British actor David Thewlis may be best known to audiences these days as one of the many regulars of the Harry Potter franchise.
But Thewlis is a celebrated author and actor on stage and screen, always pushing the envelope from his work in Mike Leigh’s “Naked”, making out with Leonardo DiCaprio in “Total Eclipse”, and his latest and toughest film to date: “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas”.
Here he plays a the Nazi commandant of an Auschwitz-type concentration camp where he brings his family. When his son innocently befriends a Jewish inmate, lives change and tragedy occurs. Paul Fischer talked exclusively to Thewlis about working on such a difficult film.
Question: How easy a choice was it for you to do this? This is a very difficult character to pull off.
Thewlis: Yeah, so therefore, it was an easy choice for that reason. I hate to read a script and think, “Oh, God, I’m bored before I even get to the set, because I know how I’m gonna do it.” Which, you know, sometimes you can. And by the first few days, you’re like, “There’s nothing for me to say about this character. There’s nothing more to explore.” With this one, I kept the research going all the way ’til the last day of shooting, and constantly kept on top of trying to put myself in that world and in that mind as much as I could. So there was no hesitation in taking the part. But because it was so difficult and complex, and just because it’s a great challenge, you know, to play something so multi-faceted.
Question: it’s unusual, I suppose, in some ways, for a film set in the Holocaust to be told from the German perspective. So, what kind of research were you able to acquire to get this right?
Thewlis: Well, very, very usefully – when I first took the part, I wanted to do as much as research as I possibly can out of respect for the subject matter. I don’t want to just turn up and have a silly haircut and put on a uniform and learn the lines. I want to really know what kind of minds we’re dealing with here. And so I read – you know, I’d already read Primo Levy, and – lots of things I’d already read, because I’ve got a history with the Jewish people myself. So it’s – you know, I was kind of familiar with lots of things. But I read as much as I could, and watched every documentary I could lay my hands on. But very, very usefully, I found out there’s a book called The Commandant of Auschwitz, which is written by Rudolf Hoss, which is an autobiography, written by the Commandant of Auschwitz. And he was ordered to write it by the British, in between the time of his trial and his execution. He was hung at Auschwitz. They took him back to Auschwitz to hang him. But in between times, he wrote a book on the camps, and his life in the camps, particularly of his time at Auschwitz. So obviously, that was a remarkable thing to have at my disposal. And I really used that more than anything. I read and re-read that.
Question: Were you tempted to go to any of the concentration camps, or did you go to any of them?
Thewlis: I was tempted. Unfortunately, just the logistics of the time of saying yes to the film, and turning – I was still living and Los Angeles. And now I’m arriving in Budapest, and the filming schedule – I always intended to try and get to Auschwitz during the making of the film. And the schedule didn’t allow it. And then straight out of the film, I went immediately into another film back in England. So I really would like to – would have liked to, and indeed would very much in the future when I find myself back in that part of the world, do that. But yes, logistically, I unfortunately didn’t get the time to do.
Question: How challenging is it for you to find the humanity in a guy like this?
Thewlis: Well, it’s very, very difficult, really. It was almost impossible, really, to try and understand how this is possible. And – I mean, most of the film – almost the entire of the film for me is with the family. You don’t see me at the camp until the very end. And even then, you don’t see me working in the camp. What it is that I’m about, what it is that I’m doing. So, you know, it’s useful that the script gave me the character. The whole character. The loving father, and the committed husband. And so that is what you’ll see me doing, most – 99 percent of the time, is playing this man. So, you know, the job to commit myself to playing that part of him, but obviously keeping with me all the time that when he’s not on-camera, when he’s not in the house, that’s what he’s doing. You know, off-stage, he’s doing everything that I was reading about in the evenings, and watching. You know. So it was very challenging. But I think just really finding it plausible that even though it’s fiction, this did happen. Rudolf Hoss is a family of six. And he raised those children within Auschwitz. Not even at a distance, as in our film. Those children were actually raised within sight of the crematorium, within the barbed wire. And while our story is fictional, stranger stories have happened. I mean, that’s just one case. But, you know, these were family men.
Question: What noticeable differences are there between the book and the screenplay?
Thewlis: Well, really, the book is much more seen through the eyes of Bruno. Now, of course, the film is as well. But it’s more subject to Bruno through the book. It’s a different person, but it’s – I forget the term. Anyway, it’s third person, but it’s really seen through the eyes of Bruno. And therefore the father is portrayed through Bruno’s eyes. How he sees him. And in the book, Hitler comes to dinner, and he’s called The Fury. The boy thinks that’s what he hears. And the camp is called Out With. And, you know, it’s almost written in a childish tone. Now, the film couldn’t really do that without – I think it’d be a very different film if it was subjected from Bruno’s point of view, because we’d be playing characters as interpreted by him. Whereas, you know, our job was to play these characters as real people, and be objective about them. So, that’s the main difference. And I think that the father, therefore, in the book, is a little – probably more aggressive. He’s described as having a huge, booming voice, is the first description of him in the book. And I don’t think that would have been appropriate for the film. You know, maybe if you’d seen him at the camp more, that could have been demonstrated. But there wasn’t really, in the script, opportunities to display those parts of him. So I actually put the book away as soon as I’d read it. I just concentrated on the script after that. I didn’t even have the book.
Question: Talk about your relationship with Asa Butterfield, who plays Bruno in this. Is there a delicate line there? I mean, did you two talk about the issues that the film was raising?
Thewlis: No. No, not at all, actually and nor were we encouraged to. And I know Mark Herman, the director – his opinion was that that was for the parents, to disclose as much as they thought necessary in terms of educating them, and discussing what the film was about. And Vera and I, to my memory, never really discussed it at all. A little more with Amber, because she was twelve, 13. And, you know, she had already been taught the Holocaust at school, and knew much more about it. And I think we talked a little more with her. But our relationship with Bruno was really of – feeling like a little son during the making of the film, but in a nice way. In a nice family, that Vera and I and Amber and Asa had. And on our days off we’d go to the zoo and go to gallery. We’d go around in Budapest in a touristic way, and sort of hang out together. And their parents were there, or their guardians were there, chaperones. And so, you know, we all got on very well. And Asa is a very amusing little boy. He’s got a very great sense of humor, and is very mischievous, as is Amber. And Amber and Asa adored each other. They were like brother and sister. And I think Amber is probably Asa’s first great love. He just looked up to her so beautifully. So – you know, it was a rather lovely relationship off-camera.
Question: What do you hope audiences take away from the experience of seeing Pyjamas?
Thewlis: Well, I hope it just reminds people – especially the younger generation – about the dangers of prejudice and discrimination, and racism and seeing how it escalated to monstrous proportions. And to be able to check in their own spirits, and acknowledge anything in their own souls, in terms of apathy or deep prejudice on their own parts, and to just remember where it can lead. Especially since it’s seen through the innocence of a young boy’s eyes, who can’t comprehend it. Doesn’t understand what he’s being told. And I think therefore, you know, it’s very particularly addressed to the younger generation. Although it’s obviously not a children’s film. But I think it’s one of those strange things where it’s not a children’s film, or it shouldn’t certainly be seen by many children under a certain age. I mean, you know, twelve, I would say.
Question: Is there a release going from something like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas to the Harry Potter movies? I mean, is that an escape from something like this?
Thewlis: Well, it’s certainly not as intense, you know? I don’t have to think about it as much, especially since I’ve been doing it for a few years now. I don’t really immerse myself in that. I mean, I haven’t had that much to do in the previous two films, and that was two films ago. But, you know, there’s not really any research to be done for Harry Potter. I wouldn’t know what to research, really.
Question: Well, read the book, I guess.
Thewlis: Well, you read the book, yeah. But, you know, I’ve done that. And I don’t study – you know, necromancy, wizardry, and – you know. I did make the attempts of the history of lycanthropy when I first started. But, you know, that is really turning up and doing the lines and just remembering how you did it the last time.
Question: But when you do something like a Potter movie, because it’s such a fantasy, and the world is so fantasy-oriented, does it remind you of why you wanted to become an actor in this, in the fact that it’s all about make-believe?
Thewlis: Yeah. Well, there was a scene in The Prisoner of Azkaban, the scene with the Shrieking Shack and the three children – there’s me and Gary Oldman and Timothy Spore and Alan Rickman all in the same room, and we’re all pointing wands at each other and threatening each other like we’ve got a [INAUD] going on. [LAUGHTER] That really felt like being a kid at school with a water pistol going, “Come any nearer and I’ll blow your head off.” You know, that really felt like going back to childhood, doing something like that. Because you actually feel quite ridiculous. You’ve got a knitting needle in your hand, and you’re threatening someone’s life with it, you know. Now, obviously, when they put the special effects in, it does look a lot better. But you can imagine.
Question: Have you finished shooting Half-Blood Prince?
Thewlis: Yeah. That finished a long time ago. And, yeah, it’s out next year.
Question: And you’re on to Deathly Hallows.
Thewlis: Yeah. The last one is going to be two movies.
Question: Do you have a lot more to do in these last ones?
Thewlis: I have no idea. I mean, I have not seen the scripts.
Question: Oh, really?
Thewlis: Yeah. We don’t start until next February. And I think the scripts are just about coming out any time soon, so I’ll be able to answer that. I have no indication yet of how much I’m involved.
Question: And do you have much to do in Half-Blood Prince?
Thewlis: Oh, in Half-Blood Prince? No, not a great deal. About the same as Order of the Phoenix. No, I’m not central to it in any way. It’s a few weeks work. Maybe a little more than in Order of the Phoenix.
Question: You also did this little movie called Veronika Decides to Die, which sounds really interesting. Who do you play in that?
Thewlis: I play Dr. Blake in that, who’s Dr. Igor in the book, who’s there at a psychiatric institution. But Veronika’s Sarah Michelle Gellar, and she’s tried to commit suicide and she’s failed. But he tells her that the pills she’s taken in her attempt to try to commit suicide have damaged her heart to such an extent that she’s gonna die anyway. But they’re compelled to keep her alive until that time. So it’s about her – you know, clinging onto life, though she’s tried to end it already.
Question: You’ve had a very interesting film career. How surprised are you that your career has taken off the way it did, given the way it began, with these very small and very interesting little movies?
Thewlis: Well, I’m constantly surprised, you know, with every new thing. I mean, it is a long time ago. It’s 15 years ago. And I’ve served in many, many various and weird things since then. But I’m always surprised I’m doing anything at all, really. I never really planned to do it, I never really did it as a teenager, going, “I really want to be an actor.” It kind of all happened by accident.
Question: What about your directing aspirations? Do you want to do more?
Thewlis: No, I don’t think so. I want to write more. And indeed, I am writing more. But I don’t think – directing was never a big ambition. I never thought I really wanted to be a film director. Then it kind of fell into my lap that I became one for a couple of films. But I just found it too time-consuming, too stressful. And I don’t think it’s something I’ve got an actual bend for, really. And, I mean, I’ve got so much respect for film directors now. I’ve done it myself. Because it just takes over your life. And I’d much rather do a few jobs a year as an actor, and then spend my other time writing, which is my first passion.
Question: You’ve written books.
Question: I mean, you’re a proper writer, as opposed to just a screenwriter.
Thewlis: Yeah. Well, that was before film. I have a long held ambition.
Question: Where did that come from, that desire to write?
Thewlis: I just always had it, since I was 13 or something. I used to love it when we were told to write something at school. And then I remembered when I started writing things anyway for myself when I was a teenager. And then, you know, I was a musician, so I wrote songs, as well. I was in a band. And then it was like a compulsion. I just always did it every day, and still do. I just – it’s like an addiction. I just need to do it, a way of emptying my head or something. And then obviously now I’ve done it professionally, and published a novel, and it gives me a lot more confidence to continue, since the novel was received so well, that it makes me think, “Well, I’m not insane, then.” So I’m writing another book, with new confidence. Because I had some very, very wonderful responses to my novel.
Question: Have you started writing, the next one?
Thewlis: Yes. Yeah, yeah.
Question: Can you talk about anything about it?
Thewlis: No. [LAUGHTER] No, I’m not in the shape to really discuss it yet.
Question: Well, stylistically and tonally, how different is it from the first book?
Thewlis: It will be a little more serious, and a little more surreal. I’ll say that much. But – I mean, the first one is a very black comedy. And it, indeed, will be that. But there’s something a little more surreal about it.
Question: Are you surprised that your career evolved into acting, as opposed to writing, as a focus?
Thewlis: Well, yeah. Because it’s just given me a wonderful life, working with marvelous people, and travel. And I wouldn’t have liked to just been a writer. But, I mean, it’s just great. And I can do both. One doesn’t preclude the other. So, they’re entirely compatible. I think actors are – they have to be writers, since you spend so much time working with words and stories and development of character. And that’s what novel-writing is. It deals with exactly those things. So it’s – sometimes I think an actual progression. Not that all actors would or should write. But, I mean, certainly there are a lot of actors who have written novels and screenplays. But I think they’re quite closely connected.
Question: Would you like to work with Mike Leigh again?
Thewlis: I’m not sure, because, again, something about how much time is consumed. Being a family man now, I just know that working with Mike, you give your all. You give your entire soul over to him. And you really can’t be thinking about anything else. Certainly when I was working with him, I thought just – you know, it’s all-consuming. And I thought it was the thing between Mike, and me that we sort of peaked with that. You know, we did a great thing together, and we’ve never, ever discussed anything else.
Question: Do you want to take time off from acting, be on the Potter films, and focus purely on the novel, at this point?
Thewlis: No, no. Not at all, no. There’s no need to, because I generally do most of my writing when I am working, because, you know, you’re off and away from home, and living in a hotel. And nothing to do in the evenings, or nothing to do in your trailer, waiting around for them to set-up. I actually wrote a lot of my book whilst I was working. And then if I’m not working, I’ve got even more time as a writer. So they’re compatible in many ways. So I don’t feel like I need to – I mean, right now, I’m not working. I may not do anything until December. And the last thing I did was Veronika Decides to Die, a few months ago. And I’m a father. My partner’s working full-time. So I’m very much a full-time Dad as well.
Question: So you’re not really signed up for anything at this point?
Thewlis: Well, I – yeah, I am. There’s two things that are lined up, I’m quite sure are gonna happen, but they’re not actually signed – I can’t really talk about them, yet, because they’re not absolutely official. But yeah, there’s a couple of things coming up.