When Kristin Scott Thomas comes to mind, you most likely picture her as a gracious British mother or a heartfelt lover in a period piece. Yet with orange-tinted skin and a foul mouth, Scott Thomas transforms into your worst mommy nightmare in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives.”
The violent Bangkok noir and follow up to Refn’s 2011 “Drive” stars Scott Thomas as Crystal, the wicked, expletive-spewing mother to Ryan Gosling’s taciturn Julian. After her eldest son is murdered, Crystal is intent on revenge, but Julian’s half-hearted devotion to exact it leads to some nasty insults, including her shocking commentary on his genital size; there’s definitely some Oedipus complex at play here.
While “Only God Forgives” has received both boos and praise, Scott Thomas’s astounding performance is the film’s strongest facet. The British actress sat down with Moviefone to discuss the difficulty of her already-infamous dinner table scene (some seriously crude language leaves the elegant woman’s mouth) and how her character was inspired by the Greek tragedies.
Moviefone: Crystal is definitely very different from the usual characters you play.
Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever played anyone like [Crystal]. It was a relief to play someone who was blatantly bad. She didn’t need to have a window into why she was being so bad. She’s just atrocious, she’s just everybody’s nightmare mother, particularly [to] men. There was no justifying that evil, she was just purely horrible. That was quite a relief actually. Relief is not the right word, but it was quite a luxury to not have to save her some point as an actress.
What was it like to transition into playing a character with such an evil mindset?
It was made easier by the costume and the transformation, the way we chose to build her physically, to give her the wig and the orange skin and the nails. That was a way in. But I did find after a while this sort of heavy negativity, I found that quite difficult to sort of sustain and to bear as an actress. Sometimes I was just longing to be able to say something nice; it’s quite exhausting, quite debilitating.
Were there any famous movie mothers or actresses that inspired you in the part?
Not movies. No, I think that the inspiration is older than that. It’s sort of more like the Greek vengeful goddesses or the Greek plays. “Medea” for instance or Shakespeare, Lady Macbeth, or whoever it is in “Titus Andronicus,” I can’t remember her name. People who feed their husbands to their children or eat their babies, that kind of horrible thing.
What was the most challenging scene to shoot?
The scenes kind of developed as we went along. The most challenging scene was the first scene when [Crystal] appears, because we shot in chronological order. You knew that you had to nail it because it’s the first time the audience is seeing you and it’s the first time you’re playing this part. You’re walking into a space, this entrance. You know that this character coming through those doors, going up to the front desk at the hotel, and being so horrible to the woman at the desk — you know that’s the first (smacks hands). It’s kind of the tentpole if you like, this is what we’re going to base her on.
People in the audience have to know exactly who she is the moment she walks in the door. It was the first thing I ever shot so it was quite nerve-racking. Most movies it’s the first scene, “Oh I did her a bit like this so I’m going to do it…” and you can kind of patch things together. You can’t do patchwork when you’re shooting chronologically, you have to be just on it so it requires a lot of concentration as an actress.
And the scene at the dinner table…
Was really tough. It was really tough because there were words in there, particularly the “cum-dumpster” word that I find incredibly difficult to say. I thought it was because of the accent, but it wasn’t the accent. It was simply because I just couldn’t get it out, it got stuck; I just found it so offensive. In the beginning I said, “I can’t say that.” He [Refn] says, “Yes you can, you’ve got to say it.” So I said it, but as [I did] I was saying, “I cannot believe I am saying that word.” A lot of the film was like that — “I cannot believe I’m actually doing this.” But you are, you’re embodying this evil fantasy of a woman. The woman who compares her son’s penis to her other son’s, it’s just awful.
You’ve mentioned before how that line in particular was your idea, that it wasn’t written that way in the script.
We knew that the script was going to change a lot as we went along and we’d have these midnight Skyping conversations with the guy in London who was writing it. There was a scene when all these things were implied, one brother was the better brother, and I suddenly thought, “We’re just implying things, let’s not imply it let’s just say things.” Because it’s so shocking, it sort of breaks some kind of barrier. Instead of looking at me as if I was a complete nutcase, they all said, “Oh yeah, we’ll do that.” A lot of the times as an actor you have an idea and you say, “Oh do I daresay that? Am I going to get laughed at? Or are they going to be shocked?” But in this particular case we were all in it so deep.
What was it like working with Refn on set?
He’s remarkably soft-spoken and unaggressive and kind for somebody who sort of revels in the gore and guts. It’s extraordinary. The first thing he says to you always is “How do you want to do this?” Then you start working on it together and you do a lot of acting and then he says no acting, then you have to add a bit more. He’s just sort of playing with his palette, that’s what’s exciting, that’s what actors love to do, just change things. No two takes are the same, it’s really great.
The central characters in all of Refn’s films are males. What do you think Crystal’s strong female presence says about the nature of this film?
It’s all about mothers this film. The first thing he said to me is “You’re my mother’s favorite actress.” I said (laughs), “Oh I’ll do your film then!” That was his pickup line. I think it’s very important that the center of this little world is the mother, the woman. It’d be a completely different film if it wasn’t the mother, the creator, the life-giver.
Do you think you’ll play such a wicked character ever again?
(Laughs) I don’t know, who knows. I’m doing something far more like me as we speak. It’s called “Suite Francaise,” and the story is set in the Second World War. Yeah, I’m sure people will still keep asking me to play someone in fox fur and [with] a champagne glass.
“Only God Forgives” opens July 19.
This article was originally featured on Moviefone on July 17, 2013.