A trip to Alicante with Howard Marks to visit the set of Mr Nice - the screen adaptation of Marks' own best-selling memoir - wasn’t an excursion Esquire contributor Chris Sullivan was about to turn down. Especially not when their mutual friend, Rhys Ifans, plays Marks in the movie...
Chris Sullivan: Before I set off Rhys called me up to tell me a story. “When Chloe Sevigny [who plays Judy Marks] came to the UK the customs opened her case and found a copy of Mr Nice and the script. They asked her what the name was of the film she was about to act in. She said Mr Nice. ‘Howard Marks?’ they enquired. ‘We don’t like him. No, no, no! We don’t like him at all.’ They then went through her belongings – rather enthusiastically.”
The film follows Marks from his beginnings as a recreational drug user at Balliol College, Oxford, through his subsequent rise as one of the world’s biggest cannabis smugglers and onto his arrest, conviction and seven-year incarceration in one of America’s toughest penitentiaries. And yet, given his track record, nobody stopped Howard at the airport.
Indeed, all went swimmingly until we discovered that after the set visit Ifans had the next two days off. We were at his mercy. “Come on boys,’ he declared, hands in the air and fag in mouth. “I’m off till Thursday and I’ve got my two of my best friends with me so let’s go and fucking HAVE IT!” It was then that we knew we were in trouble.
That night, after Ifans had treated a gang of 12 to dinner at Alicante’s finest restaurant, it was off around the dives and bars. Much later, back in Ifans’ hotel room, we helped him go through his lines until about eight in the morning at which point he stood up and declared it a wrap.
A few hours later my phone rang. It was 10.30am and Rhys was already up and at it. “Come on Sullivan, we’re in the bar waiting for you,” he laughed. “There’s a beer with your name on it.” And so there was. Within a couple of hours I was sitting in a bar overlooking the harbour conducting what some extremely generous souls might describe as an interview.
Chris Sullivan: You have said that the film is not a cautionary tale…
Rhys Ifans: I read the script in varying states and potency and as it’s turned out it’s not just a celebration of mischief but also a biography of a pirate.
Howard Marks: But it is a cautionary tale that says if you do lots of dope deals you have to be prepared to do a bit of time, and I hope that the film will show that doing that time can be very hard. I’m not saying it wasn’t all worth it but it is a cautionary tale.
RI: What I was saying was that it was a celebration of mischief but now with three days to go on the shoot I discover that it is a cautionary tale.
HM: With only three days to go on the shoot I thought it was a cautionary tale but now discover that it’s a celebration of mischief.
RI: Can I change everything and just say that it’s a cautionary celebration of mischief?
HM: Of course it’s a celebration of mischief. As far as I’m concerned I hope it will give people the confidence to do whatever they like no matter what their parents think or the law says. It’s more important to do what you want inside.
RI: And let that be a lesson to you all.
CS: Rhys, it must’ve been a tough role to play as Howard is your old mate…
RI: No, it was not tough at all. On paper, when you’re an actor you will never want the person you are playing to be around. But this has been extraordinary because Howard is a friend and I’d never played the leading man before, you know the super hero. I haven’t really done that. So for all those reasons it has been the most complete acting experience I have ever had because it’s been constant. In my every waking moment I’ve been Howard.
CS: Howard, how important was it that Rhys played you?
HM: I had no interest in any proposal unless they had Rhys playing me. I went on the record several times saying that if the movie happened he had to play me.
CS: Where did you meet?
HM: Thirteen years ago in Pontypridd Town Hall. I had started writing it but I hadn’t finished it.
CS: And then it went to number one on the best sellers list.
HM: Aye, and I sold it for a song. I’d just come out of nick and was grabbing for whatever money I could get.
CS: How does it feel seeing your old pal playing you?
HM: The weird thing is that it’s not weird. I feel that when someone is playing you and that person is younger and better looking, it feels as if I’ve cheated mortality for a little bit longer.
CS: Rhys, you said that some of the scenes were quite tough to do, such as the scene when Howard is having his teeth pulled out…
RI: When you’re an actor you never want the person you are playing to be around. But what I discovered about the harrowing bits was that he actually did it and what it cost Howard and it was really, really, really intense. It wasn’t because of the subject and narrative, it was because I was assimilating an emotional place where my friend was before I knew him. I’m glad I'm wearing sunglasses at this moment now so you can’t see me cry.
CS: Well, you’ve answered my next question.
RI: Yes, but I don’t want to talk about all that in front of Howard as I got paid a lot of money for going to those very hard places for a very short time.
HM: I got paid a lot of money to go to those very hard places for a very long time.
RI: It’s really special.
HM: I couldn’t go on about the hard times for too long in the book. No-one would have bought it.
RI: The hard times blind side you – they come from behind.
(Marks and Sullivan start laughing)
RI: For fuck’s sake lads, I’m trying to be serious. I’m trying to be really honest with Howard here and I might sound like a wanker but this is my experience playing this film. I will never get a role like this again. So I’m going to say it: playing a man like Howard who I love from the bottom of my heart is an extraordinary thing. We need our heroes, we need to preserve our heroes that have been ignored in the past and we all know who they are. So, hopefully I have done Howard a huge service. All I can say we are both great in the sack.
HM: But we’ve never shagged the same person so we don’t know… well not to my knowledge.
Mr Nice is released in cinemas nationwide this Friday