INTERVIEWED BY JESSE PEARSON
Even if he hadn’t been the star of maybe our favorite movie of all time, Mike Leigh’s Naked, David Thewlis would still be one of our favorite actors. Not only that, but he’s a great writer. Thewlis deals in funny, observant rhyming poems and hilarious-but-harsh fiction. Then, every once in a while, he goes and portrays Professor Lupin (clearly the best teacher at Hogwarts) in a Harry Potter movie, just to pay the rent.
This month, Thewlis’s debut novel is being released. It’s called The Late Hector Kipling, and it features one of the most misanthropic, hopeless pricks of a protagonist that’s ever been wrought by a Man With a Typewriter. As Thewlis’s (non)hero makes his way through the London art world, he systematically lays waste to everything good in his life, from friendship to family to love. And just when you think it can’t get darker, it does. But all along, the book is garnished with Thewlis’s ruthless wit and stop-you-in-your-tracks insights, which are like little life buoys in a sea of violence and betrayal.
Jesse Pearson: Your novel alternates its location between London, where the British art world lives, and Blackpool, where you grew up and which Americans don’t really know about. What’s it like there? It’s a resort town, right?
David Thewlis: Yeah. From speaking to other Americans, I understand that it mostly resembles Atlantic City or Coney Island. In Britain it’s a very famous resort. As mentioned in the book, there’s a tower there…
Right, which was built and designed with inspiration from the Eiffel Tower—although it’s not nearly as graceful and elegant as that. [laughs] It’s much more industrial-looking. But it’s very famous in England, the Blackpool Tower.
What sort of people come to Blackpool?
It’s a working-class resort. A lot of people from Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool, and the Yorkshire towns go there on holiday. In recent years it’s become more of a stag-night place. Do you say that?
Yeah, sure, stag night. Like a bachelor party.
Right. But when I was growing up in Blackpool, there was a great circus in the base of the tower. There were literally clowns walking the streets. It was kind of like living in Disneyland. There was a huge theme park there called the Pleasure Beach. In fact, I grew up in a toy shop next door to a candy store.
Jesus. The perfect boyhood.
I’ve got this really romantic image of my growing up, but it’s true. I really did grow up in a toy shop next to a candy store in the shadow of a huge theme park in a resort town…
With clowns roaming the streets.
Right! And then I became an actor, so now I’ve got no sense of reality at all. Anyway, I sentimentalize Blackpool, but it’s quite a unique town.
To see Atlantic City combined with British culture would be something else…
There’s also a great history of old entertainers there, like in the musical, vaudeville tradition. A lot of British stars got their start and worked in Blackpool.
So you decided to make your novel’s protagonist a native of Blackpool.
I didn’t want to make him from London, even though I live there a lot of the time, or even Manchester or Liverpool, which are near Blackpool. I just thought there was some fun to be had from saying that his childhood was in Blackpool and his parents were still there. Actually, the parents are the closest thing to anything to do with my life in the book. They aren’t a million miles away from my parents.
The mother especially is such a strong character. She has this really endearing naïveté about art, but her son is an artist. Does that have a parallel in your life with your mother?
It does, in terms of my own mother’s attitude toward the film world and some of the more independent films that I might have acted in or been friends with the people involved in. I remember taking her to see Edward Scissorhands and her being totally baffled. She was like, “What’s all that about?” I said, “It’s Tim Burton,” and she was like, “But he’s got scissors on his hands. It makes no sense.” [laughs] So she’s not exactly experimental in her way of thinking.
Has she read your book?
She hasn’t, not yet. My father has, and he liked it a lot apparently, even though he’s not read much in his life. He said to me, “It’s a long time since I’ve read a book.” I was like, “You’ve never read a book, Dad!” I’ve never seen my dad with a book in his hands. But I actually feel a lot closer to him since he’s read it. He’s more affectionate with me and a lot more outgoing now.
A lot of writers can reveal things about themselves emotionally in their work that they might have trouble getting out in their real life.
Yeah, exactly. Even if their characters stray further and further from their real selves as the book goes on, and they start behaving more irrationally.
So are there incidents in the book that are based on real events?
The whole story in the book of my mother buying an ugly, expensive sofa and then my father being so upset about it that he gets ill is true. He didn’t become quite as ill as he does in the book. He wasn’t hospitalized. But he was in bed for a few days.
Because of a hideous sofa that your mother bought?
Yeah! My mother really did buy it. I remember, I had the idea that I could just pay a friend to go and buy it based on an ad I could put in the newspaper, and that might have taken all my parents’ stress away. Then when I was starting to write the book, I thought that story might fit quite nicely into it, so I started to thread it all the way through.
The book is also set amid the Young British Artists scene. People like Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst are mentioned.
It was an alternative to setting it in the film world. I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to be an actor writing about acting and films, but there were still some things I wanted to talk about in terms of celebrity and rivalry—some of the things I’ve experienced in my own career. I also thought it would be much more visual and entertaining to set it in the art world, of which I am a fan. I’m usually to be found at the openings of most things back in Britain, or wherever I am. I’m in Los Angeles now and I always try to see all the exhibitions and go to the galleries. So I figured it would be sort of expected of me to write a book that had to do with acting, but I found it more interesting to investigate the art world. I’d like to get away from being perceived as an actor who’s written a novel and get the book judged more on its own merit.
It would also get scrutinized even more than it’s already bound to in terms of “Which parts of this are autobiographical?” if you set it in the acting world.
If it was written in the first person and the narrator was an actor, people would assume that it was entirely based on my own life even if I didn’t use anything that was even remotely autobiographical. As it is now, the autobiographical elements of this book sort of disappear within the first two chapters. There’s nothing that happens in there that really happened to me. I’ve never been that crazy.
You’ve written a lot of poetry, but fiction writing is a real bitch. Was it difficult to get this done?
The hardest thing, which is what I’m going through now as I try to write my second book, is structure. Having a solid plot and knowing where you’re going with it, rather than writing in a void and painting yourself into a corner. To know what you’re saying from the beginning helps, and I always pretty much knew how this book would end. I knew it was going to end in violence because that was something that interested me.
What sort of violence interested you?
People who find their lives at such a dead end that they commit a crime like a random shooting—that’s always fascinated me. Whenever that pops up in the news, it’s very intriguing. How can someone have lost it so much to not only kill themselves or one other person but actually kill strangers at random?
When you set out to write the novel did you have a philosophy or a theme in mind, or was it more about having a narrative and letting the morality take care of itself?
It was more about the narrative. I didn’t necessarily want to say anything thematic apart from exploring the nature of envy, jealousy, rivalry, and the theft of creative work. Morally…
It isn’t a hugely moral book!
Yeah, I don’t think there’s a strong moral at the end of the book. It’s about an amoral character—a selfish, self-involved character. A monster in the end.
But the book is so funny too.
I always wanted it to be comedic, but a very black comedy. I would have bored myself if I wrote such a thing in a serious tone. I also didn’t want it to be just a farcical series of escapades. I wanted to use comedy to investigate something very dark and psychologically disturbing. I’ve always tended to write comedy, but I’d hate to just write some kind of sitcom or a lighthearted series of jokes and slapstick. I wanted to talk about some deeper things within the comedy.
I think the most effective part of the book for me is the dialogue, especially Hector’s inner monologues. Is it your acting experience that taught you to write such great speeches?
Yeah, I think so. Obviously, I’m used to not only speaking dialogue all the time but also reading scripts—often with very, very bad dialogue. It happens so often that you’ll get a script with a good story but the dialogue is found wanting. So I’m forever on the set trying to change the dialogue. A lot of writers of film scripts, I think, don’t actually read their work back to themselves. They don’t see how it can’t be spoken very well and it doesn’t sound like the way real people speak.
You’ve got experience not only with writing, but with a lot of improvisation as well.
Well for me, the dialogue tends to be some of the easiest stuff to write because it’s like improvising, really—improvisation with myself. I’d take a conversation between Hector and his mother that had to do with A, B, and C and let it ramble on for like 20 pages of longhand in a notebook and then I’d return to it and cut out whole pages of what wasn’t interesting or funny or relevant.
Most of your dialogue in Naked was improvised…
Is that character, in a way, a piece of fiction that you wrote?
I mean, I see this book as a kind of relative of Naked, much more than anything else I’ve done acting-wise. I certainly don’t think I would ever have written this book if I hadn’t done Naked. Doing that movie was when I realized that I could write something substantial. Mike Leigh gave me the opportunity and the wherewithal to channel a lot of ideas I may have had in my head for many years and to put them into a form to which he gave a structure and characters to bounce it all off.
The book does have a real kinship with the film.
Mike was the first person who suggested to me that I should write a novel. He thought that was where my future lay rather than making films myself. And I have done that, but I don’t have a passion for it. I always really did want to be a writer of short stories and novels. Even before I wanted to be an actor, that was my ambition. So Mike certainly helped me gain confidence in thinking I was capable of doing such a thing.
There’s a common thread of misanthropy that runs through your book and your character in Naked.
There’s a natural progression there. I think the book is probably funnier than Naked—although Naked is quite funny. A lot of people don’t think so. They’ll say, “What do you mean? It’s not funny at all.” But I’m like, “There are some good gags in Naked!” It was meant to be a black comedy, of course—maybe more black than comedy.
I liked how as I read the novel my feelings for Hector, the main character, shifted. At first I felt empathy for him, but I started to realize that he was transforming into an awful person. Where did the inspiration for this guy come from?
He’s a mixture of some people I know. He’s partly me, obviously. But only partly. In some ways, you could say I’m more like his best friend, Lenny. Their relationship is somewhat based on my experiences with a few friends who resented my success. When I did Naked, for example, I started getting calls from Hollywood and ended up kind of where I am right now, driving around meeting anyone who’s anyone in this town, then coming back to England and telling a few stories of this kind of adventure I’d had out in Los Angeles. A lot of people were like, “Wow, that’s fucking great, how exciting, what a great novelty, that must be interesting.” But then a handful of people were very resentful of it. So in the book, in a way, I’m more like the character Lenny, who’s just come back from America with his namedropping and his success and everybody wanting to photograph him and getting recognized in public. That’s more what happened to me. I had the bitter friend at my side, and that’s the sort of person Hector is based on.
There are real-life precedents for these guys.
Yeah. Again, when you work with Mike Leigh you base your characters on a real, living person who is in your acquaintance. And I really enjoyed creating such a sort of sad guy as Hector. [laughs] At the same time, I struggled to keep him likable, to not turn the reader off too much. I didn’t want people to be like, “God, I don’t even want to know what happens to this guy because he’s such a pain in the ass.” I wanted him to have something so pathetic about him that you’re going to follow him because you want to see this loser fall, but also keep him nice enough to maintain that interest. Even though he’s diabolical at times, there’s his love for his mother and father and his love for his girlfriend.
But he’s such a mess. You want to grab him and slap him and go, “Snap the fuck out of it!”
He’s always making the wrong decisions. I thought it would be interesting to create a character that is just constantly making the wrong decision. I wanted to have him do that again and again and again, and see where that landed him.
The pace of his descent, and even the pace of the actual writing, really accelerates as you get toward the end of the book. The climax is quite shocking.
I wanted it to be a sudden rush at the end. I didn’t want people to anticipate it once it started going. As I was writing it, once it got very dark, once the first two deaths occurred, I started to think it was maybe too much. But then I thought, well, maybe I should just kill everyone! Shakespeare did that all the time and nobody complained. Look at the end of Hamlet. There are like 15 bodies on the floor!