Looking at Thomas’s romantic square from a fresh angle
Alison Jones hears from the stars of a new film about legendary Welsh poet Dylan Thomas what life is like living on the Edge of Love
“Like rugby and coal, we are sort of raised with Dylan Thomas. From an early age, Under Milk Wood has almost biblical connotations in Wales.”
Actors are always placed under additional pressure when they asked to portray a real person rather than ]ust a fictional character, they can feel the weight of expectation from those whose know or knew the subject whose mannerisms, physical quirks and emotional responses they are trying to recreate.
But that pressure is increased tenfold if the person in question has attained iconic status, as is the case with Thomas.
“There are not many Welsh people let alone Welsh icons so the pressure that came with it was pretty enormous,” says Matthew Rhys, who stars as the poet in the new film, Edge of Love
“I actually did a piece from Under Milk Wood for my RADA audition. The auditioner said ‘that’s rather obvious for a Welshman’. I hadn’t even thought of that,” he remarks drily.
Matthew shares a certain physicality with Thomas in that he has curly, dark hair and a similar puckish charm, before Dylan became bloated with booze. He is also Welsh born, though from Cardiff rather than Thomas’s native Swansea.
“Thomas tried to lose his ‘Dirty Jack’ Swansea accent as much as possible. He had a very plummy English accent when he first came to London. This is probably the only part I will ever play where I am attempting an English accent and if I slip and the Welsh comes through I am not going to be shot down for it,” adds the actor, who currently stars as the very American Kevin Walker in the hit US series Brothers and Sisters.
Matthew, as Dylan, is one side of a complicated and ultimately very messy romantic square in John Maybury’s biopic.
Set during the Blitz, which Maybury moodily recreates by having his stars stumbling about in the blackout, the darkness occasionally broken by torchlight or the spark of a cigarette, the rest of the quartet consists of Sienna Miller as Thomas’s fiery wife Caitlin, Keira Knightley as his childhood sweetheart Vera Phillips, and Cillian Murphy as Vera’s war-traumatised husband William Killick.
The script was penned by Sharman Macdonald, Keira’s playwright mother, who was inspired to write while watching her daughter performing cartwheels on the beach, her thoughts turning to the equally free-spirited Caitlin.
As time passed though and Keira grew into the kind of star who could expect, and get, first refusal on the plum parts, she angled to pay the meatier role of Vera, who, with her husband away and a baby to care for, finds herself seduced by the Thomases, first into funding their lifestyle and then into bedding Dylan.
The softly-spoken Sharman has been seduced by the Welsh poet, aurally at least, when she was working as a young actress in Scotland.
“I first met him when I played several parts in Under Milk Wood in Edinburgh when I was 19 and absolutely fell in love with him.
“When I started working on this project, I had his rhythms in my head. I had another three characters whom I had to bring to life and Rebekah’s (Gilbertson, the film’s producer and the granddaughter of Vera and William) were very generous and they allowed access to the family papers.”
Matthew met with Aeronwy, the Thomases’ daughter, and was able to draw from her memories of her famous father, who died of chronic alcohol poisoning in 1953, when she was just 11.
“I asked ‘what was he like physically’ and her answer was ‘a slug’,” he says.
“I tried to slow my walk down a bit and stoop a bit more and I tucked in heartily to the side of the research where I had to gain weight.
“The pictures that we know of Thomas when he was large were at the end of his life rather than this stage, so he wasn’t huge. I put on about a stone and a half on, which was a joy.”
Director John Maybury was brought on board by Keira, who had worked with him on The Jacket.
“Shar had shown me his film Love Is The Devil (about Frances Bacon) and we both sort of went ‘what an incredible talent’ I read the first draft of this piece when I was working on The Jacket with John and had so fallen in love with him I thought ‘he is the only person who can direct this’.
“So we wrote poems for him. We sent him Champagne and cakes... and he wouldn’t read it. But four year later, after a lot of talking to him, he finally read it.”
John acknowledges that he could be seen as a specialising in dysfunctional artistic geniuses.
“Certainly the dysfunctional part is an area of expertise. I like a drink and Love Is The Devil involved a lot of research in the Colony Room Club (an infamous Soho watering hole frequented by artists) and this involved following the Dylan Thomas pub trail,” he says.
“The reason I was reticent to get involved with this was I felt I had covered this territory already, though this is an earlier period.
“What really excited me about this was while Thomas was obviously a very significant character, there are two incredible strong beautiful female leads. That’s quite unusual...and I had never made a chick flick before,” he adds with a laugh.
Rather bizarrely, he had Lindsey Lohan in mind as an early contender to play Caitlin. When the troubled star dropped out, John brought Sienna on board with just a fortnight’s notice.
“I was on holiday in Mexico having just finished something and I got a call from John,” Sienna reveals. “He said ‘get out of the sun’ and that was it. I thought then there may be problems with casting.
“I went back and had two weeks to prepare which wasn’t enough. Normally, I would spend a lot more time researching and getting completely paranoid but that didn’t happen. I just jumped really, which suited the part because she was quite abandoned.”
But Sienna wasn’t the only to have her safety net whipped away on the film.
The scriptwriter and the director both conspired to introduce scenes where Keira was required to sing.
At the start, she can be seen keeping people’s spirits up by singing in the tube stations while London is being bombed.
“I was absolutely terrified. I thought my knees were going to buckle .The first couple of takes I sounded like a pubescent boy,” says Keira.
“I had gone into a studio and recorded it before hand and I thought I would just be miming to playback.
“Then on the morning, when there were 100 extras and God knows how many crew members about, John said ‘We want you to do it live’. I have never been more terrified in my entire life.
“But he did say that to me before we started ‘She is singing down a tube station. She doesn’t have to be completely brilliant’ so all of a sudden I thought ‘Okay, if I hit a wrong note I can say it was a character choice’.”
* Edge of Love is in cinemas now.