Rhys Ifans Plays Nice

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Published March 19, 2010

Drug dealer, terrorist, secret agent, father, husband, Welshman–Rhys Ifans is all things in  Bernard Rose‘s Mr. Nice, which premiered last week at South by Southwest. The improbable story of Howard Marks, the most successful dope dealer in history, it stars the aforementioned Ifans (Notting Hill, Greenberg) and Chloe Sevigny, following him as he stumbles into drug dealing and becomes one of the top men in a very competitive trade.  Ifans carries the movie with a lot of charm, making a true story full of drug cartels and IRA terrorists more hilarious than it has any right to be.  Also a Welshman, Ifans talked about meeting Howard Marks for the first time, the war on drugs, and being able to act with his teenage crush.  (PHOTO: RHYS IFANS IN MR. NICE)

GILLIAN MOHNEY: You mentioned you knew Howard before the film—you had written him a letter in jail.  Did he write back to you? 

RHYS IFANS:  No, I was involved with a band called the Super Furry Animals.  The Super Furry Animals played in a town close to where Howard grew up.  Howard had just gotten out of prison and he came to the gig with his sister and his cousins.  He had been out of jail for a few weeks.   So you can imagine.  He hadn’t written the book.  Howard has footage that one of cousins filmed of a very young me and a very young him meeting backstage.  And the conversation is recorded.  I said, “If you ever write a book about this, I want to play you in the movie.” He didn’t know who the fuck I was.  It’s really a kind of fairy tale moment–this film…I said to him if you ever write the book can I play you in the film and he gave me a cautious yes and, lo and behold, here we are. 

MOHNEY:  You mentioned he was your idol when you were younger. Why? IFANS:  Well, not so much an idol.  He was a Welsh speaker, or a Welshman, and our history for the last eight hundred years has been one of insurrection and subversion and mischief.  We’re a nation of pirates.  We’ve held onto our language–we’re a poetic people…Howard was the embodiment of that. His incarceration was by proxy a political—Howard went to Guantanamo Bay before Guantanamo Bay existed. 

MOHNEY: Right, the movie really demonizes the Drug Enforcement Agency was that—

IFANS:  Well D is for Demons.  

MOHNEY: Was it hard to play Howard when you know him?  

IFANS: No, I thought it would be—on paper it kind of would be…In his book and everything he is this kind of folk hero.  In doing this film, I discovered, and belatedly come to realize, that he was just a father and a loving husband who was brutalized by this archaic law and that really moved me.  I love him even more as a result of doing this film.  He’s a good, good friend and I’m glad he’s home.   

MOHNEY:  You have such great 70s and 80s costumes in this film. How was that?

IFANS:  Yeah, I just would look in the mirror and think, “I look like my Dad.”  How did they cope with those colors? I think again, as compliments to Bernard  all the stock footage.  Initially it’s a difficult thing to embrace, but a third of the way into the film.  It’s such a testament to Bernard’s skill as a director, the scene with the Concorde and the real Studio 54.  Of course, it’s a filmic device, but if you embrace it and suspend your disbelief as you do in a film it works.  And instead of spending fucking millions on dressing people up and it never works.  It always looks too clean.  I think that’s Bernard’s genius. 

MOHNEY: And you also played him as a teenager–they didn’t use a teen actor. 

IFANS: Yeah!  Because when you remember yourself as a child you look like you’re an adult.  And the greenscreen stuff with the driving I think that—if drugs are a creative currency in this film and they are I think that it just makes the film more stoned.  

MOHNEY:  It’s not in color until he gets stoned for the first time—

IFANS:  Yeah, it’s like The Wizard of Oz.   MOHNEY: It’s funny on the description for the film, there’s just a list of words and then “gay icon” was thrown in there. 

IFANS: Gay icon—I loved that!  I always wanted to be a gay icon!

MOHNEY: You can be one now. 

IFANS: I think that’s so cool!  I love it.  I don’t know how it got in there but it’s great man.  If I’m a gay icon, that’s great!  My gay friends are going to be so happy.