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In Atom Egoyan’s new film Guest of Honour, David Thewlis plays Jim, a punctilious food inspector keeping restaurateurs honest while trying to figure out why his daughter is doing jail time for a sexual assault. The inspector is another in a long series of unsavoury characters the British actor has played, starting with the seductive transient Johnny in Naked, a performance that launched Thewlis to stardom with a best actor win at Cannes in 1993. He has also played Professor Lupin, the teacher-cum-werewolf in the Harry Potter series and more recently branched into television, playing the crime boss V.M. Varga on Fargo and the eccentric land speculator Claude Trepagny on Barkskins.
What have you been doing for the past three months?
Playing guitar, cooking and carving wood. It’s something I have wanted to do since I was a little kid. So I finally got some knives and some good wood and some videos on how to do it. I’m just mucking around.
I also just finished writing a novel before lockdown, a black comedy set in the film world about an aging film director and a young actress. So I had been self-isolating for some time, not expecting what’s happened to happen. Obviously the past three months would have been the ideal time to be writing a novel. I handed it in exactly on the day England announced we all had to stay at home.
How were you cast in Guest of Honour?
In the straightforward way really: Atom sent the script to my agent, and my agent sent it to me. I was aware of Atom’s work, so it stood out from the pile. I was a big fan of his work; I read it, and I liked it immediately. I liked the idea of doing a character who was a little anal and unable to express himself, tortured, a much quieter character than I usually do, much less demonstrative. I play a lot of strange people. It was a great pleasure to play out some scenes with no dialogue whatsoever. That excited me.
I’m intrigued that you see him as different from others you’ve played because he does follow in a long line of creepy characters, from Naked to the Harry Potter films. What kind of roles do you like to play?
Anything I haven’t done before. If it’s something I recognize, it doesn’t interest me. And if it’s boring for me, it’s boring for the audience. I am always looking for something new and usually, yes, creepy … I’m not sure, Harry Potter, [Professor Lupin], he’s not creepy, is he?
We’re never sure if he’s a good guy or a bad guy. He’s an unsettling character. So is Jim the food inspector …
Yes, I tend to play someone with some darkness in them. This, on the surface, seemed like not such a complicated man, the complications were happening around him, and he’s just trying to get through. But obviously, he’s proactive in pushing the story along, in trying to understand the motivations of his daughter and how it reflects back on him and his failure to communicate. That’s key to this story, the tragic way we cannot be honest with each other, even within families. That is where this character’s complexity lies, and I do think that comes over as creepy.
So if you have not been cast as the sunshiny romantic lead, it’s your own choice?
Yeah. It doesn’t just have to be bad guys; I’ve played many good people. It’s curious. I look at my career, and I’ve played these really, awful, terrible ghastly people and the antithesis. The good people I’ve played tend to be very good, like Seven Years in Tibet or Restoration or Kingdom of Heaven, remarkably good people, almost monkish, saintly, shining virtue.
Guest of Honour is certainly a very moral film. The food inspector becomes corrupted by his guilt …
The choice of profession that Atom went for, it’s not a job we think much about. But it’s a job with enormous power and therefore with enormous potential for corruption; there’s a great chance for amorality in how he wields that power and how he manipulates the situation. He makes some very strange decisions.
When I am playing a character, I never think are they good or are they bad; we are all good and all bad in many ways. What I liked about him is that he’s subtly bad. He’s not killing anyone, but his actions in the past have certainly caused distress and lasting harm. And his actions at the time of the story are certainly questionable and also bring great harm. He’s unpredictable.
You have also done some really meaty roles on television lately, in Fargo and in Barkskins. Do you have any preference for the serials where you can develop a character over a longer arc?
Yes and no. You worry you are making wrong and therefore bad decisions as you go. It depends on communication with the writer – not so much the director because they are different [for different episodes.] In the case of Barkskins, Elwood [Reid] was writing as we were shooting. There were surprises for me in the development of that character. Sometimes that is a little unnerving. In film, you have the whole thing and can plot it out. I do like the uncertainty of TV – if it goes well.
And I have to ask if an actor ever escapes from appearing in a Harry Potter movie. Do people stop you in the street and ask you for advice on defence against the dark arts?
The people who kind of go nuts are getting older and older. They sometimes have children of their own whom they push forward and they want a picture with you because they just love the films. They push a four-year-old towards you, and I go, “It’s not that kid who loved the films, that kid’s too young. You are what, 30, 31?” It’s a nice thing to be part of film history. It’s easy to make people happy by having your photo taken or writing something for them.
Guest of Honour is available digitally on-demand starting July 10
This interview has been edited and condensed