If you serendipitously end up in an elevator with Steven Spielberg, make an impression. British actor David Thewlis did, though it may not have been quite the one he wanted.
In 1994, Thewlis was leaving an award ceremony in New York after accepting a prize for his lead role in Mike Leigh’s working-class dramedy “Naked.” He found himself riding down with Spielberg, who had just received an award for “Schindler’s List,” and the two had a brief, unremarkable exchange. But a few months later, Spielberg called him with an odd request: The director wanted Thewlis to play a man who turned into a dog.
“Is it something about my character in ‘Naked’ that makes you think I’d be good in that?” Thewlis asked, puzzled.
“No, it’s got nothing to do with that,” Spielberg told him, as Thewlis recently recalled. “It’s just that when I saw you in that elevator with your long hair, you reminded me of a large shaggy dog that I wanted to pet.”
The movie was never made, so Thewlis (whose hair is considerably shorter these days) didn’t get a chance to show off his canine chops. But the meeting stayed with Spielberg, who more than 15 years later made a follow-up call to Thewlis: He wanted the actor to play Lyons, the usurious landowner in his new dramatic epic “War Horse.”
The movie is one of three films that the hardworking Thewlis, 48, has appeared in this season, an intense spurt that had now led him to take some time off before his next job. He also plays Michael Aris, husband of the Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, in Luc Besson’s political drama “The Lady.” And he was the Queen Elizabeth advisor William Cecil in the Roland Emmerich Shakespeare-authorship drama “Anonymous.”
That last title is a fitting one. More than perhaps any actor around today, Thewlis deserves the sobriquet of “the most famous man you don’t recognize,” the one who, after the lights go up, prompts you to turn to your significant other and say, “Didn’t we just see him in something else?”
Since breaking out in “Naked” at the age of 30, Thewlis has made nearly three dozen movies, most famously playing the minor werewolf character Remus Lupin in multiple films in the “Harry Potter” franchise. He had a small turn in Terrence Malick’s “The New World.” He took — to his regret, he acknowledges — a part in “Basic Instinct 2.” He did one day on “The Big Lebowski.” (Thewlis played Knox Harrington, the friend of Maude Lebowski whom The Dude asks — also fittingly — “Who the … are you, man?”)
Thewlis says he doesn’t mind the anonymity. Yes, the public sometimes confuses him with Rhys Ifans, a fellow Brit, a matter that became a little thorny given that they both starred in “Anonymous.” And he doesn’t exactly collect $10-million paydays.
But he’s been able to make a nice living as an actor and has a lot of time to travel, giving him the mental space to read and write. (He published one literary novel, a well-reviewed black comedy titled “The Late Hector Kipling,” in 2007 and is working on a second one.) In a time when only the biggest stars seem able to get a movie made, Thewlis is proof that the workaday film actor is not an extinct species. He is also part of a small group of British thespians who seem to be getting their due in the U.S. in the last few years — Colin Firth and Gary Oldman, to name two.
Born in a North England seaside town, Thewlis spent his teenage years dreaming of becoming a musician but found himself in a London drama school because a few friends decided to go there. After “Naked” — he played Johnny, the fiercely intelligent but deeply combative antihero — he went on to star in a host of marginal 1990s movies, including period dramas such as “Total Eclipse,” in which he played the French Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, and fantasy ones such as “Dragonheart.”
“People sometimes say, ‘Why do you choose a part?’ and sometimes it’s not that I chose it but that that was the one that came along,” he said. “I did ‘Basic Instinct 2' because I had a baby about to be born and the director said we could shoot before the due date.” He pauses. “I guess the clue was in the title.”
Perhaps the most absurd reason for his taking a role came a few years ago when he was living in Los Angeles (he now lives in Paris) with his then-wife, the actress Anna Friel. Friel was in the United States on a work visa as she shot the now-canceled ABC series “Pushing Daisies.” But Thewlis and the couple’s infant daughter were here only on a tourist visa, and the actor was getting tired of leaving the country every three months with a young child to renew their visas.
So he called his agent and said, “I need a visa. Can you get me a job in the U.S.? I don’t care what it is.” And soon enough, Thewlis had a role as a doctor in an obscure drama called “Veronika Decides to Die,” a Sarah Michelle Gellar vehicle in which she forges a new identity after waking up in a mental institution.
The visa, which was good for several years, had a lot more staying power than the movie (which was never released in the United States). “The only problem is that it says the title on your passport. So now every time I come into the country the border guards will say, ‘Why does it say that Veronika has decided to die on your passport?’ It’s a good thing I didn’t do a movie called ‘Known Terrorist.’”
His recent parts offered a little more substance than his visa-enabling film. In “The Lady,” Thewlis plays the loyal husband of Suu Kyi (Michelle Yeoh) who stays behind in England raising their children while his wife leads a crusade against repression in her home country. It’s a movie he sees as a romance as much as a political saga. “It’s really a movie about love, I think; the politics are often beside the point in their relationship.” (The film had a small release at the end of the year and opens more widely in Los Angeles on March 23.)
And his turn in “Anonymous” allowed him to explore a meaty literary subject, even though he’s come to believe that director Emmerich’s postulate that the Lord of Oxford wrote many of Shakespeare’s plays is, as he puts it, “very obviously not true.”
As for “War Horse,” he says he remains grateful that Spielberg saw him in a certain light. “I think the best part of it,” he said, “is that he didn’t want me to play the horse.”