He made bleak chic in Mike Leigh's film, but the end of the world isn't nigh for David Thewlis

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The presumptive contenders for Best Actor at this year’s New York Film Critics Circle Awards included Daniel Day-Lewis for In the Name of the Father, Anthony Hopkins for The Remains of the Day, Tom Hanks for Philadelphia, and Harvey Keitel for The Piano. And the winner was:

David Thewlis for Naked.

David who for what?

Most American moviegoers are clueless when it comes to Thewlis, but the scraggly 30-year-old Brit has been sweeping international awards ceremonies all year. His searing performance as a keenly intelligent, sadistic drifter in director Mike Leigh’s sooty portrait of London low life — currently playing in just over 20 theaters in the U.S. — won him a Best Actor prize at Cannes last spring and nominations from both the Boston Society of Film Critics and the London Film Critics’ Circle, which at press time was about to reveal its winners. Lately, there’s even been talk of a dark- horse Oscar nomination when the names are announced Feb. 9.

You can see quite a lot of Thewlis on display in Naked — and not just in that shadowy crotch-level nude scene at the beginning. Playing a super-articulate psycho slacker named Johnny, he opens the movie by raping a woman in a Manchester alleyway. Then he steals a car and motors to London, where he abuses his old girlfriend, cheats on his new one, snaps into self-destructive rages, and spews out such inspired gobs of nihilistic eloquence — on subjects ranging from chaos theory to the apocalypse — that you can’t help but like the guy. (Sample barrage: ”I’m never bored. That’s the trouble with everybody. You’re all so bored…. So now you just want cheap thrills and, like, plenty of them, and it doesn’t matter how tawdry or vacuous they are, as long as it’s new…as long as it flashes and f — -ing blinks in forty f — -ing different colors.”)

But what sets this performance apart from the pack is that every word is based on improvisation. ”The very first day of the project, we had nothing at all,” says Thewlis, calmly sipping decaf at a Manhattan hotel. ”No script, no characters, no ideas. We made up everything as we went along. That’s how Mike Leigh makes all his movies.”

Actually, the process is more involved than that. During the five months before filming, Leigh interviews his cast members, assigns them a character (usually based on one of the actor’s acquaintances), then cobbles together a script out of improvisation sessions. For the technique to succeed, the cast has to dive so deeply into Method acting that it would give Stanislavsky the bends.

”In a scripted movie, you don’t need to know what your character did on Christmas Day, 1974,” Thewlis explains. ”But in this film you never knew what would come up in improvisation, so you had to know everything. I had to know where Johnny went to school, who his best friends were, how he lost his virginity, when he learned to swim, what color toothbrush he had. I read all these books that Johnny would have read — Freud and physics and supernatural literature — so that I could create his own holistic philosophy. It got to the point where I was actually dreaming in character. At times I couldn’t detach myself. Just ask my wife [actress Sara Sugarman, whom Thewlis wed in April ’92, one month before Naked went into rehearsals]. I got rather abrasive around the house.”

Leigh offers a slightly different take: ”Well, it’s not like David flipped his lid or anything. I mean, if he really went around the bend he wouldn’t have been able to give such a technically brilliant performance.”

Thewlis’ pre-Naked résumé is, to put it politely, modest. He grew up in a working-class English resort town called Blackpool, kicked around a bit in a punk band named Horror Tackle #1, then attended London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama. After some stage and TV-commercial work (”I had this heavy Shakespearean training, and I was biting into chocolate bars, going ‘Mmmmm!”’), he landed a small part in Leigh’s 1991 art-house success, Life Is Sweet. Thewlis’ inspired improv in Sweet was to lick chocolate off of actress Jane Horrocks’ breasts. That TV-commercial work obviously paid off.

His post-Naked prospects are higher-profile. He’ll be playing a gay pimp, another ”sadistic bastard with no redeeming characteristics,” in Prime Suspect III (airing on PBS’ Mystery! starting April 28); then he’ll slip into a kinder role as a tubercular cabdriver in a big-screen remake of the children’s favorite Black Beauty (due this summer).

Even so, fame remains elusive. While Thewlis was flying back home to London from the Cannes festival, he says, ”the attendant announced that the Best Actor winner was on board and everybody clapped for me. I got a standing ovation on the plane.” He smiles an ironic, very British smile. ”But they still had no idea who I was.”


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