“She has no problem turning on the bitch switch,” Nicolas Winding Refn said of Kristin Scott Thomas at Cannes earlier this year where his latest “Only God Forgives” premiered in competition (it comes out in theaters and on VOD this Friday). No kidding. In the
writer-director’s ultra-violent follow-up to “Drive,” Scott Thomas deviates
from the upper crusty roles we’re accustomed to seeing her play in films
like “The English Patient” and “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” to
deliver a showstopping turn as Crystal, a foul-mouthed American
matriarch of a drug empire with long blond hair, nails for days and a love of Dolce & Gabbana.
While the film has proven to be divisive among critics, most agree that her scene-stealing performance is the bawdy highlight of the thriller and a huge achievement for the actress. I sat down with Scott Thomas in New York to discuss her surprising turn, the experience of working with Refn, and how costume informed her character.
At the Cannes press conference Nicolas said you have no problem turning on the “bitch switch.”
I know. What does that mean?
Well, what does that mean to you?
I found it quite upsetting.
No, I mean, I think he means how to be directly aggressive, how to attack, because I discovered that in this film about how there’s no subtlety in it — it’s either full on horrible anger and rage and destruction, or something else, but there’s no disguising of anything.
During our interview at Cannes he turned that statement a bit and said you needed to turn on the bitch switch.
He’s right about that, I did need something to let stuff out, because playing this part has exercised parts of me in my performances that I haven’t actually ever explored — this total rage and anger, I haven’t done that. So I did need to do it and I’m very glad I had to do. I’ve done it before in theater, that extreme behavior. Film doesn’t really deal with extremity — it’s too many close-ups — except for when you work with Nicolas Winding Refn.
Did it take any coaxing on his part to get you to take on a role like this? Did you have any reservations?
Not much. No. To begin with, when I was sent the screenplay, I thought “God, this is really good, but they’ve clearly sent it to the wrong person, because nobody wants me to do that.” So I rang my agent and said “You’ve got to check who your sending these scripts to because you sent to it me and it was clearly meant for someone else.” And they said “No, no, no it’s for you!” So I met Nicolas.
I’d watched his work before I met him and absolutely loved it; I found some of it quite difficult to watch, like “Valhalla Rising.” It was just — Vikings have never really appealed to me, and it was just so violent and dark miserable and wet and rainy. I didn’t like it. “Bronson,” on the other hand, I was totally bowled over by. I found he dealt with that story in such a… it’s a weird word to use, but it was very touching, it was a very touching film. I found myself weeping, even though it deals with intense violence and anger and rage and frustration, but it is incredible beautiful.
What did you make of this film? It demands the question, because I found it obscenely violent and dark.
It is an obscene film, but it’s also absolutely fascinating. You start watching it and you’re sucked into this world whether you like it or not, because you’re in there and you can’t really escape. It’s like being stuck in a nightmare; it’s not like watching a film, it’s like being in a bad dream. And it’s exciting, at the same time it’s worrying and at the same time it’s very powerful. It’s all these different emotions rolled up into one.
But that’s what were here for: that’s what making movies is about, that’s what doing theater is about. When you look at the Greek tragedies from over 2000 years ago, you know, the mother killing her own children, or “Titus Andronicus,” a woman feeding her husband to her son. All these monstrous things that very few people have actually done, but the fantasy of it stays in your imagination and that’s what we’re here for is to tell those stories. Beware of your own mother. I don’t know what the moral of the story is, this one…
Well I don’t know what the moral is, but in the press notes Nicolas says that the film was born out of an existential crisis that he went through. That it’s about a man who wants to fight God. Did the script come with a director’s note?
No, not really. When I read it, I thought “Oh, this is a great story about people being very mean to each other in Bangkok and what a laugh.” And then, when I met him he started talking about all those things, and I thought “Oh yeah, well this is less sort of vapid than I thought it was going to be. This is going to be an interesting journey.”
It’s a deeply rooted thing that he has about making movies. And that is incredibly attractive, and you want to belong to that. You want some of that rub off on you. You want that. That’s why I like working with people like him. Because it gives you a short of shot of energy for the next ten years.
You actually talk in this film, unlike Ryan Gosling’s character.
Well I don’t speak that much, but I speak the most.
This interview is continued on page 2.
How did you gauge what was too far, what to reign in? On paper I’m sure your role reads as pure camp, but you didn’t play her that way.
I didn’t decide any of those things. He decided them all. So basically you come on to the day’s work, having spent hours in makeup, and he says “So what do you want to do?” And there’s this sort of panic, like “Uhhhh, ummm… Dunno?” and then you start and once you start, I am the person that he will model into what he wants. So we do big takes, where I’m doing loads of enormous acting and then he brings it back down, and the he asks you to bring it up again.
When working with him, there weren’t takes — hardly ever. He just kept the camera rolling. He keeps going until he gets what he wants. And he’s actually softly spoken, very delicate, very kind, and doesn’t bark out things. He’s very gentle. It’s a weird thing to be directed so gently by someone who is creating such horror and obscenely violent scenes. But you know, he says himself he’s a pornographer, there’s the quality of the film.
How freeing was that experience, that mode of working?
I loved it. It’s heaven. And it’s a very, very rare thing on film, because you have to be so efficient on film. You have to nail it. If you don’t nail it then you don’t get another job. So constantly, your aim has to be true to be able to be realistic. And this is the absolute opposite. You’re not realistic, you’re pure fantasy. You try to be the worst possible case. The behavior is so outrageous. Basically we’re treating subject that are taboo in the film, such as the incest, such as the denial of your child. It’s just awful. And when she says “They wanted me to abort you, I should have aborted you,” it’s just awful.
Was it tough to say those lines given that you yourself are a mother?
Yeah, it was awful. One of the reasons that she is physically so different from how I am in other films or how I am normally was because that was also a defense. It was easier for me to be able to say all those things and do all those things in that getup then it would be had I been like this for example. Because you have an armor. I’ve been saying it’s like battle dress.
But the getup. To begin with, when we first started talking about this movie — and that was a long time ago, before he wrote “Drive” — she was English. The family were English. They had a different actor. That actor pulled out, and they had just finished doing “Drive,” and Nicolas said “One of my actors just left” and Ryan said “Well, I’ll do it.” And I said, “Well yes, but right does Ryan do an English accent? What kind of accent is Ryan going to do?” And he said “No, no, no, you’re going to be American.” And that completely freaked me out because I just had no reference.
What was your reference before?
Well, she was English gangland, I could relate to that. But somehow the drug thing implied — because we’d looked at “Cocaine Cowboys” — it implied something Latino, which wasn’t going to work. I don’t see how I could have done that. So we went the opposite way and I said “How about this?” And I showed a picture in a magazine of a photo shoot that I’d done where I’d was dressed up like Crystal, and they put me out on the street.
It was quite astonishing how people’s reaction to me dressed that way changed radically. Men particularly. I had one man actually try to grab me and take me off the street. Twice he tried. I had a good idea of what he wanted to do. And other men would shout things at me. The thought that someone could deliberately decide to experience that everyday by dressing up like that and having orange skin and nails out to here — it’s a life choice. To court that was completely fascinating. So that was the way into this character. She was somebody who is dressed for battle everyday.
Is that a way you typically work — through images, costume?
If I’m struggling over something, a good way in is the outside. “The English Patient” for example. I really wanted to play Hana [played by Juliette Binoche in the film] in that. I felt far more related to her. But then I decided my character just had to be blonde. It was the first time I’d dyed my hair. And “Four Weddings and the Funeral” as well. That’s a role where costume was vital — it was all about keeping it together.
I think costume is really interesting. It’s not just about vanity. This film is the proof. Things can work as a costume but you don’t look so great in them [laughs]. You have to be brave. On this film at the end of the shoot they said “You can keep your costume,” and I’m like “There’s no way I’m keeping that costume!” “But it’s from Dolce & Gabbana!” “I don’t care — I do not want it.”
I hope you kept that wig.
I did not keep that wig [laughs]. I stamped on that wig and burnt it.