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The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas - David Thewlis and Rupert Friend interview

David Thewlis in The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas.

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DAVID Thewlis and Rupert Friend talk about the challenge of playing Nazi officers in The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, as well as some of the research they did in attempting to come to terms with their characters’ actions.

They also discuss some of the implications of what it must have been like to live in Germany at that time and forthcoming movie projects, including a new film on the life of Queen Victoria.

Q. Can you explain where you went and what you did as part of your research for playing your characters?
David Thewlis: I just think you have to… you can’t do something like this and just learn the lines, put on an accent and comb your hair funny and turn up and do it, you really had to research it for the integrity of the piece. My own knowledge of this period is from watching World At War, in the ’70s, and then reading various books and watching movies and documentaries. But I had never read it in any detail at the level I thought was required to pay respect to this piece. So, I read everything I could get my hands on, watched some wonderful documentaries – the BBC’s Auschwitz most memorably – and an incredible documentary called Night and Fog, a 1950s documentary, and the German film Downfall, which was the only movie I watched, and I read the auto-biography of Rudolf Hoess, the commandant at Auschwitz. So, really I just immersed myself in it so that when you were on set you thought you were somehow wearing this history.

In the case of Night And Fog, it contained footage that I don’t think is very often seen these days, it’s so graphic. I watched that over and over in an attempt to de-sensitise myself and start feeling nothing, which I couldn’t… it’s impossible to understand these people. I couldn’t say I got into the head of the character and I wouldn’t want to say I got inside the head of the character.

Q. Is it a hard choice to take on a role like that?
David Thewlis: Not at all. It was a very easy choice, I read the script, I read the book the same day, rang the folks and said: “Yes, absolutely.” There was no hesitation at all.

Rupert Friend: I definitely knew I wanted to be a part of the project unequivocally, but I did have reservations about how I, as an actor and as a human being, would literally do what was required of me. It was something that was utterly alien to morality, my sensibility, my sense of what’s right, so there was a big pause when I thought: “I can’t let this piece down…” because it needs to be made and made well. I would love to be part of that but they had to get the right guy for this… not just me. I said that to the director. But then I suppose I kind of realised that if we’re serving the story and the event that we’re talking about, you were going to have immerse yourself, delve deep and try to understand a completely opposite mentality to your own, which is what acting is. But it was definitely a challenge.

Q. Where do you stand on the Holocaust and the German nation saying they didn’t know what was going on?
David Thewlis: In Rudolf Hoess’s book he says his wife didn’t find out for two years (what was going on in the camps) even though she was living there, raising his children there. She didn’t know and it was only a chance remark made by a subordinate to her husband, and that is very well documented. It’s understood that she did not know. But she did then go on and have another child and continued to live there, so it’s different from our film.

Q. Did you visit Auschwitz?
David Thewlis: I personally didn’t. I did intend to go but it was a time restriction and I didn’t have enough time to go.

Rupert Friend: I already find the whole thing horrific and I don’t need to be reminded that it’s horrific. I needed to change my perception, to think of it as normal. Now that sounds really weird, but if I’d gone there, it would have hit me in the stomach and I would have gone: “I don’t know how to pretend that this behaviour is normal and to behave this way to an old man and two boys as if they were not even cattle… just kind of vermin.” I didn’t need any reminding of how bad it was. As David [Thewlis] said, soldiers are encouraged to de-sensitise themselves to commit these atrocities and I had to avoid all the judgemental hindsight that we now have in order to imagine that it was contemporary and normal.

Q. How easy was it to then leave that character behind at the end of the day, particularly after some of the harsher scenes?
Rupert Friend: I’d say it’s quite lonely because you’re going home and then you’re not going to work to do a buddy movie. It’s not a war film like we’re all in the trenches together. It’s a very fractured family – there’s big divisions that get wider and wider between all of the factions of the family. My character has no friends and no family and the one family that he’s got, gives him his marching orders to what is, basically, a death sentence. So, it’s quite a lonely head space to be in.

Q. The young cast in this film give incredible performances, but especially Asa Butterfield as Bruno…
David Thewlis: Yeah, he’s incredible. I think all of them are… I think it’s three of the best child performances in recent memory in British film.

Rupert Friend: I loved how much humour there was. I didn’t obviously see a lot of his scenes [while filming] but when I watched the film, the audience was laughing. He’s brilliant in the way he rolls his eyes whenever he’s told anything, because that’s exactly what you do when you’re a kid and everything seems so laborious. He’s so un-stage schooly. You see some kids and you recognise that they’ve been told: “You stand still, you smile… teeth, tits and arse… and all that stuff.” But these guys were just responding naturally, which is exactly what good acting is.

Q. How did you go about building your relationship with Asa, because it’s a very complex one? He is, to all intents, a monster and yet he’s a father too, who loves his son…
David Thewlis: There wasn’t a lot of talk and analysis, I think it was just very instinctive. I think Mark cast everything very well. They’re not stage-school kids, they are very instinctive, so there wasn’t a lot of discussion between me and Asa… there was a lot mucking about between me and Asa, he’s a kid and was excited about being on a film set. We had food fights and a lot of jokes, so the bond came out of that and enjoying their sense of humour.

Q. And they’d seen you in Harry Potter, I suppose…
David Thewlis: I don’t think they were that impressed to be honest. They got over that at the read-through. They were their own little people and Asa is the star of a film now, so…

Q. Did you ever see your character as a monster, or try to view him as a man simply doing his duty for his country?
David Thewlis: Well, because I based it on this thing I read… if you read Rudolph Hoess’ biography, I think you would think he is a monster. Hoess does try to justify himself, that he was brought up in the military, he was in prison himself for nine years… there’s such crap in this book, to be honest. There’s one point in the book when here claims to have shed a tear after he’s gassed 900 Russians just to test the efficiency of the chambers. He was watching through a peephole to see how quickly they died, and he said: “I must admit, I shed a tear.” So, if that’s your reaction, you clearly are a monster. I’m not playing him, but what was going on in my head was based on that reading.

Q. What do you move onto after a piece like this?
Rupert Friend: I was very lucky, actually, the next script that I was asked to do was the story about Queen Victoria and Prince Albert [The Young Victoria]. Nobody knows much about Prince Albert but he was one of the goodest people that I have ever, ever come across. He was often referred to as Albert the good. He was an absolutely good man… and another German [laughs], but a German that worked tirelessly for a country that wasn’t even his own. So, it was an amazing… not relief, because I’m absolutely so proud to be in this, but it was a relief to change perception again. I don’t know if I could have stayed in that state of mind for another film. Emily Blunt plays Victoria in it.

David Thewlis: Well, straight after I completed this I flew from Budapest and did something that’s already been on TV in this country, The Street on the BBC, for Jimmy McGovern. Then, the next thing I have coming out is an adaptation of Paulo Coelho’s Veronika Decides To Die, by the British director Emily Young. I play the psychiatrist in that movie. But I can’t say what I’m doing next because it’s not official yet.

Read our review of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas

Read our interview with Vera Farmiga