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:: Spotlight :: Interview with David Thewlis - Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

By: Catherine Naghten

David Thewlis is an English actor who has appeared in over forty films, such as Dragonheart and The Island of Dr Moreau. His involvement in Seven Years in Tibet saw him banned from entering China and he recently wrote and directed his first feature film, Cheeky. He plays the mild mannered Professor-come-werewolf, Remus Lupin, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I caught up with him in Melbourne.

Q: Most people say they get into Harry Potter for their kids. What made you want to get into a Harry Potter film?

A: Well, I don’t have any kids. It just came to me. It was an offer so there was no fight for it. It was the easiest job I ever got. I was directing my own film at the time so I didn’t give it much thought. I didn’t think I could do it because of post-production dates and then the dates worked out.

I’d been up for Quirrell in the first film but Ian Hart played that part and I was directing my own movie when this came through and I’d actually cast Ian Hart in my movie - because I wasn’t bitter (laughs)- and um, he saw it and he “who are you playing?” and I said “Lupin”. And I didn’t know because I’d not read the book and he says “Oh, you’ve got to do it. It’s the best part in the book.” So I suddenly gave it two thoughts and then I found out Alfonso Cuaron was directing. Actually my agent said you’ve got a meeting for Harry Potter, then I got another call saying you’re meeting Alfonso Cuaron and I said, “Well I can’t meet Alfonso Cuaron ‘cause I’ve got a meeting for Harry Potter” and they said “that is it”. It just seemed inconceivable.

Q: Did he give you much background into the whole Potter universe?

A: Not really, because Alfonso came onto it not really being a big expert on Potter. He was feeling his way through it more than I was I think. Probably why it makes it quite fresh. He hadn’t seen the two films. He hadn’t read the books. So he came onto it with a totally original, objective sense and some interesting ways of looking at it; references to drugs and things. I don’t want to elaborate. He had some metaphors. Anyone could see that the dementors sucking the soul out of you, all the joy out of you, could be seen as…. But you know, I think there are elements of that in JK Rowling’s writing.

Q: Like a more adult sub-text?

A: Yeah. I mean I’m just reading the fifth book now, and there’s definitely some veiled references there. I mean the twins are always swapping these substances. They actually describe some of these as ‘Class C’ and illegal.

Q: Does your character pop up again?

A: Yeah, in book five. That’s why I’m reading it. So, yeah, I’ll be back.

Q: How far away is that in terms of making that film?

A: It’ll have to be next year, otherwise the kids are gonna be… well they’re gonna have they’re own kids. They have to make one a year for the kids to be able to do all seven of them and even then, they’ll be pushing it a bit because Rupert (Ron Weasley) is fifteen now. So he’s going to be nineteen. But she’s writing it so the kids do grow up. They’re not Bart Simpson, stuck in time. They’re supposed to be seventeen in the last book and seventeen-year-olds these days are young adults.

Q: You have a couple of very good scenes with Daniel Radcliffe. I just wanted your take on working with him because he seems to have grown in leaps and bounds…

A: Yes, his confidence has really grown and he’s a great little lad, really. I’m not just saying that. He really is very good company and he’s very funny. He’s quite eccentric for his age. He has great taste in music. He got me into some great bands that I’d not really listened to much before.

I read somewhere that Chris Columbus had said in the first two films they couldn’t do such long takes on the kids without them looking in the camera or losing concentration or laughing. In this, there’s quite a few scenes which are held in one take. The scene on the bridge is all one take and Alfonso keeps the camera moving. The sort of things you probably wouldn’t notice, but probably subliminally that does contribute to it being a better film, a more accomplished film because the kids can act within a set scenario as opposed to being edited around, which is often the case with kids. There are several scenes in this, certainly with Daniel, where the camera’s just left running and you can see he can handle the whole scene there. Yeah, he’s a good guy.

Q: There’s a lot of variation in the experience of the actors in this cast. There’s yourself and Gary Oldman with huge amounts of experience, working with the kids, who have very little experience. Did that make it quite challenging?

A: Not really. It made it fun really. In the main scene with the shrieking shack with myself, Gary, Tim Spall and Alan Rickman, that was like whoa. I mean working with three people in the same room that I love and then the three kids. Certainly, that scene in particular, the kids were quiet ‘cause they were a bit intimidated. I was not intimidated but kind of honoured to be working with Gary who I’ve never worked with. I’ve worked with Tim and Alan before. Someone said it was sort like Mike Leigh on acid, you know. We’ve all - me, Tim and Gary - have all worked with Mike. For me and Gary, that was our main training. Mike Leigh films were what got us off the ground. We never imagined we’d all work in a Harry Potter film.

Q: So why do you think they’ve been so successful? The films and the books?

A: I don’t have a good answer to that really. I suppose she’s hit on something that’s caught kids’ imaginations. Maybe it’s the combination between magic and school and something about rebelling. You know, we’d all love it. You could fling someone across the room with your wand.

Q: I want to ask about a lot of the details that you see in the characters in The Prisoner of Azkaban. It was quite different to the “panto” feel of the first two films. Were you asked to bring a lot of that to the character or did Alfonso have that in mind?

A: The look of my character was Alfonso’s idea. He wanted him to be quite foppish and little ’tash' and the two scars I’ve got that are never mentioned and they’re not in the book. A lot of kids have gone "eww, why has he got scars? He doesn’t have scars in the book.” But the idea is that he cut himself changing one time.

Q: Can you tell us about the transformation scene?

A: Well firstly, it was just a really nice novelty to do because among actors there’s not that many people who’ve done it. You see something like Company of Wolves or an American Werewolf in London and think “Oh my God, I’m going to be one of those people who gets to do a werewolf transformation.” So, it was kind of funny to do and it was a bit of a drag because it was uncomfortable. I had a big latex head on me, and the inflatable back, and hands that grew and everything.

Gary was hanging onto me as I’m changing. He’s done Dracula and is a bit of a veteran at that kind of thing and he’s saying “David, you’re going to have such a hard time. It's going to be such a long day. You’re gonna really suffer”. And actually, Gary ended up being there longer than I did because it gets to a point where it stops being me and becomes this prosthetic creature. It’s a mixture between C-Gen (computer generated) and some guy in the suit. So, I’d done all my bit up to the bit where I couldn’t go any further. I couldn’t form a snout, you know, I wasn’t given the training. So, Gary was left there for another three days hanging onto this bit of plastic. I was like “I’m going home Gary. See you, mate!”

Q: The tone of acting feels different this time, even established characters don’t seem quite as large as life. Was it a temptation to ‘Panto’ it up a bit?

A: Gary had a worry about that. It’s all quite big that scene and I mean, Tim Spall is dressed as a rat. I remember Tim Spall saying one day, “I’ve always wanted to work with you three. I thought it would be a play at the National Theatre or a Scorsese film; never thought Harry Potter”. It felt ridiculous ‘cause we’ve got these wands pointing at each other. Its like holding a chopstick and you have to treat it like it’s a magnum. We did get the giggles.

Not so much me though. My character didn’t need it. I wanted to bring it down and make it quite realistic. I don’t know how you could make it bigger without being a caricature but Alfonso didn’t want that either. He wanted us to play it real and that’s what you get from Gary in the end. And well, poor old Tim, what could he do? He was a rat. Anyway, he’ll be back much more in the fourth film.

Q: Where does this rank in terms of your favourite film experiences?

A: The best, honestly. I had such a nice time making it and I can’t wait to do the fifth one. Because of Alfonso, and because by some accident of chance the whole crew was just really really lovely. I just loved all the costume people, all the make-up girls, the kids, even my driver in the morning. It was just nice. I love all these people and just a twenty-minute drive from my home.

Q: I’ve heard you didn’t enjoy making The Island of Dr Moreau. After that experience, were you worried about getting involved in another blockbuster and how it would turn out?

A: It’s turned out very nicely. Now I’ve seen the film, I was very pleasantly surprised. It felt good when we were making it but I was surprised at how good it really was. There were things I didn’t know Alfonso was doing. The first time I got the idea it could be quite accomplished, was one of the first times I appear when the cupboard is shaking and he showed me what he wanted to do. He said he’d start on the cupboard and we’re all reflected in the mirror and it’s going to go in, and in, into the mirror. Then, that’s the shot. Then we turn around and the mirror is behind us. Straight away, I thought “that’s a great idea”. And I love that shot going through the clock. The kids are saying “lets go” and run out of the room. The shot goes right through the clock and all the cogs, then it goes down, and you see the kids running. That’s beautiful. That’s worthy of the best.

Q: Since directing your own film, Cheeky, can you appreciate that sort of thing more?

A: Oh, yeah definitely, and this is the first thing I’ve done since directing myself. Alfonso makes it look so easy.

Q: Any plans to write and direct in the future?

A: Certainly to write. I don’t know about directing. Not right now anyway, because there’s just too much work but I may, I may. I don’t have huge ambitions to direct. I’m too lazy.