Filmed on location in Yorkshire, David Thewlis tells Sarah Freeman why landing a part in a new version of the JB Priestley classic was something of a homecoming.
When it comes to celebrity spotting, the seafront at Scarborough doesn’t often promise rich pickings. There’s the occasional sighting of a Chuckle Brother and the odd familiar face sometimes spills out of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s stage door, but it’s not a red carpet kind of place. It’s probably why when David Thewlis turned up there on his bicycle earlier this year no one batted an eyelid.
The actor, best known to a generation of now grown up Harry Potter fans for playing Professor Lupin, had been filming a new adaptation of JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls in Yorkshire when he took the opportunity to explore.
“While I grew up in Blackpool, my parents are from Yorkshire originally and all my aunties and uncles are from here,” he says. “It did feel in some ways like coming home, but there were so many places that I hadn’t ever seen that I decided to get myself a bike and see what I’d been missing
“We’d been to Bridlington as kids - I’ll always remember asking dad what was the point of going to another seaside resort when we lived in Blackpool - but we’d never gone to Scarborough, so off I went and it was pretty magical. I dropped into Whitby and stopped off at Staithes - I just had a lovely time exploring.”
For someone who has appeared alongside the likes of Leonardo di Caprio, Brad Pitt and Colin Firth and who has been directed by everyone from Ridley Scott to Mike Leigh and Terrence Malick, Thewlis is an unstarry kind of actor. Often mistaken for fellow actor Rhys Ifans, in the airbrushed world of show business, he’s also refreshingly just a little unkempt. Not that you’d know it from watching An Inspector Calls. The adaptation screens this weekend with Thewlis sporting a perfectly groomed moustache as Priestley’s Inspector Goole.
“I saw the play many years ago when Stephen Daldry directed it at the National. It was one of the best things I have ever seen at the theatre. The writing just blew me away. At the time I wasn’t old enough to play Goole, but as the years passed the production stuck in my head, so when I was offered the part it was a no brainer.”
The adaptation is part of a season celebrating the classics of English literature on the BBC. Written by Bradford-born Priestley in 1945 and set in 1912, the action takes place in one single night as members of the prosperous Birling family are grilled about their involvement in the apparent suicide of a young working class woman. The subject of numerous stage, film and small screen adaptations, this latest one was shot entirely on the writer’s old stomping ground with Saltaire and Salts Mill in particular featuring heavily.
“Most stage productions take place in the Birling’s dining room, but when you are making a television drama you have to show the wider world,” says Thewlis, who turned 52 this year. “Being in the same places that inspired Priestley’s writing definitely adds a certain something, although I didn’t get let out much. In fact I shot just one scene outside and that involved a girl vomiting so I was more than happy to stay put.”
Priestley’s play is favourite of GCSE and A-level exam boards and countless questions have been set around who Inspector Goole really is.
“There is a sense that he knows more than he is letting on and as the drama progresses there are questions over whether he is actually a police inspector at all or some kind of avenging angel sent to unsettle the Birling family. This adaptation definitely pushes the supernatural element. When I got the script, one of the first things I asked myself was ‘how does an actor play someone who might not be real at all’.
“In the end I came up with a device. I haven’t told anyone what that was, not even the director. Goole is a man with a lot of secrets and that one is mine.”
Given Thewlis starred in one of the biggest fantasy film series of recent years, it might seem odd that he initially struggled with the role of Inspector Goole. He played Professor Lupin in five of the Harry Potter films and when he does get stopped on the street, it’s the boy wizard most fans want to talk about.
“I now get lots of mums coming up to me and they’ll turn to their children and say, ‘So, you know who this is don’t you?’ Of course they don’t have a clue, it’s their parents who grew up with Harry Potter, but I don’t mind. It’s not that many actors that get a chance to be part of something so huge and if you can make someone happy with a quick autograph or an anecdote about what it was like on set then that’s an incredible privilege.”
Thewlis admits he never set out to be an actor. He had a pretty ordinary childhood in Blackpool where his parents ran a shop which sold wallpaper during the winter and toys during the summer - “no one wanted fancy goods in winter, but the guest houses were all redecorating, so out came the paint and wallpaper” - and he applied to drama school mainly as a way of moving to London and keeping his band together.
“We were called Door 66 and having seen a video of us the other day I can confirm that we weren’t very good. However, a couple of the band fancied going to drama school so I enrolled as well. As it turned out they didn’t end up sticking it out. They moved back to Blackpool, but I guess I unexpectedly found what I wanted to do.”
Thewlis graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1984 and waited the best part of a decade for his breakthrough role which came courtesy of Mike Leigh who cast him in the main role of Naked. The disturbing black comedy saw Thewlis win a clutch of Best Actor awards and the film provided a springboard for the rest of his career.
“It was certainly the most creative time I’ve ever had. Before we shot one scene we had eight months preparation and improvisation. Finances are such that you can’t really make films like that these days, more’s the pity.”
Since Naked, Thewlis has spent most of his adult life on the big and small screen. By contrast, his last appearance on the stage was more than 20 years ago.
“People think I must have made a conscious decision not to do theatre, but that’s not the case, it’s just that I don’t get offered many parts or at least nothing that’s really appeals. I’d love to do Beckett, so if anyone is looking to cast End Game, Waiting for Godot or Krapp’s Last Tape tell them I’d definitely be interested. Do you know what? I’d even love to do Happy Days,” he adds, referring to Beckett’s play where the sole female character is buried up to her neck. “Actually, maybe that’s not such a good idea. I suspect it would have Beckett turning in his grave. Still, if it all went wrong and I ended my career buried in a pile of sand it would be a pretty spectacular way to go.”
An Inspector Calls, BBC1, Sunday, 8.30pm.