David Thewlis - The punk who got Naked to become an acting wizard

David Thewlis only took up acting to further his music career but, thanks to Mike Leigh, it took off. He tells Chris Sullivan about his new role in the Howard Marks biopic

In person, David Thewlis doesn't look like an actor. Over six feet two inches tall, slightly dishevelled, or, as he puts it, "scruffy", he usually goes unshaven, has a penchant for open-necked shirts, black jeans and work boots, and is more reminiscent of a roll-up-smoking Northern sculptor than one of the UK's finest and most versatile thespians.

He has played, among many others, a sexual predator who pimps teenage boys, a concentration-camp commandant, a Knights Hospitaller, and a half-blood wizard in a string of Harry Potters. For his latest film, Mr Nice, directed by Bernard "Ivansxtc" Rose, he adds yet another unforgettable performance to his body of work, as Jim "just call me the Shamrock Pimpernel" McCann – a psychopathic renegade IRA fixer. The film, based on Howard Marks's bestselling memoirs, follows the erstwhile contrabandist, Marks, played by Rhys Ifans, from his humble beginnings in South Wales, onto Oxford where he studied science and physics, to his almost accidental rise from recreational drug-user to one of the world's biggest smugglers. Throughout the picture, while Marks is the calm voice of reason, McCann is the rabid terrier running around his derelict hideout up to his knees in mud and manure, frothing at the mouth like a man possessed.

"It was a great part to play because I could just let go and deliver a no-holds-barred performance," chuckles the loquacious Thewlis. "I saw the film recently and I'm so proud to be a part of it. It was great working with Rhys, who is one of the funniest men you will ever meet and someone the public always mistake me for and vice versa. He gets, "I saw you in Naked", and I get, "you were great in Notting Hill", so maybe if they now see us together on screen at the same time the world can tell us apart."

Thewlis was born in Blackpool on the 20 March 1963. His parents owned a wallpaper shop that became a toy-shop in the summer. As a teenager, he fronted a punk band that played the clubs and pubs of Lancashire. "We were called Door66, which is an absolutely rubbish name," he laughs. "I used to think we were good until someone sent me a DVD of us playing, and I thought, "it's a good job I gave it up to become and actor". I'd spent my whole life thinking we were really good, and now I know we were terrible "

Yet, in a round-about way, it was the band that prompted Thewlis to tread the boards. He and his fellow band members enrolled at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, purely as means to get to London and further their musical career.

"Soon after we got to London the band fell apart," he explains. " I was then told I was a good actor and I started enjoying it. But I hadn't planned anything. It was only during the last year that I thought it might be an option, but it still took a few years after that for me to take it seriously."

Throughout the Eighties the actor busied himself with TV roles, beginning with Only Fools and Horses. He eventually landed the role of Clive in Mike Leigh's TV short, The Short and Curlies. " I owe it all to Mike," he testifies. " He makes you a better actor because of the spontaneity and his way of working. Suddenly what I was doing made sense. He's a wonderful director for actors."

What followed was the part of Jane Horrocks's lover in Leigh's Life is Sweet, and that led to his first starring role, as Johnny, the often-homeless, at times philosophical, misfit in the director's much-lauded Naked. The role won Thewlis the utterly deserved Best Actor Award at Cannes in 1993, plus a handful of critics'-circle awards.

"The making of Naked was an absolutely phenomenal, mind-bending experience," remembers Thewlis. "That film was life-changing and put my career onto a whole different level."

Subsequently, a barrage of Hollywood scripts landed on his doormat – some of which tested his talent, while others did not. He starred with Leonardo DiCaprio in Total Eclipse, alongside Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando in The Island of Dr Moreau, and then, in 1997 played Peter Aufschnaiter opposite Brad Pitt in Jean-Jacques Annaud's Seven Years in Tibet.

The latter entailed travelling to the Andes, Italy, Austria, Argentina, British Colombia and the USA for months on end, and sharing bunk beds with Pitt. "He wouldn't take the top one because he was scared of heights," attests Thewlis. "So I told him to get used to it because we were about to be taught how to climb massive mountains."

He pauses for a moment's consideration. " But it was a long, long shoot and looking only at ice for six weeks drives you crazy, and there were no trailers or anything like that. I used to get a shovel and dig a hole and climb in it to keep warm in between takes. They'd say, 'where's Thewlis?' and I'd be in a hole somewhere. I don't know how people go mountaineering, I really don't."

In 2003 he wrote, directed, and starred in the endearing Cheeky, stole the show in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and distinguished himself in Kingdom of Heaven.

In 2001, he embarked on a relationship with actress Anna Friel, with whom he had a baby girl. He joyfully admits that both Friel and their daughter have added a new meaning to his life. But isn't it difficult maintaining a relationship when the two of them are away so often?

"It's certainly not easy having to spend a lot of time apart, and having a five-year-old child who's got to be at school," he replies. "So we need to learn how to organise our time really well because for months we will be in two different countries. But then just think about poor people in war. The film I'm shooting now is about the First World War and it makes me think that often people never returned." The film in question is War Horse, directed by Steven Spielberg, in which Thewlis has a starring role.

"I had to ring my mum from the set to tell I was there with Spielberg," coughs the actor. " It's such a privilege to work with someone who was part of my growing up. I was obsessed with Jaws and graffitied it on my school bag, and I've seen every film he's made So its astonishing to be in his company."

With a well-received novel, The Late Hector Kipling, under his belt, two Harry Potters coming soon and a juicy part in London Boulevard, directed by Kingdom of Heaven writer Bill Monahan, due for release in November, it seems that Thewlis is doing very nicely.

"I keep myself content by doing lots of different stuff and make sure that my next role is completely different to the last," he stresses. " I just enjoy the versatility of it, the challenge of doing lots of different things. It keeps the job interesting."

'Mr Nice' opens nationwide on 8 October

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas