Most American audiences know Rhys Ifans from his role as Spike in Notting Hill or will know him after seeing him as Ivan Schrank in the upcoming Greenberg. But he's also been stretching his legs dramatically, both on the screen and the stage, and he's playing real-life marijuana mogul Howard Marks in Mr. Nice, which premiered this week during SXSW. Ifans was a fan of Marks' before he'd even written the first autobiographical book that the film is based on, and according to him they entered a "pirate's contract" in which Marks had agreed to let him portray him if they ever made a film.
Remarkably, that actually ended up happening. We spoke with Rhys at SXSW about stepping into the role of a real life folk hero (or just hero if you ask Ifans), and he told us about the production, what it's like being an artisan, and why he continually tries to scare himself as an actor. Read on after the break for the full interview.
Cinematical: Bernard Rose said when he wrote this script, he had you in mind the whole time. Did he contact you after the script was finished or did he talk to you while it was in progress?
Rhys Ifans: I can't remember. All that happened is I touched base with Howard, and there is video evidence of this, and Howard was finally released from prison 20 years ago, we met in South Wales. I asked Howard, "If you ever write a book, can I play you?" He was naturally hesitant. But it has turned out good.
Was that several years ago?
Yeah, it was a long time ago.
So he is like a folk hero in the UK. People there know who he is. And over here, we haven't heard of him.
He is a folk hero in the UK. He is a hero in Wales. There is no folk.
Did you meet with him much over the process of filming the movie?
Yeah, Howard was ... you know, you'd think he would be a problem, or you think it would be a ball and chain to have the person you are playing on set. But in Howard's case, it wasn't. Howard was just enjoying the reenacting of his life, however inaccurate or accurate it was. After you have been incarcerated for so long, whatever story is told in the aftermath is beautiful. And Howard was just supportive. It was a pirate's contract. We shook hands. We shook hands before Howard wrote his book.
And then you ended up playing him, so it worked out perfectly.
So it's all good.
Was it a strange choice to have you play Howard from age 11 to the present day?
Well, it wasn't strange. You know, the whole film genre is one of deceit. It is the suspension of disbelief. That's what all theater and all film is based on. I think it was brave with Bernard's decision to do that. Of course, it was an economic choice. I think the choice Bernard made to let me play Howard as an 11 year old child, as me, of course there is the economic reason. But creatively, I think it is very great, you know? And if you can watch Avatar and believe that blue people 10 feet taller than us exist, then we can at least allow ourselves to embrace the youth of a great man.
What about all of the stock footage scenes where you work with greenscreen?
No, it was no more difficult. In most films now, you know, we are kind of stepping into a green or blue screen age. It is common, but that has been common in theater from its very beginning. If you step on a stage, for example, in Twelfth Night, you have to imagine, as an actor, you have to imagine Italy. So for an actor, it is not a problem. It is a problem for a technician, right? As an actor, our very palette is one of imagination. So it is a walk onto an empty space and then imagine the world beyond it is what we do.
That is part of the craft.
Right, that is not difficult at all. It is actually a luxury. Because then you get to engage creatively with the vision of your director or your writer or whoever. So that is a tired old mechanism. That's what we do.
This role is more dramatic than what we've seen you in before. Was that difficult?
No, it is a job. I am an artisan. I only became an artist when people watch what I do. That is when it becomes art. But when I go to work, I am not late. I learn my lines. It is factory floor. It is a job and I love my job. But art only happens in the introduction to what I do and the spectator. It happens in that nebula between ... yeah? I can get deeper if you would like me to.
I think you are plenty deep enough. [laughter] You do a lot of stage work. Is it something you do only when you have the chance, or do you seek it out between films?
Well, I need to be frightened on a regular basis. And regular, as an actor, kind of means four years. So every kind of four years, I need to remind myself about how fragile what I do as a craftsman is, but I always have to remember how frightening it is. It has to be scary. If it is not scary. If this job wasn't scary, it would be futile,ecause it is the most inane job that you could ever do. So you have to kind of validate your commitment, your emotional commitment.
So the stage does that? Keeps you frightened?
Yes it does. It's very simple. I wish I could make it more complicated, but it isn't. It is very simple.
Did this role scare you?
Yeah. If it is not scary, it is not worth doing. Why do people jump off mountains? Why do people jump out of planes?
Because it's scary?
Scary. It has got to be scary. You have to indulge and participate in a revolution, be it as an artist, or a craftsman, or a human being. It has got to scare the shit out of you. Why do something that is not scary? Why walk down the street when you can climb a mountain?
Have you talked to Howard since he's seen the film?
Yes. I saw Howard a few weeks ago. Howard is amazing. You know, I guess it is as strange for Howard as it is for me. Probably more strange for Howard. Howard would come on set while we were filming and he would enjoy it in the same way as I did -- enjoy the free food. All I have to say today is like Howard is a factory floor person. That is what elevates his poetry, and that is what elevates mine. I am factory floor. Don't be late. Learn your lines. Be good to people. Treat people nice. Yeah?
From my understanding of Howard, that is what he has done all his life, and that is how I operate. If you are making a film about someone, knowing that person is on set would be intimidating. Howard's presence on set validated everything I did. He was like beyond couth. Just a gentleman. He was there to witness his trajectory into the film world.
From real life to book to film
Did Bernard just set up the scenes and step back and let you guys go? Or was he very hands-on?
No, I think most takes we did in this movie was two takes. Two takes would have been greedy. It would have been perversion. So Bernard, when you work with Bernard on a set, you have to work like a theater actor, right? There is no time to fucking be vague. There is no time to address your performance in a scientific or psychological way. It is visible and it is immediate. And if you are brave enough and clever enough, which I am, you can embrace that, and then it is liberating.
David Thewlis really chews the scenery in this. What was it like working with him?
He is beautiful. I love him. I just wrapped up my third film with him this year. We are doing this Roland Emmerich movie called Anonymous about the well-documented and almost forensically substantiated theory that William Shakespeare didn't write his works. Again, it is a contentious issue, yeah?
Well, it will be the first time Roland Emmerich hasn't blown the world up.
Yeah, exactly! No, this is the first Roland Emmerich film where Roland Emmerich ... this is the beginning of a new world in Elizabethan England. This is where the world begins. So Roland, in terms of aesthetic, he has gone from ending the world to beginning the world, and it is very exciting.
That sounds good.
So it is the third film I've done with him.
So what was the first?
We did Mr. Nice, we did Harry Potter, and this will be the third film. So me and David, we don't do movies unless either of us are in it anymore.
When people come to that last scene in Mr. Nice, what do you think they go away with?
Well, I mean I have known Howard for years. I have known the family for years. What I am left with at the end of the film is a family. The currency of the film isn't marijuana. Whatever. It is irrelevant. It is about a family. That is all. I am just an actor. I am a dancing girl, you know?
Although Bernard discussed the appeal of the criminal life.
Bernard may have different opinions than me.There is no such thing as a criminal life. Life is life, and life is criminalized. No one ever, in the history of life, has chosen a criminal life. No one has ever said, "I want to be a criminal." No one ever has done that.
Is that true?
Yes it is!
Well, in Goodfellas, Henry Hill clearly wants to be a gangster.
In this case ... It is different.
Howard Marks was not a criminal. The thing he ate made him a criminal.
Well, we enjoyed your performance.
Thank you. I am just walking the footsteps of a good man, you know?
Thank you, nice to meet you.