Born in Blackpool, David Thewlis is currently cosied up in LA with partner (and Pushing Daisies star) Anna Friel and the couple's little girl Gracie. "My daughter's starting school and Anna's off working all these ridiculous hours," says the actor/novelist. "So I've got some time on my hands to sit in the sun, drink endless cups of tea and write."
You play a contradiction in The Boy In Striped Pyjamas – a Nazi commandant who’s a loving family man...
David Thewlis: It was difficult to find some humanity, some compassion in a man like that. I researched the role more thoroughly than anything I’ve ever done. The real-life version is far worse; Nazi commandant Rudolf Höss raised four or five children within the Auschwitz compound, in sight of the crematorium, whereas in our film the camp’s separate.
So Höss was your inspiration, as it were?
Thewlis: I suppose so – though I’m not explicitly playing him because it’s not the right family group. Höss wrote an autobiography between his trial and execution. Although the book’s not very trustworthy – he seemed delusional right to the end about how responsible he was for his actions. That’s fascinating.
Was making the film tough on the child actors?
Thewlis: Although we were making a horrific story, in between takes we all laughed a lot. They were brilliant kids who kept me entertained. I’m not a great fan of child actors – and I don’t mean the Harry Potter kids! British child actors can be a little too articulate. They’re not always spontaneous. But in this case they were and that’s why the film works.
Where are the German accents in the film?
Thewlis: The director [Mark Herman] didn’t want any; he was worried it’d come over like ’Allo ’Allo! If you didn’t know better you might initially think our film’s set in Britain, but by the third scene, where I’m in full Nazi regalia, it’s obvious what I’m supposed to be...
Naked’s just out on DVD... watched it lately?
Thewlis: Not for years. But I’m glad it’s finally out in Britain; I get asked about it far more in LA than I do in the UK. It’s the film that got me where I am today. I’m pretty chuffed about that.
Any good memories about making it?
Thewlis: Everything, really; it was such a heightened time. I was just on fire – I dreamt about it, I woke up thinking about it, I didn’t stop. It was an enormous undertaking. We worked on it seven or eight months and most of that time was the rehearsal and improv process. I’ve never met a finer director than Mike Leigh for creating a character, a performance right from scratch.
Ever discussed teaming up again?
Thewlis: No, we never have. There was a kind of tacit understanding that Naked would be the only big thing we would do together. I think it’d be hard to work with Mike when you’re a bit more well-known and a family man. His work demands so much time and dedication. Do you still get mistaken for Rhys Ifans? Here in LA, never. In the UK people would ask me twice a week what Julia Roberts is like; I bet now they’d be going on about Sienna...
You directed a film, Cheeky (2003), but weren’t too happy with the result...
That was pretty disappointing. I wrote the script but didn’t want to direct or star in it. I was pushed into directing and the script got edited down at production stage. It was much more surreal and Buñuelian in conception; it ended up a kind of cartoon Coronation Street... Bummer. So...
Basic Instinct 2?
Thewlis: It was a pile of shit, wasn’t it?
No kidding. Why did you do it?
Thewlis: I wanted to get a job in the can before my daughter was born. It was actually very pleasant for me. I didn’t have much to do with Sharon Stone. And thank God, because apparently she was a fucking nightmare!
Was The Island Of Dr.Moreau as mental to work on as the stories suggest?
Thewlis: Anything you’ve heard, however outlandish, is very likely true. The original director [Richard Stanley] was fired but carried on living in the jungle and one night snuck back on set dressed as a monkey. It was originally meant to be a spoof, but when John Frankenheimer took over he tried to make a serious horror film. How can you have that when you’ve got a hyena in cargo pants? It ain’t gonna work. If I got anything out of that film it was becoming close with Marlon Brando for that period. But Frankenheimer? He was a tyrant, a bully, a very unpleasant individual...