LOS ANGELES — “I can just hear them saying, ‘If you’ve got a nasty sadistic bastard role, get David Thewlis!”‘
The tall, wiry Englishman is smoking furiously at the rooftop pool of West Hollywood’s Bel Age Hotel, making fun of his own press. He’s so overwhelmingly convincing as Johnny, an on-the-dole, streetwise provacateur in Mike Leigh’s “Naked,” talk in the biz was that Thewlis himself was a reformed criminal plucked from the English streets to play the part.
“Where did you read that?” he wants to know. “I’m a regular actor, English television, stage, y’know. One of the reasons I’ve chosen to do publicity now is to show people I’m not scary. My agent [Carla Hacken at ICM] keeps sending me on interviews and has to tell producers, ‘He’s not like the character, he won’t assault you.”‘
Scary or not, Thewlis is taking lots of Hollywood meetings since he picked up Best Actor awards at Cannes and from the New York Film Critics and the National Society of Film Critics, beating out much more established Brits Anthony Hopkins and Daniel Day-Lewis.
“Cannes was the big surprise because no one had seen the film at all,” he recalls. “After it was shown, word went ’round that I could get Best Actor. I was only supposed to be there for four days, but I stayed on — just in case. By the time I won, everyone probably thought I was arrogant.”
British audiences are already recognizing Thewlis from Beeban Kidron’s “Vroom,” Mark Peploe’s “Afraid of the Dark,” and David Jones’s “The Trial.” He also had the memorable role of licking chocolate off actress Jane Horrocks in Mike Leigh’s last film, “Life Is Sweet.”
“Mike thought I got a real diss on that one, so he asked me if I’d like to be in his next film — in a more prominent role. He kept his promise. He didn’t say, ‘Do you want to play this alienated guy called Johnny?’ because there was no concept or anything — he only knew he wanted to make a film about people who are dislocated. The cruelty [in the film] is about what’s happening in Britain right now, and the world in general. But mostly it’s about people’s failure to love each other. I just saw ‘Remains of the Day,’ and it’s about the same thing — funny, isn’t it?”
Thewlis himself doesn’t have this problem. He’s happily married to English actress Sarah Sugarman.
While some critics will no doubt write that Thewlis is the heir apparent to Hopkins, Day-Lewis and Jeremy Irons, he’s really part of a new breed of British actors. He started out in a punk band, hails from the north and isn’t so concerned with “polish.” His next role: a psycho killer in “Prime Suspect III,” to be seen on television next spring.
“That’s the nature of the country right now, really — there’s a lot of dislocated, angry people now. I don’t come into contact with the characters played by Jeremy Irons and Anthony Hopkins in my life. The world of ‘Naked’ is much closer to the world I live in.