David Thewlis: how his relationship with Anna Friel restored his passion for acting
Wednesday 05 April 2006
David Thewlis was filming Mike Leigh's Naked when Sharon Stone - and her uncrossed legs - was catapaulted to fame by Basic Instinct. While she was branded a "kinky seductress" for the Nineties thriller, Thewlis won Best Actor at Cannes for his depiction of the tortured antihero Johnny, a role he gave his life over to as he spent more of his waking hours improvising than playing himself.
More than a decade later, the angst has all but gone. He's older, he's a father, and seems relaxed and comfortable. When he is not smoking with a leisurely pleasure, his hands gesture an accompaniment to conversation as he becomes animated, erupting in laughter or surprise.
He knew Basic Instinct only by reputation until he was approached to appear in the sequel alongside Stone and the British actor David Morrissey. The idea initially struck him as "dodgy" after so many years in the interim, but when he was told it would be set in London he thought it had potential. "You'd have these two grim northern blokes going, 'You dirty bitch,'" he says.
Even before working with Morrissey, "a very sharp Scouse guy", and the director Michael Caton-Jones, he admired them. They laughed throughout the project, which felt like making a British film, more Prime Suspect than Hollywood.
Thewlis plays the detective, a role he wanted to give a go, investigating whether Stone's novelist is a murderer. He mimics flicking pages of a notebook, loading the gesture with cop-on-film meaning; touching objects, any objects, with scrutinising significance. He gets the funny lines and sounds slightly surprised as he admits he "quite liked" the end result.
"It was a lot better than I expected," he says. "I thought it could be a disaster because everybody is getting ready to say, 'Why have they done it?'."
He thinks Stone is "no nuttier than other actresses, especially Americans; she's endearingly nutty". They worked together on the opening scene to the film, and despite her reputation for being demanding, he found her (he pauses) "well-behaved".
But he says he really felt for Morrissey when he saw the sex scenes on screen. "I was thinking, 'I'm so glad I've not got your part, I'm so glad I'm just the detective,'" he says.
Stone sat in on Thewlis's costume fittings, which is unusual for any actor to do for another. She was getting ties and trying them on him, tightening his belt, giving suggestions. His annoyance subsided when he realised her good taste in costume - both he and Morrissey are dressed in Moschino suits. "She was very funny, intense, passionate, bubbly, creative and quite wild," he says, though he emphasises that he had very little to do with her.
High praise from an actor who tells me Val Kilmer is a "nutjob", though not as bad as he is painted, Robert Downey Jnr "very complicated" and Marlon Brando "strange". The director John Frankenheimer, with whom he worked on The Island of Dr Moreau, has "one of the ugliest souls".
Thewlis left the set of Basic Instinct early, three weeks before his baby, Gracie, was due to be born. He didn't want to be constantly on edge, checking his phone, waiting for his girlfriend, Anna Friel, to call. To say he is excited by his daughter is an understatement, she is "fantastic, wonderful, a very, very, very good baby. We're really lucky. I know every parent is going to say that, but she's just lovely."
He has flown into London from Italy, where he has been reshooting scenes of The Omen; Friel is flying back from Prague so they can spend the weekend at their home in Windsor. She is working on Bathory, taking the title role in a film questioning Slovakia's biggest legend. The Countess of Bathory is remembered for killing 650 young virgins, but the film suggests she may be innocent. "It's a fine line between the two," Thewlis says. "You either kill 600 people, or you don't. 'Sorry, it was a misunderstanding?'"
A week without Gracie has been awful. At eight months old, she is beginning to communicate. "She says 'dada'," he says, "but she doesn't know it is me, she would say it to the ashtray."
Friel calls midway through the interview to say that her plane is delayed. I ask whether he is planning to get married. "Married, yes, one day, but no plans yet - to Anna, I stress. We talk about it, but we're certainly not going to announce anything now. We'll have more children, but for now everything's really nice," he says. "Seeing two friends get ready for a wedding, why would we give ourselves that stress as well? Everything's stressful enough with all the travel and the work and Gracie."
His relationship with Friel, the birth of his daughter and disillusionment with Hollywood have contributed to his ambition to be "nicely respected"- something he admits he has achieved. Within days of winning Best Actor at Cannes, Thewlis was in LA, sitting with Steven Spielberg and Jack Nicholson. He worked with Meg Ryan in Restoration, and was thinking "she looks gorgeous" as he was draining her blood.
But he was pushed by his agent to work in Dragonheart ("shit") and The Island of Doctor Moreau ("five months of hell - now a funny memory"). The films were too big; he stopped enjoying acting and felt that he was not getting the chance to collaborate.
"They're directed from LA by financiers, and to get a line changed is a major deal. Whereas on a British film you say, 'can we change that?' and the director says 'yeah, what do you want to change it to?', there you have to get legal faxes to change a comment as if it is Pinter or something. I found the bigger the budget was, the worse the writing was."
He thought he had gone off acting, and focused his attention on a novel about the art world. It is about rivalry between friends and the descent into madness of an artist, and was, he says, inspired by his friends, and his interest in the modern art world. But it's been on the shelf for six years now.
When he started it, he put the time in, shutting himself away in Soho and working for six hours a night, cutting the wire off his television. Now, and for most of the past six years, there is, he says, just a little work left to do: "Rewrite the first chapter, and the end, and do a little bit of crossing out in the middle, and it's there."
But he met Friel, became less critical and rediscovered his love of acting. "It's working with good people," he says. "I think I went through a run of working with annoying people. I just worked with Liev Schreiber, and he's one of the few American actors who has no issues of weird star behaviour and cares about the film."
His ambition is to work on a Charlie Kaufman film; he loved Adaptatio, and Being John Malkovich, and last year performed in a staged reading written by Kaufman for him, Meryl Streep and Jennifer Jason Leigh - a good friend. He was in the first half and said that when watching the second half from the audience he thought it one of the greatest pieces of theatre he had seen, because Kaufman is "really quite close to genius".
He also wants to work with the Coen brothers again, after his bit part in The Big Lebowski - and "hopefully not have to do too much just because it's there or the money's right".
He's excited about what may be in the pipeline - there's the possibility of a Paul Auster arthouse film that he says is "quite wonderful". It is a role he feels drawn to, partly because he likes Auster's work and his love of coincidence, partly because he met him when he was working with the late Katrin Cartlidge on Naked.
Years later, at Casablanca airport, he was sitting next to a woman reading an Auster book, and started thinking about his friend, and how sad it was that he hadn't kept in touch with her boyfriend after her death. The stranger turned to him and introduced herself as a fan and friend of Cartlidge. When he said he was thinking about her and her boyfriend, Peter, the stranger said she had seen him that morning and passed on his number.
Thewlis has at least two more Harry Potter films coming, a prospect that fills him with almost childlike glee. "I'm really glad I'm going to see everybody again, and it'll be weird to see the kids grown up. I'm not sure how they're going to make the other films, it would be a shame not to have the same actors, but Rupert [Grint, playing ginger Ron] is going to be married with kids or something by the end."
And the remake of The Omen opens later this year - it marks Thewlis's third decapitation on film, a habit he looks proud of ("sheeeugh" being his chosen sound effect) and he predicts it will be "really good".
His priorities have changed, and when I ask whether he would work on another Mike Leigh film, he stresses that he has never been asked, before sounding doubtful that he could give the level of commitment required. "You give your life over to him, which is wonderful but at that time I was in a position where I could do that and I would worry to put myself in that position again."
One of his big considerations is not spending too much time away from Friel and Gracie.
Well, if not another Naked, perhaps another Basic Instinct? He laughs. "I hope I don't find myself in that situation. I don't think there will be one."
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