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Interview: David Thewlis, Actor

David Thewlis has an extra reason to look forward to the release of his new film, “Mr Nice”, the biopic of drug smuggler Howard Marks. It’s not just because he puts in a barnstorming performance as the hyperactive, possibly psychopathic IRA fixer-cum-smuggler, Jim McCann, although he undoubtedly does that. It’s more that he’s hoping that the film will finally put the nail in the coffin of a scurrilous rumour that he once starred in a rom-com with Julia Roberts.

“For years I’ve been mistaken for Rhys Ifans,” he says. “All the time. People come up and say ‘Notting Hill?’ I nearly got beaten up once for not being Rhys. I’m really glad that people will get to see us both and see that we’re nothing alike.”

It’s true, they don’t look anything like each other. Apart from both being tall and a bit, as Thewlis puts it, “scruffy”, that’s where the similarities end. But that’s not to say they don’t make a fine double act. “Mr. Nice” is Ifans’ film – Thewlis reckons Ifans was “born to play Howard. In some ways he is Howard.” But the Welshman’s performance is made what it is in the scenes he shares with Thewlis. There’s a chemistry between the two actors and an easy banter that director Bernard Rose captured by encouraging them to improvise. The intense unpredictability and danger of McCann, conveyed in Thewlis’s rapid-fire, pitch-perfect Belfast accent, brilliantly contrasts the laid-back opportunism of Marks. It not only lends comedy to the film but also creates some of the scariest moments, reminding the audience that what Marks was doing in his haphazard career, which took him from Oxford physics student to becoming one of the world’s biggest smugglers of cannabis, wasn’t a Boy’s Own adventure but a dangerous criminal activity that eventually landed both him and his wife in jail.

“It’s a hard story to tell because if it wasn’t real you wouldn’t believe it,” Thewlis says. “There is silliness – they were all stoned so, of course, there would be – but there was also danger. The quantities of drugs Marks was smuggling and selling were huge, worth huge amounts of money, so he tangled with dangerous people.

“People could’ve been killed over a trifle. How they’ve all come through it is remarkable. You meet Howard and he’s such a gentle, lovely, warm man and you can’t quite believe he did all this because he’s so relaxed.”

Rose wrote the screenplay and also operated the camera on set. He ran a small, fast production, often using just one take. “It’s a bit scary because Bernard will move on even if you’re not happy with it and want to do it again,” Thewlis says. “I’m not used to that. The film I’ve just done (Roland Emmerich’s Shakespeare thriller, “Anonymous”, coincidentally also starring Ifans] we were doing maybe eight or nine takes, which I like.

“It was great, though. It kept you on your toes and it was fun. It was not very glamorous, it was mainly shot in Cardiff and a little bit in Spain, but it was really good fun.”

The lack of glamour – Thewlis spends most of the film caked in mud and manure in McCann’s rundown rural hideout – must’ve been a shock after the mega-franchise of ‘Harry Potter’, from which Thewlis has become most recognisable in recent years. As the wizard Remus Lupin, a role he’ll reprise in the upcoming final instalments, he’s become a firm fixture in the series. But going lo-fi for “Mr. Nice”, on which Thewlis was doing his own stunts, didn’t trouble him. “It was great,” he says, “They didn’t even double me for the car chase. That was the only day Bernard told me to calm down.” He laughs.

With Harry Potter the schedule couldn’t have been more different, he says; there it was mainly waiting around, sometimes for weeks. “I once got flown back from America for two days just to wait around and then got flown back again,” he says. “The thing about Harry Potter is it’s great fun because of the people – I was usually with Julie Walters and Mark Williams, Brendan Gleeson, Robbie Coltrane and the kids.

Wonderful, funny, amazing people. If you’re going to hang around on a set bored, you might as well do it with Julie Walters.”

Thewlis seems genuinely happy to have been mixing with muggles. As far as he’s concerned Harry Potter is a cinematic phenomenon, a one-off. “It’ll never happen again. You’ll never have three child actors going through adolescence just working on that one film, which is such a success. It’s been seven years in story time, 10 or 11 years in film time. Dan (Daniel Radcliffe] was only ten when he started and he’s about 22 now.”

I tell him I can imagine nothing worse than those years being committed to film. He laughs. “I know, but he’s remained totally sane. Not only sane but lovely and amazing. He’s a gorgeous guy, very articulate, very level-headed and funny. He’s never anything but really good company. He’s grown up into a beautiful young man and he could be a pain in the arse. I love him.”

Thewlis’s own career really started with Mike Leigh. He played Jane Horrocks’s lover in “Life is Sweet” and then he gave an unforgettable performance as Johnny in “Naked”. The role as the philosophically-minded misfit won him the ‘Best Actor Award at Cannes’ in 1993 and led to the beginning of his Hollywood career. Roles alongside Leonardo DiCaprio (“Total Eclipse”), Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando (“The Island of Dr Moreau”) and Brad Pitt (“Seven Years in Tibet”) followed. Recent films include Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” (2005) and “The Omen” (2006) alongside Liev Schreiber.

It’s an impressive career by anyone’s standards and acting isn’t his only talent. In 1995 he was nominated for a BAFTA for best short film “Hello, Hello, Hello” and he wrote, directed and starred in “Cheeky” in 2003. He’s written a novel too, “The Late Hector Kipling” (2007) that was well received.

“I’ve always loved writing. It was always what I wanted to do. Publishing a novel was such a proud thing for me. When I was a kid I used to say to my mum and dad, ‘I’m going to write a book, you’ll see.’ So when I did and it was published and people liked it, it was great.”

Recently he’s written a short film that’s about to be made and he’s working on another project that he reckons could be a novel or perhaps a screenplay.

You could say that Thewlis is a renaissance man, albeit one with a very Northern modesty. The fact that he’s kept his Blackpool accent as well as his Northern sensibility is what seems to make people find it unlikely that he lives happily in Los Angeles with his partner, actor Anna Friel, and their daughter, Gracie, who is now five.

“I spoke to Gracie last night and her American accent was very pronounced,” he says, smiling. “It’s a bit odd, to have a daughter who sounds American. We wanted her to have a Northern accent because we’re both from Lancashire. We’ve got a nanny who’s from Blackpool. The idea of her growing up with a southern posh accent was strange, let alone American.”

Thewlis and Friel, who’s had huge success on American TV as well as the West End stage recently, try hard to make sure that their work schedules don’t get in the way of spending time with their daughter, and despite the fact that they love America he says they’re thinking carefully about where they need to be for Gracie to go to school.

“We’ve got to decide some big things,” he says. “Anna is very respected in America, more than here. It’s going very well for her there. And I really like it out there. We have a beautiful house and nice friends. It’s a great place to be. It’s not the LA that everyone thinks of.”

If he sounds a tiny bit defensive you can’t blame him. For some reason, no-one seems to think that Thewlis should be at home in LA. He’s always asked about it, he says, and he doesn’t understand why.

“It’s like a second home. We live up in the hills, which is gorgeous. The weather’s always really good so what’s not to like? You can go to the beach, the mountains, the desert, go on road trips. What bit am I supposed to not like? And I’m from Blackpool so even the falseness, all the façade, I like that. Santa Monica pier at a certain time of day could be Blackpool central pier. It’s got the same ferris wheel. It’s just like Blackpool, really, but nicer.”

Thewlis has said in the past that Friel has been a good influence on him, but I wonder if he’s been the same for her? “I suppose so, yeah,” he says warily. “We’d like to do some work together, that’s something we talk about. Theatre. We’re too young just now, but when we’re older it’d be great to do “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”? In ten years’ time that could be very interesting. I love it, it’s one of my favourite plays. I think Anna would be great as Martha. We’ve even started casting the other two, nothing official, just our ideas. I think people would come and see that.” I’m sure they would.

· Published | 07 October 2010
· Journalist | Claire Black
· Source | © The Scotsman
· Credit | Submitted by Amanda

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