David Thewlis, speaking by Zoom from his home in the Berkshire village of Sunningdale, has set his screen at a jaunty angle. His manner is equable, nerdy, eager to please. Nothing like what you’d expect, in other words – unless you had watched Landscapers, a new four-part TV drama in which Thewlis stars opposite Olivia Colman. Perhaps he’s one of those actors who doesn’t de-role until he’s on to the next character.
Landscapers is true crime, in so far as the protagonists are Susan and Christopher Edwards, the so-called Mansfield Murderers convicted in 2014 of killing Susan’s parents and burying them in the garden 15 years before. Yet it is absolutely nothing like true crime. It jumps through time and genre, smashes the fourth wall then puts it back together as a jail cell. It is vividly experimental yet recalls the golden age of British TV, specifically Dennis Potter and his dreamlike, restless theatricality. “I didn’t think of that while we were making it,” says Thewlis. “But when I saw it, I thought of The Singing Detective – which I was in!”
He and Colman – whose husband, Ed Sinclair, wrote the Sky series – give such devastating, heart-wrenching performances as these lovelorn Nottinghamshire killers that you can’t help feeling for them. This (spoiler warning) is all the more surprising given their crimes: they didn’t just shoot Susan’s parents, they robbed their bank accounts and forged their signatures to get more money still. Then, bizarrely, they blew much of the cash on Hollywood memorabilia, including £20,000 on a signed photograph of Frank Sinatra. Despite amassing a total of £245,000, when they gave themselves up from their home in France, the couple had just one euro left. “In the end,” says Thewlis, “what we’re asking the audience to decide is not whether they’re guilty, because they clearly are, but whether they deserve sympathy.” It’s very hard, on the bare bones of the events, to see how this sympathy could be generated, yet both Thewlis and Colman, with the sheer range of expressions on their desperate faces, demand the most human response.
It’s as far from being a murder procedural as it could be, and much more like a love story: two damaged, fragile people finding dark sanctuary in one another, told from the moment of their exquisitely awkward first date. “There were no attempts made to either cast younger actors or put dots over our faces for CGI,” says Thewlis. “We just put wigs on. I thought, ‘Really, is that all you’re going to do?’ I’ll never see 30 again.”
Thewlis is actually 58 and has no problem with getting older. “You’re not so vain for a start,” he says, “and you play things a little bit grotesque. I’m never concerned with making myself look good.” While Colman has done plenty of romantic parts, this is the most intense performance of love I’ve ever seen from Thewlis, as if all the hard edges that defined his early career have been chipped off. “Softened?” he says. “What, in older age?” No, I say, that’s not what I meant. He recalls Bertolucci’s Besieged. “I’m quite romantic in that,” he says. “I maybe used to take myself too seriously. I thought I was something I wasn’t. But I think I’m much closer to myself now, in all respects.”
It’s almost 30 years since Thewlis’s seminal performance in Naked, Mike Leigh’s recently reissued masterpiece. Verbose, sexually violent, feckless and self-indulgent, his antihero Johnny sparked a lot of discussion about representations of misogyny. Were they intended to titillate and, if so, did this make them misogynistic?
But, surprisingly, that wasn’t the main critical focus of the film at the time. “When I was doing press for Naked,” says Thewlis, “that was never put to me as an actor. Violence against women just wasn’t what we talked about. Now, how could you not talk about it? Violence against women – and unreported violence against women – is such a talking point. We want to discuss misogyny. We want to discuss the fact that members of our government don’t even know the meaning of the word. I found the film much tougher to watch this time than I did 25 years ago.”
He never thought of it as his breakthrough role, though. It wasn’t even his first Leigh film – and he was eight years into an already successful, if quite different, acting career. “I did a sitcom that went to two seasons, playing David Jason’s son in A Bit of a Do. I thought I was headed for light entertainment. I was the star of this show. My parents were so proud of me. I thought this was the dream. No one else I knew was getting work.”
Thewlis was born in Blackpool, where his parents ran a shop. He went to Guildhall school of music and drama in London and was cast pretty solidly from graduation on. This was a time when there “wasn’t nearly enough work around for young actors. I remember going to the movies and seeing Tim Roth on a big screen and thinking, ‘Wow, that would be incredible.’ It was unimaginable to me.” He’s smiling as he describes how carefree his sitcom years were.
Leigh’s film-making process is, famously, improvised and collaborative. So perhaps audiences assumed Thewlis poured his own burning misanthropy into Naked, but that performance was actually based on someone real: “A person I knew, who was certainly guilty of sexual aggression, who’d been ostracised by my group of friends.”
Two things came out of Naked. Leigh was “bit of a mentor and changed my way of looking at acting. He opened up parts of me. From then on, I rarely got cast in comedy.” Secondly, after all the critical acclaim, he got noticed by Hollywood. “The first part I took was Black Beauty. I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I didn’t know if it was a very interesting part, but I thought, ‘It’s a studio film.’ It’ll get me away from being typecast as this sociopathic rapist. If you’re a guy who’s lovely to a horse, people are going to see you differently.”
That was in 1994 and ever since, he says, his career has divided into two paths. “I get cast as either extremely awful, terrible and cruel – or extremely good and saintly. In Kingdom of Heaven, I’m adorable.” Some projects weren’t as satisfying as others, which would include “big Hollywood things for the money like The Island of Dr Moreau”. But he has largely hopped from one delightful experience to another, particularly recently: the Fargo TV series and Charlie Kaufman’s 2020 psychological thriller I’m Thinking of Ending Things. “I’m working with people I’d always wanted to work with, doing the kind of films I’d always wanted to do.”
His second novel, Shooting Martha, was published this year. Classifiable, loosely, as showbiz satire, it felt a bit disillusioned with the industry, but that wasn’t it at all, he says. “This character Betty becomes lost in an improvised character. She immersed herself so deeply she didn’t know who she was. So it was more about my experience on Naked – something cathartic from decades ago was coming out.” As he was writing it, he read it aloud to his wife, Hermine Poitou. “She’d criticise it and suggest things. I never felt like I was isolated.” Poitou, he says, is a retired ringmistress from a flea circus. I have no idea whether that’s true or a joke. And I didn’t ask, because I felt like even if he told me, I still wouldn’t know. He has a daughter, Gracie, from his previous relationship with Anna Friel.
His first novel, The Late Hector Kipling, lampooned the art world and was well received. It came out in 2007, bang in the middle of the Harry Potter years. He played Remus Lupin, a half-blood werewolf, in five of the movies. Thewlis remembers the films principally for the company. “Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, John Hurt and Alan Rickman. To become friends with Michael Gambon, to work with him every day, was extraordinary. And what better way to spend your life than hanging out on night shoots with Julie Walters?”
He’s not so sociable these days. “I don’t go out so much,” he says. “I’m quite private. Going to work is my social life. Especially on British film sets. There’s a lot of wonderful humour around.” He pauses and adds with a smile: “You can’t go on set and be a dickhead.”