David Thewlis

David Thewlis

This piece appeared in abbrieviated form in the Sunday Independent in October 2007.

There’s a sharp rap on the door of David Thewlis’s hotel suite and a stunningly imperious Eastern European girl swishes in. In her hand is a tray upon which is balanced a tiny black box. She carefully lays the box on a side table and smiles mysteriously at him. ‘A little something for you.’ She all but winks.

As soon as she leaves he jumps up excitedly from the bed to see what she’s brought.‘Jesus Christ I think they’re condoms!’ he exclaims, peering at the tiny box. ‘She must be a very cheap date. I wonder if she’s coming back.’

To our huge disappointment it turns out the box contains chocolate nuts, not condoms. And she’s not coming back. David is tickled that they’ve called the nuts ‘Equinox’. ‘I mean come on, with that name they had to have know people would get the wrong idea!’

Thewlis is amusing company. Whether he’s telling you about airport security officials recently insisting that his 2 year old daughter (with Anna Friel) put her shoes on the X-ray belt -‘I mean, how much semtex did they think we could fit in her little sandal thingies?’- or getting married simply because he wanted to have a big party he has a knack of looking back on things that were probably annoying or painful at the time and laughing. Unlike most Hollywood actors he’s also refeshingly down to earth and admirably blunt about his back catelogue which, he admits, ranges from the ridiculous (Basic Insinct 2, for which he received a Worst Actor Nomination at the annual Razzie awards, and Dragonheart) to the sublime (Mike Leigh’s Naked). He hates the theatre – ‘I can’t handle all those fake hugs and air kisses’ and asks me not to call him a renaissance man ‘just ‘cos I’ve written a book and been in a few films.’

It’s undeniable though that his various talents have fed off each other. His new novel, The Late Hector Kipling – a sly and sometimes brilliant satire of the London art world – came about when a literary agent read his thinly fictionised account of what he describes as ‘a nightmare experience’ on The Island Of Dr Moreau in which he co-starred with Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando. ‘It was in trouble before I even joined it’ he remembers, sighing. ‘The original director had been fired. One of the other stars had had a breakdown. I took the lead role and then Brando showed up. It was just a few months since his daughter had committed suicide. He didn’t want to do Richard Stanley’s script, which was the original thing I saw. It was supposed to be a spoof. When (director) John Frankenheimer came on board he threw out all the intelligence and tried to turn it into a horror film without the comedy so you had these girls with six tits and a chimp in a baseball shirt – which had been brilliantly designed for a spoof – but they decided it was now going to be a serious horror film. And then Brando showed up and decided he didn’t like his part and didn’t want to play the bad guy. And it was like ‘for fu*ks sake!’’

When it became clear that this was going to be the worst experience of his professional life thewlis picked up the phone and called his agent. ‘I think I just said ‘fuck you, fuck you, fuck you’ into the phone for about 3 minutes straight.’

The original roman a clef he wrote around this experience is still in legal limbo, and may or may not be published as a short story by the New Yorker later this year but the new book he tells me is autobigrpahical and draws particulalry on his early life. Unlike many English actors Thewlis had no family tradition in showbusiness. His parents owned a toyshop in Blackpool and as a kid Thewlis was more interested in music than acting, joining a band while still in his teens. ‘It was my band mates who wanted to go to drama school in London, I just sort of tagged along.’ While Thewlis discovered he had a talent for acting, his friends soon tired of drama school and wanted to go back to Blackpool to re-form the band. ‘And I though f**k that. There’s no way I’m moving home after coming all this way.’

Thewlis’ decision to stay in London and forge a career as an actor was a source of bitterness for his former friends. ‘When you start to do well there can be a sense of rivalry. I don’t necessarily even mean the band mates. Even when I went to drama school there were people there who looked at how well I’d done and would go ‘oh you just got lucky.’ Some people just can’t be happy for you. That’s one of the themes of the book, I guess.’

You get the impression it might have been difficult for the old mates to survive in a circle of friends that now includes a host of A-List actors and directors (he politely ignores a call from Joe Wright during our converstion, eyeing the phone and telling ‘oh he’s given up the drink and he proposed to his girlfriend at Lake Como – it’s all downhill from here for him’) and Thewlis concedes that it’s ‘easier to relate to people who are in the same line of business, people who understand you’re going to be away for long periods of time’. Fame, he says, brought him into contact with ‘more interesting people. Before I’d just be going to the same bars with the same people talking the same old crock of shit.’

One of the people he was glad to leave behind was his first wife, Sara Sugarman, a Welsh film director whom he married in 1992. ‘It wasn’t a proper marriage’, he tells me, a little ruefully. ‘It was to the wrong person for the wrong reasons. We ended up getting married just because we wanted to have a party, and the shit thing was, I didn’t even enjoy that. It was actually a shockingly bad party.’

The marriage, he tells me, was ‘difficult to get out of’ but he was grateful for small mercies. ‘I’m really thankful we didn’t have kids with her. I see friends of mine who’ve had children with people they don’t love and it’s a nightmare. That person is in your life forever. You might hate them and you still have to pretend for the sake of your kid.’

He met Anna Friel on the same night that he finished the first draft of The Late Hector Kipling. ‘I had signed on a mortgage for a new place on the same day as well so we (he and a film producer friend of his) went out for a drink and he met Anna Friel. ‘It was more or less love at first sight’, he tells me. ‘We pretty much lived together from the first day. I was buying this big place in London but I stayed with her for a while.’ It was his own Lake Como moment. Anna he tells me is a good influence on him. ‘She’s more social and gregarious and vivacious than me. I like being on my own. I hate being the centre of attention. Which is probably one of the reasons I hated my wedding and probably the reason I’m dreading this book launch. It just seems so up yourself to go ‘here’s my book, have you read it? It’s brilliant!’

Work commitments will keep her away from the launch and conflicting filming schedules is something Thewlis live in fear of, particularly now that he has a 2 year old daughter with Anna. ‘There’s the nightmare scenario of Scorsese ringing me up and asking me to be in a film and the Coen brothers wanting her at the same time. And we wouldn’t be able to do it with If that happened I’d probably tell her to go. Probably.’

You feel he’d be fine with being left holding the baby. He seems ambivilent at best about his career. He shrugs off the appearance in Basic Instinct 2 by telling me it came at the right time and the money was good. ‘And I didn’t have to have anything to do with Sharon Stone – who I believe was quite difficult to work with – they filmed my part more or less before she arrived.’ The performance of his career in Mike Leigh’s Naked is also not something he seems overly eager to revisit either. ‘I mean Mike is wonderful to work with but he’s very, very demanding. A film with him takes over your life and I’m not sure at this point that that’s what I want.’

The phone is still intermittently glowing into life and I can tell from his glances at the mobile that what he really wants right at this moment is to call Joe Wright back. On the way out the door he offers me an Equinox. I chew it carefully. Honestly? The condom might have tasted better. He laughs. ‘Really? Well if you pass her on the way out don’t let on. Tell her I enjoyed them.’

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~ by Donal Lynch on February 29, 2008.

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