“You know the one thing you’ve got going for you, Frank? You’re too old to die young.” – Rizza
Today we travel back to Damian Lewis in The Escapist: An Ireland-UK co-produced ensemble piece directed by Rupert Wyatt. The film premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival to critical applause.
The Escapist is a prison escape movie. But not your typical prison escape movie. It is a healthy combination of an action movie and an art house movie giving you the grim prison life. You feel the brutality. You feel the daily presence of threat. You, in fact, live the violence without even seeing it. You feel very disturbed by the place.
Frank Perry (a BRILLIANT Brian Cox for whom it turns out Rupert Wyatt wrote this role!) is in prison for life and he has made his peace with the fact that he will never see outside life again… Until he gets a letter, the first one in 14 years, that his beloved daughter is a drug addict and, following an episode of overdose, she is critically ill. This makes Frank to think about escaping. He plans his escape with fellow prisoners Lenny Drake (Joe Fiennes, a Guildhall class mate of Damian’s!), Brodie (Liam Cunningham), Batista (Seu Jorge) and Lacey (Dominic Cooper). These five “good guys” make the movie poster.
A tagline for the movie is: Five Men. Four Walls. One Plan.
Oh wait! There is a sixth man.
The prison is an overcrowded and understaffed place where dangerous men take over and violently rule over their fellow inmates. Rizza (Damian Lewis) is the dangerous man that rules the prison. He is THE ONE, and not the prison authorities, who gives Frank & Co a hard time about their escape plans. This seemingly clean-cut, soft-spoken man gives you the creeps.
And he gives you the creeps to the point that even having a cup of tea looks like a vicious exercise in Rizza’s hands!
Damian elaborates on Rizza:
“I see Rizza as the evil centre of the prison. He’s a self styled prison boss, he’s running the prison from the inside. He has to control his younger brother who’s a loose cannon.
Rizza is an unusual kind of figure in the prison: the prison and the people inside the prison were his boys and that’s how he wanted it to be. He never wanted his authority challenged; he’d do anything to maintain that status quo. It’s quite an effeminate role and that ties in nicely with the brother. There’s malevolence but effeteness at the same time.”
He particularly enjoys playing the moral ambiguities of his character:
“He’s very affectionate about his brother – he’d do anything to protect him but he’s utterly ruthless. You have to be to remain at the top in this setting. He does business daily through violence and intimidation, but I liked the idea that there was something effeminate about him – something preening and self-regarding. He’s a thug but also a weird feminine sophistication.”
And he seems to be happy about avoiding typecasting. From a 2008 interview with The Guardian:
“The big bugbear for an actor is typecasting, but I think I have managed to avoid that. Rizza is a repellent character. He’s a mincing, camp villain.”
Here is the movie trailer. Please pay attention to the prison and the way Rizza moves.
When Damian talks about how he prepares for his roles at New Yorker Festival, he cracks up the room:
“I am Damian Lewis. I am not Daniel Day Lewis.”
Haha. You know Daniel Day-Lewis is known for method madness in preparing for his roles. He is known to have stayed in a prison for two days and nights without food and water for his role In the Name of the Father, my all-time favorite prison movie along with Papillon (Steve McQueen alert!) and Cool Hand Luke (Ha! Wouldn’t Damian make a very cool Luke Jackson?) And, believe or not, In the Name of the Father and The Escapist were filmed in the same prison. Director Rupert Wyatt explains why they chose Kilmainham Jail, formerly a jail and now a museum, in Dublin.
“I knew of it already because it had been used for In the Name Of The Father. And in the original Italian Job when Noël Coward’s coming down the stairs, that’s where they shot it. So Adrian Sturges, one of the producers, and I took a trip out to Dublin to see this prison, and that was actually my first time in Ireland. The prison is pretty extraordinary. There’s a very operatic feel to it because it’s built with the idea that if you’re a prison guard you can see at any point any part of the prison at any one time. And that’s exactly what I wanted for the film because I wanted to create a very enclosed world, but a world very much of our making, so you’ve got different levels and different hierarchies.”
So how did Damian prepare to play Rizza?
Damian admits he is not Daniel Day-Lewis but he feels responsible for representing any story truthfully and honestly. In Rizza, he finds some “feminine sophistication.” But how to bring this out so that the character feels authentic? Well, who knew a women’s thong would come handy? 🙂 Damian shares with us at Times Talks how he used a women’s thong to find the right walk for Rizza:
“Clothing is important and I did wear a thong. Don’t think about it too long… But I did. It was divisive.
I was playing a prison gangster who ran a prison gang. He was leading the corruption within this prison system and he was a nonce which is an English slang for a guy who is bisexual, essentially, and so he had this questionable sexual orientation but he used his sex for control and violence, really unattractive character… and I just wanted to find a walk for him.
I thought this feminacy in him would give a slightly sinister edge to him so I asked for my tshirt to be cut just slightly short so it was almost like sort of a cropped top just above the belt line and I wore a thong and the thong was incredibly helpful for the walk which made me walk… differently. And slightly mincingly.”
Gotta LOVE this guy! 😀
At New Yorker Festival, Damian stands up and shows us THE walk:
“If I didn’t move quickly, it was going to cut me…. I had great fun. You guys have great underwear.”
I imagine you all giggle every time Rizza walks! Well, I do!
Rizza is an exceptional character. Especially in the sense that this is one Damian character I could not bring myself to love. And I am sure Damian does not want us to love him, either. If he calls the fans who loves Soames “Dark Horse” I cannot imagine what he would call the people that love Rizza 🙂
And, hey, look at Rizza and Two Ton having a mini-reunion and taking a selfie in spring 2016 at WWE Birmingham.
The Escapist is available for purchase on DVD on Amazon and available for streaming on Amazon, iTunes and Netflix.