It’s peculiar.

‘It’s all quite fresh in my mind. The film gave my career a big boost, so I’m always very aware of it, more than my other films. I’m living in LA at the minute and I get recognised for “Naked” more here than in Britain, which is strange. I think partly it’s because it’s never been on DVD before.

‘I had a blast making it, it was the most fulfilling, creative experience I’ve ever had, to work in that depth. I’d already made a short film, “The Short and Curlies”, in 1987 with Mike Leigh, and a feature, “Life is Sweet”, in 1991. When you work with Mike you put so much into it whether you’re playing a big part or a small part. I remember on “Life is Sweet”, it was before mobile phones and you had to wait at home all day when rehearsing. You couldn’t go out because if he had an improvisation on the go, he might suddenly think: it would be great if David’s character walks into this now. It’s like being a fireman, you’re waiting to be called any moment. Really, I wrote myself out of most of “Life is Sweet”. During an improvisation I walked out on Jane Horrocks, who was playing my girlfriend, and that was it: I’d screwed myself. If I’d proposed marriage, I’d have been in the film more.

‘Afterwards, I bumped into Mike one day in Soho and he said: “Can you come and see in my office in an hour?” He said he wanted me to do his next film and promised that I’d be a central character.

‘On the first day of beginning to work on what became “Naked”, it was just me, him and several cups of coffee, with me talking about everyone I know. I don’t know how much Mike already had in mind about what he wanted to do, but I know how much each of us brought to it. The actor provides the people who he or she knows – a list of literally hundreds of people – and Mike narrows it down to 20 to ten to five to three to two.

‘In the end, he decides who we’re going to concentrate on. I remember when it got to that point in “Naked”. I was a little worried because the guy he chose was someone I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend six months getting my head around.

‘Johnny was based on one person who I knew – but Mike chose him. If I’d described an accountant in Birmingham or some kind of effeminate bed-wetter, he obviously wasn’t interested in going in that direction. I was describing more and more this dark, sexually violent character, this nihilistic loudmouth.

‘I was perturbed, as this guy never shuts up and is very smart and funny. That meant I’d have to do that for months – every day I’d have to turn up and say a ton of stuff and make it smart and funny.

‘It’s very hard to explain Mike’s process. It would be interesting for a psychiatrist to sit in on his rehearsals because where your head goes is quite extraordinary. Without wanting to sound wanky, you feel like you’re channelling something. I remember coming out with stuff and not even thinking it. My mouth just said it.

‘There are very strict rules. You’re not allowed to come out of character, unless Mike says so, no matter what is happening, short of it getting too violent in a way that Mike may not realise.

‘It happened on “Naked” with me and Ewen Bremner. I had a sharpened screwdriver and I nearly attacked him with it. I was thinking of stopping the improvisation because I was thinking: The character will stab him, but Mike doesn’t know I’ve got the screwdriver.

‘It’s enormously well researched. You go back before your character’s birth. You discuss their memories and what they know about their youth. That way, the character will never be caught by surprise mid-improvisation if someone asks them if they can ski or something like that. Everything’s covered. What colour toothbrush they have. How often they change their toothbrush. You end up feeling like another person. With the memory of another person.

‘Quite close to filming, he does this thing called “Quiz Club”: he’ll ask a series of questions like: “Has your character ever planted a tree?” You all sit there and answer them to yourself. Or: “What does your character think of Mickey Mouse? Has he ever seen a real Picasso?” This goes on for an hour or two.

‘Most parts I’ve played since “Naked” I can barely remember who they were, let alone repeat any lines. Even with “The Omen” recently, I couldn’t tell you what the hell that character was called. But I remember lots of things about Johnny’s life. It was super-intense.

‘Mike sent me to see a dead body. I was surprised, as we hadn’t said that Johnny had seen one. He thought it might help compound my fear of death. I was like: My fear of death’s pretty compact, thanks mate. He sent me down to a morgue. It’s a very bizarre story. The mortician was a major lunatic.

‘It was horrific, not because I saw dead bodies but because I met the guy who cuts them up. He was a real freak.

‘Most directors don’t work that way because they don’t need to. If you already have a script, you don’t need to do all that work. It’s said I was unhappy at not getting a writing credit for “Naked” but that was blown out of proportion. But, you know, the actors in Mike’s films contribute an enormous amount to what they say. And that’s not just me, but every actor who’s ever worked with him.’

· Published | 20 August 2008
· Journalist | Dave Calhoun
· Source | © Time Out (London)
· Credit | Submitted by Amanda

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