The Only God Forgives discusses abandoning her inhibitions for her most daring screen role to date.
Kristin Scott Thomas has been a permanent fixture on our screens for the best part of three decades. But you've never seen her like this before. Drenched in an acrid perfume of St Tropez and cigarette smoke, the typically elegant English-French actress is practically unrecognisable as Crystal, the salty matriarch to Ryan Gosling's crisis-ridden anti-hero in Nicolas Winding Refn's bloody revenge drama Only God Forgives. LWLies sat down with Scott Thomas recently to chat about creating this memorable character.
LWLies: How did your initial meeting with Nicolas Winding Refn go?
Scott Thomas: Well, when I received the script in an attachment from my agent I read a few pages of it and sent a very shirty message back saying 'You've clearly got the wrong actress. I think you should check which client this is destined for'. Turns out it was for me. So then I read it and I watched Bronson and absolutely loved it. I'm really not into violent films, but there was something so moving about it and so sort of pathetic about it, and sensual. And it's so beautifully shot, I just loved it. So Nicolas and I talked on the phone for a bit and then we met and... he's very eccentric.
How did you approach the role?
Apprehensively at first. But I was very excited. It was frightening in the beginning because she was supposed to be English but then they lost the English actor [who was later replaced by Ryan Gosling] and suddenly she was American. That really threw me. How on earth am I going to play a drug-trafficking bitch from Miami? The way to begin was to think of how I saw her and then use that, get in that way. The outside came before the inside.
How did you build the look of the character?
It was quite funny, I did a photo shoot for a fashion magazine where I was dressed up as six different people; one of them was a man, Johnny Hallyday; one of them was a woman, Donatella Versace. And when they photographed me like this, on the street, I was absolutely terrified by the way men in particular saw me, approached me, grabbed me, shouted at me... The effect on perfectly nice, ordinary middle-class men, what it did to them, was just unbelievable. So that was shock number one. Shock number two, after 15 minutes of this, was the idea that a woman would consciously, everyday, make a decision to put 10 layers of makeup on, wear the really tight skirt... To do that seemed like an act of war to me. It felt so foreign. And so that seemed like a way into this character who was afraid of nothing. It was an easy way in for me. So I sent this photograph to Nicolas and the reply I got was capital letters: 'LOVE IT!' So that was that.
What was it like filming in Asia?
I always love filming in different countries. I mean, film language is the same wherever you are, whether you're in Scotland or Thailand or Romania or South Africa... And they're very good at it over there, they've done a lot of films there. And it was an international cast and crew, all these people move around and that to me is the fun bit about it.
What is the film about for you?
It's a way of exploring these taboo situations and the horrific maternal nature she exudes. She is the nightmare. She represents everything all men are terrified of. We did a lot of Skype sessions and we'd talk about Crystal, amongst other things, and I would suggest things she could say. I'm going for it and I see all these guys' jaws drop. I think I went a bit too far on a few occasions. But Nicolas is gung-ho. His thing is, good taste is the worst enemy of creativity. It's very liberating to just think of the worst possible thing. The scene everyone's talking about is the dinner party scene where she uses a word that I can't even pronounce. I was asked the other day to translate it into French and I just couldn't do it. At the time I thought it didn't bother me and, you know, I'm an actor so just get on with it... But I did 14 takes, I just couldn't get it. After a while I realised I had a problem with the word and I thought I couldn't say it. The whole shoot was really an experiment of self. It was a seven-week therapy session.
How did the script develop during those Skype sessions?
What happened was we'd start with the script, the actors would sit down and we'd talk through it, and then we'd get on set it all shifted again because we were working within a frame and Nicolas knew what he wanted the frame to look like. But those Skype sessions were very important early on, especially in terms of finding the character. But the script changed all the time. [SPOILER ALERT] In fact, Crystal wasn't even supposed to die at the end, she was supposed to just fizzle out, so I ended up having to stay an extra week because he shots in chronological order.
Do you have a favourite line of Crystal's?
Favourite? God. There are certain lines which are so unbelievably awful I can't even bring myself to repeat them. I'm too much of a coward.