NEW YORK — Ever since moviegoers began viewing her domineering-mother performance in “Only God Forgives,” Kristin Scott Thomas has experienced an unusual reaction. People — males, usually — approach her to speak about the movie, only to find themselves cowering.
“Men come up and tremble. They have fear in their eyes after seeing the film,” she said in an interview at a midtown hotel recently. “It’s like, ‘the little boy is frightened.’”
In a multilingual career spanning three decades, Scott Thomas, 53, has played a roster of memorable figures, including the doomed lover in “The English Patient” and the ambiguous friend in French-language thriller “Tell No One.” But until she took on the role of Crystal, the Ma Barker manipulator in “Only God Forgives,” she has never been so menacing. It's enough to make us revisit how we see the BAFTA winner, who has generally been seen in upscale roles.
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The polarizing "Only God Forgives," currently in theaters and on video on-demand, marks Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow-up to 2011’s “Drive." Bloody and Oedipal, it reunites Refn and that film's star, Ryan Gosling, who plays Julian, a low-level Bangkok drug dealer in a position to avenge the death of his brother after he is killed by a ruthless crime boss.
Except for one slight problem — he has little desire to do so.
Enter Crystal, who with her leopard-print outfits and animal instincts goads her son to murder while emasculating him in the process. With her bottle-blond hair and devil-may-care air, the character doesn’t give a second thought to describing the size of her son’s genitals (or lack thereof) in front of him (or his girlfriend). As this is Refn, there's also violence of the actual kind.
So different is the role from Scott Thomas’ typical parts that when her agents first sent her the script, she thought they had mixed up her email address with that of another client. She eventually decided to take on the role, in part after being moved by Refn’s dark but haunting vision in the 2008 crime biopic “Bronson.”
Still, her work was just beginning. “I really hadn’t a clue how to approach this character,” Scott Thomas said, crossing her legs elegantly in a green designer dress. “But I had a breakthrough. I had just done a photo shoot in Paris dressed up as Donatella Versace and men who were nearby would get instantly aggressive; one actually tried to physically take me away with him. I knew that was my in.”
She went about hand-picking costumes that suited that brazen vulgarity. She went for the most outrageous not only because she thought it fit the character but because she thought it played down who she was, played down the Kristin Scott Thomas of it all.
"Whether you like it or not, actors bring luggage, and the disguise that I was in was also a disguise of my own luggage. Lady Brenda and ‘Gosford Park,’ forget all that," she said, referring in the former instance to her regal 1988 movie “A Handful of Dust.” She also began studying Greek tragedies and Shakespearean blood epics such as "Titus Andronicus"; if you're going to play a schemer hellbent on murder, might as well learn from the best.
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Scott Thomas is a mother herself, and at one point during the interview she took a call from her son reminding her to get Gosling’s autograph as they were promoting the film — “he’s 13 and doesn’t even want it for himself; he wants it to impress a girl,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
(Incidentally, Scott Thomas said she didn't know Gosling when she first signed on; she's too caught up in making movies, she said, to keep up with younger stars. She learned quickly, though, when she would tell people the name of her new co-star — "I mean, these were women of my generation, and the blood would literally drain from their face." The fact that there was sexual tension intrigued them more — never mind the small fact that she was playing his mother.)
After raising three children of her own, two already in their 20s, Scott Thomas said it was an adjustment to play a woman so oblivious to the tenets of good parenting. But she says the experience has been enough to change how she sees herself, no easy feat for a woman doing this as long as she has, and with such conviction.
Though she recently shot a film about Charles Dickens' lover and is currently shooting the WWII literary adaptation “Suite Française” — both projects that would have fit a pre-Crystal KST — the actress said the effects of starring in "Only God Forgives" continue to stay with her.
"When you make a beautiful nightmare like this — and that's what Nic has made, a beautiful nightmare — it changes how you think," she said. “I feel like now it’s a matter of ‘bring it on’ in terms of future roles. I don’t care about taste anymore."
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