The Artful Dodger, released on Disney+ at the end of November, is a delightful extension of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist that imagines Jack Dawkins, AKA the Artful Dodger, convicted and sent to Australia, where he takes up a double life as a surgeon and ‘reformed’ thief.
In ‘the Colony’ he meets Captain Lucien Gaines, played by Australian actor Damon Herriman, whose keen eye he must evade if he is to continue his ruse. This endeavour becomes even tougher when Dodger’s old master Fagin, played by a gleeful David Thewlis, unexpectedly re-enters the picture and manipulates him back into a life of crime.
Our reviewer Stephen A Russell gave it three and a half stars, and reckons Thewlis really ‘comes into his own’ as Fagin, and that Herriman gives Mendo ‘a good run for his Australian villain status’ as Captain Gaines.
We spoke to both Damon Herriman and David Thewlis about shaved heads & mutton chops, the pressure of Dickens, and shooting in the Sydney heat during their Artful Dodger press tour.
David, what sort of preparation did you take to play Fagin, given he’s such a well known character across stage and screen?
David Thewlis: The first thing I did was watch past performances, every one I could get hold of, which I wouldn’t normally do. I went back and watched the David Lean [Oliver Twist, 1948], I watched the Polanski [Oliver Twist, 2005], I watched the Carol Reed musical [Oliver!, 1968], which is what most people will be referring to when they think about Oliver Twist. And that one was particularly dear to me, because I grew up watching it and it’s the thing that influenced me the most.
Apart from that I just knuckled down to learning the wonderful writing of the scripts. I can’t stress enough that these scripts were superb, truly some of the best I’ve ever had. We were in very good hands with the writers.
How did you find the balance between the character’s humour and menace?
Thewlis: What attracted me to it initially was was how amusing it was on the page. I’d wanted to do something a bit more comedic than I’ve been doing in previous years, and when I first read it I thought it was so funny. The menace creeps up on you a little bit. At the beginning it’s easy not to take Fagin too seriously, and then he is literally torturing someone at one point – which I didn’t see coming. But I thought it was very important to remember that he has very dark origins, and not to make him too adorable.
Fagin has a very unglamorous look about him. Was it what was it like being covered in dirt all day? I imagine it must have been pretty hot.
Thewlis: Well, I don’t know what you mean, I wasn’t covered in dirt! [laughs]. You know, one of the things I loved was getting to make such a transformation in my appearance, shaving my head and so on, to play Fagin. I think if I wasn’t an actor, I’d shave my head all the time. I loved being able to walk around Sydney feeling like a completely different person. What’s funny is I thought I’d save myself some time in makeup by shaving my head and not wearing a wig – but it ended up taking longer to put all that dirt on me than it would have taken to put on a wig. It took about an hour a day to get a filthy head.
If I wasn’t an actor, I’d shave my head all the time.David Thewlis
How does filming in Australia compare to filming in the UK and the US?
Thewlis: It is completely different. I just loved it. I adore this city and this country, and I adore the people. My favourite day of filming was by the ocean in Botany Bay when we shot the duel scene – that was just a pure joy, to be breathing that air.
Damon, your character is a new invention and not in the original Dickens. Did it feel easier to approach that as an actor?
Damon Herriman: I think it’s a bit easier. All I had was the script and the discussions I had with [showrunner] James McNamara and [director] Jeffrey Walker. I thought Gaines was pretty much there on the page – and then I turned up and put on the costume and looked in the mirror and went: ‘Okay, I know who this is’. There is something about seeing yourself with the sideburns, the big mutton chops, and that ridiculous hairstyle that does a lot of the work for you.
I think if I was playing one of the other established roles, then there might be a pressure to do things a certain way. So I had a nice bit of freedom in not needing to live up to anything, really.
You and David are both playing antagonists. How did you work to ensure that portrayals complemented each other without clashing?
Thewlis: I never really saw myself as an antagonist in the show, because Gaines is really the villain of the show. I saw my role as antithetical to that, because Fagin is a more sympathetic character. Although he is technically a villain, it’s more about his relationship with the Dodger, and the crazy get-rich-quick schemes he comes up with. He’s constantly running away from the real bad guys.
Herriman: They’re also so different class wise – Fagan’s working-class and Gaines is a part of high society. He’s working for the law. We are ultimately rooting for Fagan in this show, but Gaines? Not so much.
What were the best and worst parts of being on location in New South Wales?
Thewlis: As I said earlier, the best part for me was the day we shot the duel. Partly because it was just such a beautiful, incredible location that I’m not used to filming at, and partly because most of the cast were there together and it had a real party atmosphere. That day lives on in my memory – it was like going on a holiday. I got lots of photographs.
My worst moment was going into the bush and meeting leeches. My biggest worry about Australia was everything I’d heard about the insect life here, and it confirmed that within minutes by having these things crawling up my feet and going in my socks.
Herriman: It’s great being able to do jobs at home, and I live here in Sydney so that was nice. I suppose if there was anything worth mentioning it’s enduring the heat in all those layers of costumes. Sydney has really humid weather a lot of the time and that was quite uncomfortable. Apart from that it really was a joy to make this show.
The Artful Dodger is now streaming on Disney+.