Ricky Church chats with David Thewlis and Laysla De Oliveira about their new film Guest of Honour…
Over the Toronto International Film Festival, I got the chance to speak with David Thewlis and Laysla De Oliveira, who both star as father and daughter in Atom Egoyan’s latest film Guest of Honour. The film sees Thewlis as Jim, a city health inspector and father to Oliveira’s Veronica, a former high school music teacher who lands herself in jail and is not only content, but more than willing to stay there. As Jim deals with his daughter’s sentence, he throws himself further into his work and begins going after restaurateurs with more than professional zeal.
Guest of Honour (read our review here) deals with the themes of grief and guilt, examining the different ways a person processes their grief and channels it whether positive or negative. Thewlis and Oliveira gave strong performances and both were intrigued by the project due to Egoyan’s script. The non-linear structure of the story spoke to them both as it also looked at the idea of conflicting memories, especially in a family where a parent and child would have drastically different perspectives. Much of the somewhat contentious relationship between Jim and Veronica lies in how Veronica views her childhood, particularly one point in time that was tragic for them both with the loss of her mother.
“The thing that fascinates me about it is the exploration of memory and misinterpreted memory, therefore misinterpretation of one’s own history,” Thewlis explained. “I identify with that personally because I think the older one gets, the more you realize sometimes your own history is not reliable. I don’t know why it’s as you get older. I think maybe because I’ve just recently been conferring with my brother and my sister about certain things that happened in my childhood and finding out we have entirely different stories about it, which obviously relates to this because there’s a real ambiguity about how Veronica remembers the past and how I remember it or how I’m choosing to represent it to her or if indeed Jim is certain of his memory and she’s certain of her memory.”
As to how Thewlis and Oliveira began to explore their character’s own grief process, Oliveira said it was “a big rehearsal process with Atom and improvised scenes that weren’t in the film. He asked me a lot of questions as Veronica which I thought was so great. He’s so lovely, he had cut out articles for me to read. We just really broke Veronica into three pieces. Before jail, during and after and went through everything very, very carefully so when we actually went to shoot I was very much ready to go thanks to that rehearsal process.”
For Thewlis, it was a new experience for him because he never had a role that relied so much on grief such as this. “I think grief is obviously an enormous part of the story. And then the main things with Jim’s character is he’s a widower, he’s a heartbroken man for the loss of his wife, for the loss of his daughter effectively, and the distance from his daughter and being unable to get close to her,” he said. It forced him to tap into some his recent experiences in his own life and family. “I think grief is think is a hard thing to show necessarily on film because nothing much happens a lot of the time when it seems so internal and it’s so intangible. It’s interesting because I think it’s the first time I’ve played a grieving character. My mother died eight years ago and before that I’d never ever had a close death anywhere in my life and so if I’d played anything like this before, I was guessing or thinking that’s what grief must be like. When someone obviously very close to you does die, you realize that’s something entirely different, but then you can project it onto people who are still in your life and thinking ‘why is that person dying? How unbearable would that be?’ I think it’s a hard thing to put on film and to put it into a character because it’s not necessarily entertaining.”
Oliveira’s portrayal of Veronica is a memorable piece to the film because, due to the non-linear structure Egoyan employs, we see Veronica at three points in her life with each time played differently by Oliveira.
“We really tried to take something from each period that would make her different,” Oliveira explained. “In the beginning you have true love of music and add that lively element to the conducting. And then when I have scenes with my father, it’s in the present and to explore those moments that are still so triggering because there’s so much history there. And then in the end it’s the exploring having lost someone and questioning how you went about your life and your relationship with somebody that you loved, but was also difficult.”
Of course on the other side of their grief is the guilt they both feel, particularly Veronica whose deep self-guilt leads her to punish herself in a unique way. As Oliveira says, “Veronica has had experiences in her life from a very young age even then. Because of that she carries this darkness and I think in the beginning you don’t see it as much when you see her play her music. But towards the end I think it catches up to her which leads her to do something she feels is ultimately right for herself. But it’s definitely something that’s there that she carries.” While Veronica deals with her own guilt and even self-loathing, Thewlis views Jim’s form of guilt as something entirely different.
“I think Jim’s guilt is repressed guilt that he’s not faced up to before. Or is it is the denial of his guilt and of course the story is about him facing up to it, but it’s instigated by Veronica because she’s the one who started the story, invites this story to be told in, invites him to reassess what’s happened in the past and how much of it might be his fault. What I think we have to believe there was at the time she went to prison this was discussed between them. So we have to assume this has been something that’s been simmering for a long time and that the reason we’re looking at this period of the film now is it’s instigated by her to go ‘Dad, now’s the time to discuss this’, but I don’t think it’s something that he necessarily would’ve brought into the play.”
It’s surprising given the contentious relationship Jim and Veronica share that Thewlis and Oliveira only worked together very briefly, completing their scenes in just two days. “It doesn’t feel like it when you watched the film at all,” Thewlis agreed. ” I had entirely forgotten that it was the case, but I think we only met a day before or two days before. We shot those and I got to go off for the rest of the film so we barely got to know each other and we didn’t have time for a lot of rehearsals or discussions as well. I thought the relationship was just very instinctive.”
Oliveira also agreed and said it really came down to how well Egoyan’s script made their relationship clear. “It’s very much in the script. I think the first time I read it, or even before I read it, when I was just auditioning and read the side you could see how she felt about her father and certain things he said were so triggering because of their history. So I don’t think it’s something we discussed, but when we rehearsed it’s something we found and it felt natural.”
Thewlis elaborated even further on their process of getting into these characters, saying “It’s not always useful to discuss things between actors because your character doesn’t necessarily know that about my character and certainly things I’ve done in the past. I’m never a big one for discussing. I like to just do it sometimes and then look at the problems going out that’s not working. Why is it not working? I’m not crazy about sitting down for days and making lots of stuff up.” Oliveira added to Thewlis’ method of spontaneity, saying “It’s nice to when your scene partner delivers the line completely different than you thought it was going to be. That creates a special thing and an element of surprise and discovery it in the moment.”
“Because we didn’t have much time to get to know each other or rehearsing with, we’re discovering it on those scenes that you see,” Thewlis continued. “We’d never met before, I’d never seen her acting and suddenly we’re thrown into a situation where father and daughter have problems that go way, way back. There’s no way we could really rehearse that satisfactorily in a few days anyway so let’s see if it works like this. It felt natural straight away so we thought ‘let’s continue to focus on this.'”
Guest of Honour has no mainstream release yet, but it is set to play next at the Vancouver Film Festival next week.
Ricky Church – Follow me on Twitter for more movie news and nerd talk.