Interview: David Thewlis on adult love, social change and ‘The Lady’

Posted by · 11:32 am · December 2nd, 2011

David Thewlis, like many of us, was only minimally familiar with the story of Aung San Suu Kyi when he was first presented with the script for director Luc Besson”s “The Lady.” The actor (who plays Suu Kyi”s husband Michael in the film) was aware of her as a Nobel laureate and political prisoner in Burma (known officially as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar), but did not know the story of her marriage, or that she had left her husband and two children behind in her fight. “I knew that there was a woman campaigning for democracy under a military regime,” he says.

I, too, possessed little more than iconic snapshot images of Suu Kyi and her work when I sat down to watch the film. I knew she was a leader of immeasurable courage. I knew of her now legendary walk past the raised guns of the Burmese military, a military that was prepared to kill without hesitation on behalf of an entrenched government that has ruled violently via repressive military dictatorship for decades. And yet they did not kill her. In my imagination, it was as though she was some unearthly figure, something so graceful that they could not bear to cut her down.

The truth, of course, is far more complex. Suu Kyi is all too human, a wife and a mother, an adept political thinker, and a unifying force for those who would seek democracy. The generals behind the repressive military rule understood that to kill Suu Kyi was to martyr her, thus immortalizing her political influence, as evidenced by the enduring power of her father”s image the man who negotiated freedom from the British Empire for Burma.

The distilled version of her life: Suu Kyi was born the daughter Aung San, commander of the Burma Independence Army. Her father was killed by his political rivals the very year he brought independence to Burma. Suu Kyi followed in her parents’ footsteps earning a B.A. from Oxford in Philosophy, Politics and Economics before working for the U.N. for three years. She married Dr. Michael Aris, a British scholar of Tibetan culture, in 1972. The couple had two children while she continued her political work in various forms from their home in England.

Suu Kyi flew to Rangoon (now named Yangon) in 1988 to care for her ailing mother, and stayed to lead a peaceful revolution. “The Lady” deals with the period between her return to Myanmar from England and her husband”s death in 1999. Drawing from her own Buddhist faith, as well as the lessons of Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent resistance, Suu became the leader of the National League for Democracy and, in so doing, resigned herself to two decades of house arrest. 

During the first years of her confinement, her husband and children were with her only five times. Phone service was limited, months, sometimes years of silence would fall between the couple. At the time of his passing, Michael had been denied access to Burma for five years. He died never having seen his wife again. Her children then went another near decade without the benefit of having either of their parents in their lives. “The Lady” focuses on the shape of her leadership as well as the couple’s struggle to maintain a marriage in the face of unending distance. 

As such, the film functions in part as what Thewlis describes as an unusual love story. “It’s not about two people falling in love,” he says. “It’s the story of a marriage that is 16 years underway at the very beginning of the film.” And it’s unusual in the sense that it is not about ending up together, it is about staying together in the midst of what are, for most of us, unimaginable circumstances.

“It was about deep, deep, deep commitment and being passionate,” Thewlis says of the film. Michael”s commitment to his marriage and Suu Kyi”s commitment to both her marriage and Burma speak to strength of will, and to a faith that very few of us are endowed with.

“In studying Michael — I had access to some footage of him — he almost appeared to be from another age,” Thewlis says. “His speaking voice was very anachronistic. He seemed not to be of this generation. He was very, very British, as I”m sure Europeans or Americans would consider British people to be. Very stiff upper lip, quite stoical and a very calm man. At least that’s how he presented himself in public. I”m sure there were times in his private life where he wasn’t so calm. We don’t know much about those times. Maybe that’s why they found each other, because they both had a resolute quality, of patience and steadfastness that attracted one to the other. They are enormously passionate people. But enormously patient people.”

The sense of serene composure that these two characters possess supports the depiction of a born leader, but it occasionally detracts from what we commonly (and perhaps immaturely) interpret as “passionate love.” One of the central questions the film raises (inadvertently or not) is whether Suu Kyi has made the right choice. She, at any time, could have returned to Britain and her family, but she most assuredly would never again have been allowed within Burma”s boarders once she left them.

“It depends if you look at it from the point of view of Burma or the point of view of her family,” Thewlis said of Suu Kyi”s choice. “Whether it was the right thing to do for her husband and her children is an open question that must be judged by anyone who knows about the story and not the least by her husband and children themselves. That”s a moral question, isn’t it? A very personal, existential question. Her fight is still going on now as we speak. She certainly did the right thing for her country, if what is happening now with the very slight reforms continue forward and if the democratic movement intensifies and brings less suffering to the people. 

“As she has always said, she has suffered and her family has suffered, but not nearly so much as many, many thousands of people have suffered in that country.”

The question becomes, could she have done this as the Dali Lama has done and been a leader in exile? Perhaps, but Thewlis calls that changing history.

“Maybe she could have done that,” he says. “Maybe she could still do that. I doubt that she’ll make any move now. Of course she could have left, but I don’t think that people would have held her in such high regard and I don’t think that the National League of Democracy would have won the election had she left at that time, because she brought focus. There were so many different parties at the time of the election. And the generals were determined to split the vote between so many people, so they allowed so many people to form parties. I think the NLD won because of her leadership and her presence in the country as opposed to any other party.”

The changes in Burma have come in fits and starts, which is one reason that the current shifts in policy are being eyed with cautious optimism. Yesterday, on the eve of the film”s release, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Aung San Suu Kyi vowing that, “One political prisoner is one too many in our view.” Her historic visit (it has been 50 years since a U.S. secretary of State has visited the nation) could denote changes to come, or it could be the government of Myanmar giving lip service for economic benefits. 

Michelle Yeoh, who plays Suu Kyi in the film, was deported from Burma while visiting with Suu Kyi. Thewlis was himself banned from China for his participation in the film “Seven Years In Tibet” and has experienced some of the frustrations that are necessarily a part of an effort toward social change. He has seen people become a part of the Free Tibet movement as a result of seeing that film, and he has seen China continue to restrict the autonomy of the Tibetan people.

“All one can do for now is raise the profile of the evil that is being visited on this nation,” the actor said of “The Lady,” Suu Kyi, and Burma. “And hopefully draw people”s attention to something that needs some light casting on it right now.”

“The Lady” opens in a limited release today.

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