I once saw the actor David Thewlis begging for change in London’s West End. Grubby, dishevelled, and with a straggly beard, he was sitting in a doorway on the corner of Old Compton Street, with his hand out. He gave me a contemptuous look as I passed by, probably because instead of giving him any money, I recognised him from Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet (1990), for which I had helped make the trailer. Wow, I thought. He’s really fallen a long way down since Life is Sweet. Then I thought, if I saw him again – I passed the spot almost every day – I would stop and talk to him, find out what had happened, how such a promising young actor had ended up on the street.
A year or two later, I was asked to help make a trailer for Mike Leigh’s next film, Naked, and as soon as I saw that it was about Johnny, a homeless man played by David Thewlis – grubby, dishevelled, and with a straggly beard – I realised what had happened: he’d been researching. Wow, I thought. He really put his heart into that part. The film was incredible, and even though Mike Leigh wouldn’t let us go with my original idea of having the trailer narrated by Johnny himself (“Nobody else writes dialogue for the characters in my films,” Leigh explained), he did use my voiceover script almost word for word, albeit transposed to the third person.
A few years after this, I ran into David Thewlis again, in almost exactly the same place: Old Compton Street. Ironically, he was buying a copy of The Big Issue from a homeless person. I introduced myself, explaining how I had seen him on this very street, years ago, apparently begging – and that it wasn’t until I saw Mike Leigh’s Naked that I realised he must have been researching for the role of Johnny. He laughed. “How did it feel,” I asked him, “being out on the street like that, begging?” “Actually, it wasn’t too bad for me,” he admitted.
Then he pointed to a door on Old Compton Street. “My flat’s just here.”