Q&A: Kristin Scott Thomas On Becoming A Glam Warrior for ‘Only God Forgives’

Thelma Adams
The Reel BreakdownJuly 26, 2013

Sitting at the Mandarin Oriental in Manhattan wearing an emerald green Lanvin frock, her stocking feet tucked under her, Kristin Scott Thomas is a little in shock about the previous interviewer’s question: what did "Only God Forgives" mean?

Viewers coming into the new film expecting "Drive 2" - the 2011 art-house smash that was the previous collaboration between Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn and Canadian matinee idol Ryan Gosling - are in for a shock.  What they get instead is a bloody Bangkok-set revenge drama with an Asian martial arts kick.

Rarely have we seen this elegant actress go so far out on a limb. To play Crystal, the murderous mamma of Ryan Gosling’s Bangkok black marketer, the actress underwent a massive makeover: nail extensions, a brash blond wig and a brassy American accent.

As Crystal, Scott Thomas is the fire in the belly of the movie, a force of nature in an artificial world. And, Scott Thomas, 53, politely admits, that although she finds her film "extraordinarily beautiful to look at," it’s also "very, very, very frightening and extremely disturbing." She added, with a bit of her character’s directness, "I'll tell you, when you leave the cinema, I don’t know if you're meant to, but it makes you feel grubby."

Was it fun stepping into Crystal, this mama tiger in tight pants?

KST: What was fun was the bluff of Kristin being transformed physically into that person.

How did you decide the walk, the hair, the costume?

KST: The walk is done because of the heels and the platforms, and the wooden shoes, and that kind of dink, dink, dink that they make. Here’s the backstory: I did a photo shoot about a year previous to meeting Nicolas where I was doing a variety of characters. One was a man, one was Amy Winehouse, and one was Donatella Versace.

For Versace, I had this long, blonde wig, and a short skirt, masses of jewelry, and nails out to here. Basically I looked like Crystal. They took me out on the street in Paris to photograph me, like fake paparazzi shots. And I was astounded by the reaction from people around me. Men, particularly, were incredibly, unbelievably aggressive.

Aggressive like…?

KST: They just wanted to possess me. One man tried to chat me up. I just brushed him off. Then he came back a second time and pulled me. We're talking about a really nice Parisian street outside Yves Saint Laurent, and other men were shouting very dirty things at me. Women were cowering. Women were frightened and men got really aggressive. After 15 minutes, I couldn't stand any more of it, I had to go in. And everyone else was killing themselves laughing, because it's so funny.

Was it funny because it differed so radically from our image of Kristin Scott Thomas?

KST: It’s so not me. It was amusing to see all these people reacting to this huge, great disguise that I'm in. But I was also really shaken by them because it occurred to me that there are women in the world who do it on purpose to get that kind of reaction. And, in the morning, when you're applying your fake eyelashes, or you're having your nails done, or you're getting your fake tan done, and you're having your extensions put in, you know that that's what you're courting.

You're courting that kind of power, aggressiveness, or whatever it is, whichever side you take. And that, to me, seemed, was, is totally alien. I'm the sort of person who wants to be admired, but elegant. I don’t want to be somebody who's creating a fight.

Related: 'Only God Forgives' Premiere

You're more Armani than Versace?

KST: It's not even a question about clothing. It suddenly occurred to me that these women were dressing for battle, and there was some kind of power over men thing going on. Even though they appear to be objects of a sexual thing, actually they're the ones calling the shots. And I thought that was a good way of getting into this character. I really didn't know where to begin, especially when Crystal changed from English to American. Then I was totally flummoxed again.

Why did that change happen?

KST: It happened because the actor who was going to play the part of the younger son, Julian, pulled out to go do another project. Ryan Gosling stepped in, and Nicolas didn't want Ryan to do an English accent. So I had to become American. I didn't know how to get into that, because the things that I'd seen about these matriarch drug baronesses, whatever you call them, they tend to be Latin American. And I can't do that. So I've got to go another way, so that way was this kind of blond glamorpuss.

The other part of the transformation is the way Crystal talks: she’s so blunt. In one scene, she’s dining with her younger son, played by Gosling, and she compares his most intimate body parts with that of his late brother.

KST: That scene was written much more subtly than that. And as the film progressed, we discovered that we'd got more and more down and dirty, and it just got coarser and coarser, and more and more visceral. I just suddenly thought I shouldn't be sitting there hinting at things, I should just be saying them, because this isn't a hinter, this woman. So we rewrote her dialog.

Related: Critic's Pick: 'Only God Forgives'

You set the tone early on, because Crystal makes a grand entrance to a posh Thai hotel and shreds the receptionist when that young woman says Crystal’s room isn’t ready.

KST: That was frightening to do, because I had to get that just right, because that was the first scene the viewer will see Crystal. It was also the first scene that we shot, because we shot in chronological order. I had to be just on it and it was the scariest scene to shoot. Usually, when you're making a film, you kind of break into it, but no, this had to be absolutely on the dot from the beginning.

What was it like working with Ryan Gosling?

KST: When I started telling people about this movie, I didn't know who Ryan Gosling was. I’d say there's this guy called Ryan Gosling, he's going to do it, and they’d go ‘Ryan Gosling,’ and they'd literally go white, and start trembling. All these women…it's unbelievable.

I said, what, really, is he that famous? I don't know who he was, and then of course I watched his work, and then I became a huge admirer of his work. But I still didn't get the Ryan Gosling phenomenon. And it doesn't seem like he does, either.

Ryan's a totally wonderful actor, and he’s utterly invested and collaborative. But not in a kind of ass-y way, it's just simple. He's just there, and he's doing his job.

And you shared deeply emotional, even sexual, scenes together.

KST: I don't know whether they're emotional. It's kind of beyond emotion. We're talking about something really raw and intense. It's like lust, drive, impulses. There's no heart in anything, no sentiment.

When my character goes and pleads with Julian, and says I love my son so much, it's visceral. It's all about her lust for revenge, and she's prepared to spend the second child to get revenge for her firstborn. It's totally senseless, and it's the sort of thing that you wake up in a cold sweat about. You know, would my mother choose my sibling over me? It's the thing of nightmares. This film is the thing of nightmares.