David Thewlis Profile 2
On the face of it, David Thewlis is a contradiction. On the one hand he has thrown himself into the creation of many of his characters with such drive and commitment that he’s exhibited an apparent disregard for his own mental or physical health in doing so. But on the other, he’s so self-deprecating about his talent that you’d be forgiven for wondering if he cares about acting at all.
According to Agnieszka Holland, who directed him as Paul Verlaine in Total Eclipse, about the poet’s affair with Arthur Rimbaud, Thewlis was ‘so much in the character [that] he became this incredibly violent and unhappy gay poet.’ And yet, the profession of acting is, Thewlis once told the Sunday Herald, ‘not that hard. You sort of wonder why anyone can’t do it.’
More than ten years separate his time on Total Eclipse with that quote and there’s a sense that it’s his experience in the interim that leads to the contradiction. For those who’ve worked with him recently, it’s not that the job of acting is easy, just that his talent is now so natural that perhaps it’s easy for him.
‘He brings so much truth and empathy to his performances,’ says producer David Heyman, who’s worked with Thewlis on no less than three of the blockbusting Harry Potter movies to date as well as this year’s critically acclaimed drama The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. ‘He’s incredibly sympathetic, no matter what he’s playing. You feel the vulnerability, you feel the humanity, you feel the compassion, and you feel the demons.’
It was 15 years ago that Thewlis played Johnny in Mike Leigh’s Naked – a performance that earned him the Cannes Best Actor award, a collection of other plaudits and a comfortable career as an actor. The dark and brutal tale of – as one critic put it – a ‘verbal Jack the Ripper,’ drifting through the disaffected underbelly of London life, was a particularly tough assignment for Thewlis. He spent months preparing for and performing the role and claimed at the time that he became increasingly addicted to his character’s lack of verbal restraint.
‘To be allowed to attack people – verbally, viciously lay into people – is so liberating,’ he told Charlotte O’Sullivan for Plays and Players in 1994. ‘It’s like being sick. Everything in life was called into question. I ate very little in order to stay wired and spent all my time reading or smoking. I became obsessed with death and kept thinking I was having heart attacks. I was so freaked out, so distressed – I couldn’t sleep.’
It’s through this early commitment to his craft that Thewlis is able to settle comfortably into what he does and to find his performances so naturally. It comes from spending years embracing challenges that would have unsettled lesser actors. For Heyman, this now manifests in his ability to be there for his fellow performers and filmmakers. ‘David brings a great sensitivity and supportiveness to set. He’s very supportive to the production, the director and his fellow cast members.’
Thewlis met his partner, Anna Friel, in 2001 and they welcomed a daughter, Gracie, four years later. By his own admission fatherhood has had a profound effect, and he seems to relish roles in the likes of James and the Giant Peach and Harry Potter as experiences he can now enjoy with his daughter.
His character in Harry Potter, Professor Lupin, is, says Heyman, ‘the teacher that everybody wanted to have – at once an authority and a favoured uncle,’ and Thewlis brings a remarkable amount of warmth to the role. ‘You look in David’s eyes and there’s a life within. There’s a generosity of spirit but at the same time he’s clearly lived a life and he’s been hurt – he’s felt pain. When it came to casting him as the professor-turned-werewolf in Potter I knew that he had that warmth but could, at the same time, turn dark. You can see that he’s able to connect with a dark side.’
His greatest success as Professor Lupin is in scenes he shares in isolation with Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry in 2004’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. These are moments of true tenderness – of someone who has been through life’s struggles helping guide and mentor someone whose struggles are yet to come – and they seemed to mirror an off-screen relationship with the then 13-year-old Radcliffe, who was just beginning his own acting journey.
There can be no question that this quality in Thewlis is evidence of his worth as an actor. For director Nick Love, who made his debut feature, Goodbye Charlie Bright, with Thewlis, it was part of his charm. ‘He’s a great person to have on set because other actors respect him so much,’ he says. ‘They want to do well with him – to earn their stripes I guess.’
Acting is just one of Thewlis’ many creative outlets, and, he says, no more or less important to him than his endeavours as an author, a director, a poet and an artist. He wrote and directed a feature film, Cheeky, in 2003 and last year published his first novel, The Late Hector Kipling. For those who’ve enjoyed his work in any of his fields his creative talent is always entertaining and engaging. For those who’ve had the privilege of working with him that talent is no doubt extremely enviable and, above all else, wonderfully inspiring.
Originally printed in the British Independent Film Awards (BIFA) programme (30th November 2008)