Kristin Scott Thomas: Out of Character

The British actress discusses the great lengths she went to in order to play a drug ring queen in Only God Forgives.

'Only God Forgives' Photocall - The 66th Annual Cannes Film Festival

When Only God Forgives, the viciously violent new thriller from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn of Drive renown, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival two months ago, it was met with boos. Yet Kristin Scott Thomas’ performance got such raves that some speculated about an Oscar nomination. It is easy to see why: as Crystal, an American drug ring queen with the wardrobe of a Real Housewife and the diction of a truck driver, the normally refined Scott Thomas is deliciously evil.

Curled up on a sofa at the Mandarin Oriental New York, dressed in a green Lanvin dress and strappy black Yves Saint Laurent heels, Scott Thomas, 53, is a ladylike contrast to the tanned, blonde-extension-bedecked Crystal. Here, the actress discusses foul language, Botox and becoming the devil incarnate.

Nicolas has said he lured you into doing this film by saying you were his mother’s favorite actress. Was that the clincher? I just thought that was so funny—the most original pick-up line I’ve ever heard!

I imagine there were other reasons for taking on this role… When I first received the screenplay, I was convinced that my agent had sent it to me by mistake—it was so unlike anything I’d ever read before. But I really enjoyed it and thought, Who is the madman that wants me to do it? And then I watched [Nicolas’s] film Bronson and I really loved it.

There is a scene in which you compare your two sons’ genitalia and ask your son Julian’s date “How many cocks can you entertain in that cute little cum dumpster of yours?” I’d read that because English isn’t Nicholas’s first language he asked Ryan [Gosling, who plays Julian] for a list of the worst names you can call a woman… We were sitting around a table and Ryan comes up with that term and we’re all like, ugh! I said, I cannot say that. And Nicolas said, Yeah you can. But I had trouble. It took lots of takes.

It was shocking to hear. It’s shocking to hear people of a certain generation using language that belongs to another generation. I remember, as a young woman, being very impressed with a woman I knew who was incredibly glamorous but her language was so coarse. There was just something really groovy about the contrast. Back then, I thought that was really cool, but I don’t now.

Kristin Scott Thomas inOnly God Forgives

So you’re not terribly foul-mouthed? I have my moments.

What’s your most commonly used curse word? Probably “bollocks.”

The description many are giving of Crystal is that she’s a cross between Donatella Versace and Lady Macbeth. Well Lady Macbeth because of the ambition, the hatred, the relentlessness. And Donatella Versace, nothing to do with her character, but simply because of the blonde hair, the tan, that kind of very otherworldly perfection. That’s what Crystal loves.

How did you get into that evil mindset? Well you don’t get into it, you put it on. And part of the draw of such a radical physical change in my appearance was to do with that: having a different skin makes it easier to say and do really horrible things.

You must have used a ton of self-tanner. I had orange paint all over me because they don’t do spray tans in Bangkok. Somebody could make a fortune off of all these European women who go out to Bangkok and want a tan to go on the beach. So I had three guys with sponges every day putting this stuff on. I think housekeeping in the hotel hated me because all my sheets were orange. And the nails were impossible—you can’t do anything. One day I had to get my son [who was 12 at the time] to remove my contact lens. He was leaping around the room going, ‘It’s gross, it’s gross, I can’t do it!’

And what about your outfits and your chest? I had so many chicken fillets in there! I had the blonde wig, the fake bosom, I even had Botox in my forehead so I would get that kind of look.

Just for the role? Yes, and I had the whole thing completely frozen. I went to the dermatologist and said, ‘I want you to give me an American forehead.’ It was so weird not being able to raise my eyebrows.

How did you deal with the violence in the film? The violence that I found most disturbing was the mental stuff. I find that really, really tough. But I’m very glad I did the film. These stories need to be told. You start having horror stories told to you when you’re three years old.

In an interview you did earlier in your career you said you felt a need to make even unlikeable characters somehow likeable. I imagine you’ve gotten over that. Well, not necessarily, but in this particular case, this is a character that needed to be hated and feared. And that was quite liberating in a way—not having to justify anything, to just make it as dark as possible.

Photos: Getty Images; courtesy of Radius TWC