Appreciation Post: David Thewlis

In this week’s post, I want to talk about an actor I adore, but first and foremost, it’s necessary to talk about something that all actors need if they don’t want to get typecast; range.

There are two kinds of versatility – more commonly called range – that actors tend to strive for. One is range within a single performance, and the other being range from role to role. For (a cliched) example, Orson Welles conveys the full range of emotion as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane – that single performance shows him go through everything. Compare that to Heath Ledger, who starred in action movies, dramas, romantic comedies, and seemingly everything in between. By contrast, Johnny Depp has taken many of the same roles since 2003, with his performances in Pirates of the Caribbean, the Lone Ranger, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Alice In Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Sweeny Todd seeming more or less the same. He doesn’t seem to have versatility from role to role (with some exceptions), and few of the performances have any range.

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One of the crowning achievements from Henry Fonda’s acting career was the contrast he showed in two of his most acclaimed performances. In 1957, he starred in 12 Angry Men as an earnest, honest, logical, and kind man who was the only person on a jury of, well, 12 Angry Men not to immediately presume the guilt of a teenager and send him to death row. For context, his other best known performance up to that point was Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. Of all the good-hearted movie characters a person should strive to emulate, I can think of few better than Fonda’s Juror #8. At that point, Fonda was the kind of actor you looked for if you were looking to cast a genuine good guy.

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…So naturally, when it came time for Sergio Leone to cast Once Upon a Time in the West, his spaghetti Western follow-up to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, he cast Henry Fonda as the villain. His character does a wide variety of terrible things throughout the course of the movie, starting with the massacre of an entire family. Fonda’s character Frank is far and away the best villain in any western/cowboy movie. And it would be one thing if we were just told “Oh, he’s bad, he kills people,” but Fonda truly looks the part. Everything about him, the way he looks rugged and jaded, right down to how he carries himself – it’s almost impossible to watch this character and remember Juror #8.

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And there are few other actors that I can think of that so perfectly can do both ends of the hero-and-villain spectrum. This most prominently includes British David Thewlis, who I think might be the most underrated actor in Hollywood.

With Thewlis, a good place to start is with his appearance as Remus Lupin in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of AzkabanAzkaban is probably the most critically acclaimed of the eight Harry Potter movies, and while I wouldn’t give Thewlis all the credit there, I don’t think it’s incidental. He’s definitely an emotional center among the adults in this movie, and provides a father figure which up to this point in the series, Harry hasn’t really had. And Thewlis really sells it.

He’s scholarly, he’s kind, he’s encouraging. And, at times when Harry disappoints him, he’s angry. Lupin is a very dynamic role, and Thewlis plays it pitch perfect. He’s a pleasure to watch.

There’s this kind sadness to everything Thewlis does as Lupin. I think Lupin is a role that most actors could probably handle sufficiently, but I think it’s a role that very few actors could have handled as deftly as Thewlis did. He really brought the character to life in a unique way, and there’s a reason why he comes back in four more of the movies, where they could have cut him out for some of them. Not only is he a frequently recurring character, but he often holds his own in the scenes he shares with acting legend Gary Oldman.

After Harry Potter, David Thewlis has found some pretty admirable success. In film, he has appeared in The Theory of Everything, played a significant role in Wonder Woman, and – for better or worse – is slated to be in the first and second sequel to James Cameron’s Avatar, which nobody really wants but everyone will soon get. So there’s that. I wouldn’t guarantee that either of those movies are going to be good, but it’s good for Thewlis, and if he gets more roles, then it’s good for Hollywood.

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I decided I would write this post after seeing the above tweet, highlighting Thewlis’ role in the Netflix adult cartoon Big Mouth. I don’t personally watch Big Mouth, but I know enough about it to hear that David Thewlis is on that show makes me say, “Huh, that’s odd.”

But before this, in 2017, there was his appearance on Fargo.

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In the first episode of Fargo‘s third season, Emmit, played by Ewan McGregor, identifies the episode’s conflict in the first scene. His business borrowed a large sum of money from a shady firm and wants to pay it back, but can’t get back in touch with the shady firm to pay back their loan. And about halfway through the episode, the firm sends a representative to meet with Emmit’s company. This associate is VM Varga.

Something you might have noticed about Thewlis is that, when he was playing Lupin, he’s slightly handsome in the way a benevolent mid-life professor. In Fargo, on the other hand, he’s deliberately unattractive. His hair is thin, his teeth are rotted, and the British accent (although no different in pronunciation) which was once suave and scholarly is now exceedingly creepy.

Varga informs Emmit that the money his firm loaned Emmit was not a loan, but in fact was an investment, and now Varga is a partial owner of the company. Emmit and his associate try to explain how they’re able to pay the loan back, but he’s having none of it. “You keep it,” Varga says. At the start of the meeting, when Emmit tries to shake his hand, Varga doesn’t even get up. Throughout the whole scene, Thewlis’ face displays a sensation of curious bemusement.

Thewlis conveys Varga’s ominous nature when a Emmit’s right-hand man refers to the investment as a loan; “You never thought to ask why we might lend you one million dollars with no collateral required?” He says this with such polite irritation, as though he’s explaining it to a child. And that’s the core of Thewlis’ performance here – there’s something casusally bold about him. He’s always polite, but always in charge. That’s an impressive balance to strike.

 

Context is important in a situation like this. Thewlis’ appearance in Fargo is even more creepy since we trusted him in Harry Potter. It remains incredibly jarring to see an actor who you recognize from a friendly, fatherly, role – in the case of Remus Lupin, one who many people my age grew up with – suddenly playing the role of a mysterious, unpleasant-looking mobster.

Obviously, more than just a single actor goes into a character; the director has a colossal input, as do the writers, costume designers, and make up artists. In the case of a character like Frank from Once Upon a Time in the West, the influence of the composer can’t be understated, with Ennio Morricone’s iconic score creating the perfect calling card that helps make Henry Fonda into a psychopathic murder. The small details help to make the character as well – Fargo‘s V.M. Varga is made that much more mysterious by the fact that he never elaborates on what his first name is. As far as we know, it’s just “VM.”

But, at the core of a performance, is one actor or actress who helps to bring all of it – the writing, the costume design, the score, the make-up – to bring it all together. And if there’s one thing I mean to suggest with this post, it’s that nobody brings it all together quite like David Thewlis.

 

  • What’s your favorite David Thewlis movie?

  • Who should I write an Appreciation Post about next?

7 thoughts on “Appreciation Post: David Thewlis

    1. Fargo S3 is a wild ride. After the first season, I wouldn’t have guessed that they’d end up having a villain that was almost or equally as good as Billy Bob Thornton, but Thewlis rocks it.
      And I definitely think that Azkaban is the best movie, and perhaps the best book as well.

      Thanks for reading, Mayur!

      Liked by 1 person

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