David Thewlis: ‘It does get to you, spending more waking hours as a character than oneself’

The actor on his new novel about an irascible director, his faux-feud with Christopher Eccleston and his ‘secret’ marriage

Blackpool-born David Thewlis, 58, studied acting at Guildhall school of music and drama. His breakout role was the lead in Mike Leigh’s 1993 film Naked, for which he won the best actor award at Cannes. Subsequent film credits include The Big Lebowski, Wonder Woman and I’m Thinking of Ending Things. He played Professor Remus Lupin in five Harry Potter films and, on TV, was Emmy-nominated for Fargo. His second novel is now being published.

Your new novel, Shooting Martha, is about a celebrated film director mourning his dead wife. Where did that premise come from?
Originally it was a screenplay idea. But when I was making a film called Guest of Honour with [Armenian-Canadian auteur] Atom Egoyan, we formed a lovely friendship. He read my treatment, we went out for dinner and he said “You know what? It’s a terrific idea but I think it’s a novel.” I went home that night and started writing in my notebook straight away. Turning it into a novel freed me up to invent a broader world than a low-budget film. It also became much more humorous than I’d envisioned this serious Hitchcockian film to be. I’m naturally drawn to things with a darkly funny vein running through them. Life is at once tragic and comic, so I find black comedy is honest and real.

Video calls play a central part in the plot. Was that pandemic-inspired?
Oddly enough, it pre-dated all the lockdown Zooms. I already did a lot of FaceTiming with my wife, Hermine. We were in separate countries for work and family reasons but it kept our relationship alive. We’d cook the same meal, drink the same wine and dine like we were at the same table. When we turned each other off at the end of the night, it was strange and existential because we’d been together but not. It led to the idea of a bereaved man keeping his wife alive via video calls. At the same time, I came across this fascinating documentary called L’Enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot. That fed into it, as did Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Talking of your wife, you were only recently “outed” as being married. How come?
That was so weird. I mentioned my wife in passing on Instagram and suddenly the tabloids were reporting that “I’d got married in a secret ceremony”, like I’m a Freemason. I’ve been with my wife 10 years, we got married five years ago and I’ve worn a wedding ring ever since. Just because I didn’t alert the Daily Mail didn’t mean it was secret.

Is your character of director Jack Drake based on anyone in particular?
He’s an amalgamation. Most directors I’ve worked with haven’t been that irascible. Although a few have. I sent a copy to Mike Leigh and said: “By the way, he’s an acclaimed British independent film director with a beard but I want to stress, it’s not you.” He wrote back saying he was relieved. Mike was touchingly complimentary about the book, which meant a lot because he was one of the people who first encouraged me to start writing novels.

Thewlis as Johnny in Mike Leigh’s 1991 film Naked.
Thewlis as Johnny in Mike Leigh’s 1991 film Naked. Photograph: PR Company Handout

Your actor character Betty Dean gets obsessed with her role. Has acting taken you to dark places?
I’ve got a little lost inside my characters. I always try to immerse myself in roles and do as much research as possible. Sometimes the lines between reality and fiction have blurred. You feel yourself change a little bit in day-to-day life. I quite famously did that on Naked. That’s been exaggerated over the years, I didn’t lose my mind, but it does get to you, spending more waking hours as a character than oneself. Yet it’s also a positive, creative, invigorating thing.

Has it happened since Naked?
It always happens to some extent. I just finished doing The Dumb Waiter at the Old Vic. My wife said she was glad because I’d been snappier than usual. My character is constantly barking at his colleague, which apparently made me a little more intolerant too. I’d gone Pinteresque. There were more pauses.

Your first novel, The Late Hector Kipling, was published in 2007. Why the long gap?
I wrote most of it even longer ago, in 2000. My life was more chaotic then. I was on my own a lot, working until 3am, fuelled by cigarettes and wine. I thought that was the writing life. Bill Nighy and Diana Quick kindly loaned me this cottage in Norfolk and I’d go down the local pub and drink whisky because it was a Hemingway thing to do. Except I’d get terrible hangovers, not write a word and stare at a blank page in this remote house, like The Shining. This was written in almost the opposite way: sober, no smoking, not on my own. Indeed, I’d read aloud what I’d written to my wife each evening and we’d discuss it. She deserves lots of credit. There won’t be such a long gap before the next one. I have ideas and I’m itching to write already.

Who are your writing influences?
I’ve written poetry, songs and short stories since I was 12, long before any ambition to be an actor. I adore Iris Murdoch, Graham Greene, Beckett and Bukowski. While writing Shooting Martha, I read pretty much the complete works of Virginia Woolf and Nabokov. That contrast worked for me.

You have a very funny faux-feud with Christopher Eccleston on Instagram. How did that start?
We’re contemporaries – both northern, working-class actors who get a certain kind of role. There’s been times we’ve been up against each other for parts, so it’s all based on that. Then I read his memoir about his father, I Love the Bones of You, and really identified with it. He described one childhood memory of his dad rubbing his whiskers against him and calling it “silly half-hour”. My dad did exactly the same. I adored Chris for that, messaged him and it escalated from there.

You were in Billie Piper’s Rare Beasts recently as her character’s father. How was that?
Billie sent me the script and I read it on the train from Manchester to London. I was blown away by her writing and said yes before the train reached Euston. It was very low budget – we’d get changed in toilets, grab a sandwich for lunch – but kind of lovely, like doing live street theatre. Then I watched I Hate Susie, which was fantastic as well. What a woman.

You’ve been in Charlie Kaufman’s last two films. How did that relationship start?
In 2005, my phone rang out of the blue and this voice said: “Hey, this is Charlie Kaufman.” “I went, fucking hell, hi.” I think he’s something of a genius. I was flattered that he not only knew who I was but had written something for me. We did Anomalisa on stage in Los Angeles as a live radio play, years passed, then we got back together to do it as an animation. I’m very proud to say I’m now among his stable of actors.

David Thewlis with Jessie Buckley in Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
David Thewlis with Jessie Buckley in Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

Looking back at your career, was Naked a gamechanger for you?
Without doubt. It changed everything. My career blossomed from that moment. I won the Cannes award on Sunday night and by Tuesday, my agent had put me on a plane to Hollywood. He gave me an advance because I couldn’t afford the ticket. It was a crazy time.

Did your role in the Harry Potter films impress your daughter?
Gracie’s too cool for school, so she’s not impressed by anything I do. She’s been around film sets all her life with me and her mother [actor Anna Friel], so she knows they’re often boring, unglamorous places.

What projects are in the pipeline?
I’m in the Avatar sequels. I’m playing John Dee in Netflix’s new adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, which we shot either side of Christmas. Then I went straight on to make a HBO/Sky miniseries called Landscapers with Olivia Colman, which is fucking wonderful. Hand on heart, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever been involved in.

What makes you angry?
Right now, the rampant dishonesty of this government. They’re the grimmest collection of people we’ve had in charge in my lifetime. They take the piss out of us all and it’s insulting.

How did you stay sane in lockdown?
I started wood-carving. I made a spoon, then my wife carved this anatomically perfect human ear. She was too damn good, which put me off. I also played guitar a lot. I’d put on 6 Music and jam along.

Deep down, are you a frustrated rock star?
Well, I got to do Top of the Pops. One of my very first jobs was Only Fools and Horses in 1985, playing guitar in Rodney Trotter’s band Bunch of Wallies. We filmed them at a real TOTP recording. Alison Moyet was there. The Ramones were in the studio doing The Old Grey Whistle Test. I got to live out my rock star fantasies in a very silly way, which is the best way to do anything.

Shooting Martha by David Thewlis is published on 5 August (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply


Michael Hogan

The GuardianTramp

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