"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.