So often these days we’re told you can have anything you want if you just follow your dreams, which is of course nonsense. I think that’s a crazy way to behave—to have this attitude.
We hear it all the time, so what makes an actor a character actor? It’s a reputation you build up to. It’s something to be envied. They are notorious scene-stealers, ready to be molded into whatever role they’re assigned—oftentimes eccentric, idiosyncratic, and eradicating all traces of their natural provenance—and destined to be known not by name but by face, and even then, only vaguely.
David Thewlis is one of the best of them: an actor you don’t know you know. Since completing drama school in the mid-‘80s, Thewlis has amassed credits a mile long across three decades of cinema. He has worked with more or less everyone you can think of. He has been the oddball, the gentleman, unhinged, cuddly, and deplorably villainous. A true chameleon, he continues to show up in everything, but never quite in the same way. His performances are so finely tuned that you want to look closer to see how he’s doing what it is he’s doing. He keeps you guessing, watching.
Now 57, the Englishman’s first major role arrived in Naked, Mike Leigh’s disturbing 1993 film in which he played Johnny, the misanthropic yet no less eloquent prophet of doom. He received a stack of awards for that part, including the Best Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Thewlis has since achieved a coveted mix of commercial clout and artistic integrity. Proof of the former lies in roles like Remus Lupin, the professor of the Defense Against the Dark Arts, in the Harry Potter series, and as Ares, the God of War, in Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. As for the prestige, take your pick—he has worked with all of cinema’s giants: Steven Spielberg, Agnieszka Holland, Bernardo Bertolucci, Terrence Malick, Alejandro Amenábar and Ridley Scott, to name a few.
He’s so good at exploring hidden depths that you can never know for sure what’s about to transpire—is he dangerous with a side of sensitivity, or the other way around?—and that’s a through line in his most recent outings: Craig Roberts’ Eternal Beauty and Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Thewlis’ show of force is his expertise in confusing the signals. An overlong stare, a slight edge of hostility to an otherwise innocuous line, the subtle implication that he could freak out at any moment like a filament about to erupt. Anything seems possible. That is a true gift.
In Eternal Beauty, Thewlis is Mike, a live wire of a man who falls in love with Jane (Sally Hawkins), a fellow schizophrenic. They skip through a sweet, folksy romance that no one seems to understand but them. Meanwhile, in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the thespian plays a highly strung and socially awkward other half to Toni Collette’s mother, whose son (Jesse Plemons) visits their isolated family farm with his girlfriend (Jesse Buckley) in a constantly shifting Escher staircase of a storyline that blends metaphysical sleights of hand with the chill of chocking panic.
And what’s next for the man who has done everything? James Cameron’s Avatar 3, naturally.
Eternal Beauty is is now on VOD/Digital. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is available via Netflix.
What has life been like for you under quarantine?
I’ve been very well behaved. I must say, I haven’t had the problems many people have. I’m in a nice part of the country. I’ve got a nice garden, a beautiful wife, and plenty to keep me occupied. I’m a recluse anyway. I write and paint and play music. I’m an actor so it’s not so different really. I spend most of my time at home doing nothing. [laughs] I spent a lifetime training for this.
I understand you’ve also been working on your second book.
Yes. In fact, I actually finished that this fall almost to the day and sent off the final manuscript to my publisher. I thought, I can go out now. Maybe socialize a little and see some friends. But Boris Johnson came on the TV and said stay indoors. But that’s okay. I have other things to do. I play music. I’m learning French and learning cooking, and generally keeping myself busy. Never bored.
Is it true that the idea for the book was first conceived as a movie?
Yes, it was a film idea. I’ve always got five or six story ideas knocking around in my head. I’d repeatedly told this story idea and it was always the one that people said is the one I should make. So I pursued it and then I showed a treatment of it to [director] Atom Egoyan when I was working with him. He said, “It seems to me that it’s much more a novel than a film.” I wasn’t sure about that, but I found myself the following week starting to tinker around with it as a book. Then it took off and I didn’t stop writing for another six months. I think indeed he was very right that it would be much better as a book than it would be a film. Not that it could not be a film. [laughs] It’s a sort of filmic idea. It’s about filmmaking. It’s about lighting. It’s about cinematography. About acting. So it sort of lends itself towards being a film. But as a novel, it actually grew new wings and turned into something else.
Do you have plans to get behind the camera again with something else?
Not really. I mean, it was never my big ambition to direct when I was growing up. It was always my ambition to write, even before my ambition to act. I wanted to be a writer since I was a young boy—I want to write, I want to write. I was always writing poetry and songs and stories. It was a drive that was inbuilt. Then my life led me into such a direction where I directed a few things, but I don’t think that’s my natural inclination. I think you have to be so, so very passionate about filmmaking and have an understanding of filmmaking. As it is, for example, for Craig Roberts. Craig is the real thing. He just adores movies so much with a passion and studies them. I’m like that, but with literature. I think to be a filmmaker, you really need to have that very, very strong passion where you think about nothing else but film. I’m not saying I’ll never do it again, but I wouldn’t cry if I never did again. It’s less stressful [not to], to be honest.
I had remembered Craig from Richard Ayoade’s Submarine all those years ago. He’s no doubt a promising filmmaker.
There was no question whether I would do it or not. I adore Craig. I’d actually employed him myself to act in a thing that I wrote [Sunday Roast]. I didn’t direct it, but it was a short film that I wrote. I had Craig playing me. The story was about what happened to me whilst making Naked with Mike Leigh. Mike had sent me to the morgue to see some dead bodies, and I wrote about the experience as a short film. So Craig was already my friend. When he sent over [the Eternal Beauty script], my first thing was that he was very kind to be in my short film. But when I read it I thought, it’s not like I’m doing him a favor. Because I’d do this anyway. It’s such a beautiful script and such a beautiful part. And to work with Sally Hawkins? It was a very easy decision to make and I’m glad I did it. I adore this film. I think it’s a thing of beauty.
This is an empowering portrait of mental illness. We so often perceive mental illness as this ugly monster—a vehicle for insanity or dark melodrama. I found Mike to be so genuinely himself and childlike and innocent. I wonder if it helps you that the character you’re playing is inherently likable. Or perhaps that’s not so important in terms of fashioning a portrayal.
It’s not always that important to me to play people that are likable. I like to play very unlikable people often. [laughs] But this was, in terms of the research for it, based on a couple of people I’ve known over the years and still do know. People who have some issues. But that’s what I like about the film. There’s a certain stigma about people who have complications in their emotional lives, but it doesn’t mean necessarily that there’s anything negative about them, or something negative about being in their company or to be in their own company. They’re brave to admit they’ve even got it. We’ve all got it to some extent. That’s why I think this is accessible for everyone. Because who is “normal” really? I think we all sort of have emotional issues and [issues] with mental health. It’s a broad spectrum. It’s an infinite spectrum. We give things names and give things medical definitions, but they’ve changed over the years. The slangs and the nicknames of such things have changed over the years. But it’s just humanity. It’s an arc to the character.
It’s explicit that Jane’s paranoid schizophrenia was triggered, or at least exacerbated, by being left at the alter in her youth. It’s less clear what Mike’s deal is. What’s his trauma?
I saw him as a person in a crisis of self-confidence, of body dysmorphia, or just a misunderstanding of their impact on other people. Delusional. I’ve always found people who are delusional to be quite fascinating. Sometimes people are beautifully, delightfully delusional. It could be that I’m one of them. [laughs] I think it’s something that we all—I don’t want to say suffer from—inhabit. We represent a delusional aspect to our lives in terms of what is real and what is not real and what is possible for us. So often these days we’re told you can have anything you want if you just follow your dreams, which is of course nonsense. I think that’s a dangerous thing to say to some people because obviously there’s a lot of failings in anybody’s life. There’s a lot of knockbacks and a lot of rejection. We shouldn’t be taught that we can have anything as long as we believe in ourselves. Because then if we don’t get what we want, we’ll think we failed because we didn’t believe in ourselves enough. I think that’s a crazy way to behave—to have this attitude. We should be taught to be resilient and learn that things don’t always work out, even to the last minute. With things like, “everything’s gonna be alright in the end” or “if it’s not alright, it’s not the end”—I don’t subscribe to that. I think they’re more dangerous. These self-help slogans are oftentimes quite the opposite.
Coincidentally, Craig admits to referencing Charlie Kaufman with regards to Eternal Beauty’s surrealism. Did you experience some overlap in making these respective movies?
Yes. Certainly, there’s a relation between those two films. Craig is a big fan of Charlie, and who isn’t? I certainly am. These are the sort of projects I’m really in my heart drawn to. When you do films like Eternal Beauty and I’m Thinking of Ending Things, they’re not very lucrative, but they are my favorite things. In fact, Sally sent Charlie a link to Eternal Beauty and he wrote back saying that he loved it, and then Craig wrote to me saying Charlie loved it. That made [Craig’s] year. Of course Charlie would love Eternal Beauty, because it’s coming from the same place. For me, they’re related. Also, there’s another film called Rare Beasts—directed by Billie Piper, who plays Sally’s sister in Eternal Beauty—and these three films I did last year or however long ago I did these things, feel like they’re all related. They’re all rather surreal and deal with a disconnected universe and deal with leaps in time. The style of filmmaking is almost European. It’s nice to see young filmmakers like Craig and Billie embracing a kind of surrealism that of course Charlie has been chiseling away at for years. I think he has brought back that sensibility in young filmmakers.
Did you swap “war stories” with Sally about Mike Leigh while working on Eternal Beauty?
Yes, certainly with Sally about Mike Leigh because that’s the great thing we have in common. In fact, Sally and I had spoken on the phone in 2002 when she first got offered a job with Mike. I didn’t know her. A mutual friend put us in touch: “Will you talk to this young actress who’s about to work with Mike Leigh? She’s feeling a little anxious.” So I told her a few things about the experience. So I remember that phone call, and I saw Sally rise up. Because of Mike Leigh—All or Nothing, Vera Drake, and of course Happy-Go-Lucky—I watched her career blossom from afar thinking, that’s so fantastic for the girl I talked to all those years ago. I had never met her in all these years. We met on this film. Therefore, we of course talked a great deal about Mike Leigh. [laughs] He had such a major impact on both of our lives and careers. We’ve come full circle.
Of all the directors you’ve worked with—there are far too many to list—you’ve had several repeat collaborators, not only in Charlie but James Marsh, David Yates and the like. I’m surprised that you never made another movie with Mike. The acclaim you received for Naked was quite explosive. I wonder if the experience of making that left you traumatized. I know you went pretty deep into it. As you’ve said, you even wrote a short film about it.
I don’t know. I have a feeling that we sort of peaked together. We’d actually talked during the making of Naked and floated the idea of doing Hamlet on stage, using Mike’s improvisatory method. I was never quite sure how we’d do that—we were doing Shakespeare after all. I would think we would’ve used the rehearsal process in the same way. Anyway, in the end we never did because I think we felt like Naked was his own Hamlet in a way. So I don’t know. We just never have. He’s never asked me and I never went back to him. I feel like it wouldn’t be as good. I’d done two things with him [prior to Naked]: The Short & Curlies, a short film, and Life Is Sweet. Naked was such a wonderful success and started my career really. I think I’d be a bit trepidatious about trying to top that. So it’s not that I turned him down all these years. He never asked me. I never begged him. And we’re still here doing it so you never know.
Mike is clearly wired differently, as is Charlie. I would think that actors would have a lot of questions. Does Charlie give you straight answers? Does he explain things to you?
No. He’s not at all specific or controlling, but collaborative. He’s open to ideas, very much so, more than you might think. He’s not always loose with the press. He doesn’t want to over-explain anything when he’s being interviewed about the film, or about his mind to justify what’s going on in his head, in this sort of situation now with journalists or reviewers and critics. I know he’s uncomfortable with that. He’s also like that with actors. He might explain some things. In my experience—I’ve worked with him twice, or a few times really—I think if you’re on Charlie’s wavelength, you accept everything about what you’re doing.
You’ve done your share of blockbusters, too, like Harry Potter and Wonder Woman. How does Avatar compare in terms of scale to those movies, which aren’t small by any means?
With Avatar, I haven’t done that much on it. These movies are not comparable. They’re very different ways of filming. I don’t even know that much about Avatar. I’m not being that involved in it. I did maybe two weeks of work on it so far and that was two years ago. I don’t know what’s next so I can’t really go into it. But it’s a very different experience because it’s not really filming as we know it. It’s motion capture. It’s a different experience for an actor.