Fiction (With a Twist of Lennon)

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pf_main_thewlis.jpg NO PUFF PIECE: Actor-author David Thewlis takes a smoke break on the set of the William Monahan-scripted Kingdom of Heaven, above.

WILLIAM MONAHAN: Ok, you��������ve done a masterpiece. I haven��������t come across a funnier novel since Martin Amis��������s Money, or a better debut novel since The Rachel Papers. How do you feel?

DAVID THEWLIS: Well, I��������m a big fan of Amis, particularly Money, so that means a lot. Someone said that they assumed I had taken some of the themes with regard to artistic rivalry from Amis��������s The Information, which surprised me since I have never read that particular book. What can I say? It��������s obviously gratifying to have a novel published in the first place, but then to have everyone respond so positively to it is more than I could dream of. So far, people have come back to me with enormously positive reactions.

WM: I used to think that John Lennon was central to art, central to any art, central to anything you might say about any art, central to the way you said it. The night he was shot I felt I suddenly had a dead king and no country. Seems like you had a similar situation, plus Lancashire.

DT: I was born in 1963, with the Beatles. I was also from that part of the world, so their presence was overwhelming. Of course, by the time I was old enough to buy my own music the dream was over, but I found myself drawn to Lennon. His books, his art, his use of surrealism in his music, writing, drawings and even in his fashion sense lead me to my fascination with modern art. His death was my first experience with death��������as it is Hector��������s [the novel��������s protagonist]��������and I think that I disturbed my parents a little by my emerging from my room, red eyed and snotty, only to take meals. I took a week off college. My parents thought all this completely bizarre and have worried about me ever since. And so they should.

WM: I��������m all for any book that name-checks Eleanor Bron (who may or may not hand Hector Kipling a tissue at the Tate). I saw her in Bedazzled when I was twelve and got an odd sensation in a previously unnoticed section of my body.

DT: Years ago I was in Covent Garden, queuing up to buy a fennel pie. Eleanor Bron was ahead of me in the queue and seemed to have her eye on the same pie. There was only one left. She turned to me and said, “You want that pie, don’t you?” I said, Not if you want it. She replied, “I was thinking about it, but I think that you might want it more.” And with this, she requested the pie and handed it to me. I love her to this day. She always looked like she could show a young fella a good time. Now that you mention it, it is, of course, a feather in Freud��������s homburg that she hands Hector a tissue, of all things.

WM: Hector doesn��������t win: He takes madness and the sins of the world onto himself with complete equanimity, a quotation from The Tempest, and ends up wishing for a chalk to begin his story. I want to do the film already, but I can see them looking for a bright ending in the story conference. But the story ends exactly as it has to end.

DT: There was a time when I considered a bright ending, but it was like trying to construct a bright ending to one��������s own life. It��������s true: The story can end no other way. It��������s a downward slope that this man is on.

WM: You do a great picture of London as it is to the man beginning to have a few bucks who still has the old, fucked-up friends he��������s always had, the mandatory stalker, and one, you might say, rival poet who it��������s a danger to have talked to at all. It��������s the realest picture of artistic life as it is to those of us old enough to know better��������but not yet on walkers��������that I��������ve ever seen.

DT: There are parallels to the film world here, of course. The money is similar at that level of success, the bitterness, the rivalry, the celebrity, and, of course, the twisted fans. The money and the fame can drive wedges into relationships, with the ones who get left behind wondering if their rival is merely lucky or if it is in some way a reflection of their own lack of talent. Many friendships cannot bear the weight of this ambiguity, and they begin to suffer a loss of spontaneity and generosity of spirit. I also found the art world full of amorality. The players are fantastically eccentric. They seem to crawl around in some shady hinterland between home decorating and pornography, and one always imagines that they must smell a bit funny.

WM: Lenny steals the idea for the coffin chasing the pram around the gallery and gets short-listed for it. There��������s a similar kind of idea thieving in lower-rent Hollywood. It��������s not this way among literary writers, because anything you do is something that only you can do. It��������s a bug in your own ear, only you have your talent and temperament. But in the art world, if you��������ve hung out around visual artists, they��������re always bitching about who had the idea first to nail the dinner plate to the mannequin head.

DT: Exactly, and especially since so much of modern art these days is primarily about the idea, the artists rarely being the craftsmen. Not that I think there��������s a problem with this. As Damien Hirst says, �������Architects don��������t build their own houses.������� Artists utilizing assistants to do much of the work for them goes back centuries. Therefore, it��������s the ideas that are the currency, particularly when talking about conceptual or installation art. And sometimes they��������re very powerful ideas��������Marc Quinn��������s blood head, Hirst��������s �������A Thousand Years,������� The Chapmans�������� use of disemboweled shop mannequins to reproduce the atrocities seen in Goya��������s artwork.

WM: You hang out a lot with artists at home?

DT: I did research it all very well, and met up with a number of artists to try to understand them as people. The only artist I really hang out with is a young British portraitist, Stuart Pearson Wright, who was commissioned to do the painting for the cover of the British edition of the book, the painting that is referred to in the novel as �������God Bolton.������� I wanted him to do this so that the reader had some understanding of Hector��������s abilities as a fine artist, which, like Stuart��������s, are considerable. It seemed important that the reader should not fall into the clich���� that Hector is in any way a failed artist.

WM: I find that when you��������re writing a character, you are that character. It��������s probably no joke that Shakespeare was an actor. Dickens, famously, was a brilliant performer of his invented people, not only when he was reading in public but also when he was creating them on the page. Do you see any connection yourself between the ability to act and the ability to write?

DT: I think there is a very strong connection. One of the most pointless questions I seem to get asked over and over is, �������Do you think you may now give up acting?������� as though I am condemned to choose one or the other. As an actor you spend your life creating characters, understanding motives, paying great attention to the details, the mannerisms, the speech inflections. It does not seem much of a jump then to shift this ability to the page. I work with dialogue all the time and endlessly persevere to make speech sound natural. Actors read a lot��������scripts, source novels, research; they live with words, so it seems a natural progression to try and write a few yourself, since over the years you have learned what works. Also, in my own case, I was actually writing a long time before I even thought of acting. It has just taken me rather a long time to find my own style and also to build up the confidence to put something out there.

WM: Mike Leigh is a filmmaker who depends on the intelligence, creativity and narrative instincts of his actors. You made your own part in Naked, your breakthrough in films, yet I��������ve heard people talk about Leigh as the author of his films. Any problem with that?

DT: There��������s an awful lot of confusion about the way that Mike works, not least because of the way the films are credited with regards to the writing, and that comes down to different people��������s definitions of what writing is. Mike does not sit down and write scripted dialogue. Actors improvise and Mike wrestles with the chaos of these improvisations and produces something coherent and dramatic out of them, which is quite a feat. I��������m consoled that it seems generally understood that the actors play a huge role in the shaping of the characters and the tone of the dialogue. It was Mike who first suggested to me that I write a novel, presumably because he recognized my potential as a writer due to our collaboration on that film. This book would not be the book that it is had I never made Naked.

WM: You love Blackpool, obviously, where you��������re from.

DT: Although Hector Kipling is not autobiographical, I didn��������t see the point of having his hometown be anywhere else. For American readers who are not familiar with Blackpool, it seems to be closest to Atlantic City or Coney Island. It��������s a down-at-heel, glitzy tourist attraction, a freak show, a clown town. One night I couldn��������t get home because an 80-foot inflatable gorilla had become untethered from Blackpool Tower and was lying across the tram tracks. I grew up in a toy shop next door to a candy store in the shadow of the biggest funfair in Europe, and then I moved down to London, lived in Soho and became an actor. So basically I have no sense of reality.