David Nicholls: 'I'm like a star-struck child around actors'
As his adaptation of 'Far from the Madding Crowd' is released, the 'One Day' author talks about rejection, acting and Carey Mulligan.
David Nicholls was a terrible actor. Servants and soldiers were his lot in the years spent treading the boards at the UK's Royal National Theatre - unless he got a shot at understudying. "It was a very sort of slipshod, disastrous acting career really," he says smiling.
Perhaps it's easy to be dismissive of that early career now he has a global bestseller under his belt. The intensely romantic One Day sold millions of copies and he wrote the screenplay for the film starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess. His fourth novel, Us, was published last year and his star-studded adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd opened at the weekend. At 48, he has made a success of his second coming.
Accepting that he didn't belong in the acting profession was tough, he says, but the turning point came when he rejected a small role with the Royal Shakespeare Company on a world tour in favour of a job as a script reader for radio. "And that was the right choice," he says. "It was just this terrific sense of relief. What I loved about acting was writing, it was the characters and stories and structure and scenes and dialogue."
When a friend decided to adapt the play Simpatico for film, Nicholls joined in and shared the writer's credit when it "freakishly got made", with Jeff Bridges, Albert Finney and Sharon Stone. The "little lump of money" he earned allowed him to give up script editing and write full time. He was 32 and turned his hand initially to comedy drama writing, including Cold Feet on ITV.
Far from the Madding Crowd follows the trajectory of a Hardy heroine, Bathsheba Everdene, played by Carey Mulligan, as she winds her way between love interests. It lacks the "rather heavy fatalism" at play in Tess which he adapted for the BBC but it is no less harrowing at times. And it's a distinctly modern story in the way it addresses female independence. Bathsheba, torn between self-determination and a desire to be "tamed" at one point says poignantly: "It's hard for me to express my feelings in a language made by men to express theirs."
"I think it was Carey who said it's about a woman who is finding her own heart, finding out what she actually does want from life." Which is something, Nicholls argues, "that modern Hollywood in an original screenplay doesn't really deal with these days. It's hard to think of an original story that has a woman like that at its centre".
Nicholls can't praise Mulligan highly enough for her performance. "She's brighter and warmer and funnier and livelier than she's ever been. She kind of glows in this and I think she's really extraordinary. I'd love to do something else with her."
He has tried to remain true to Hardy. "I will change things if they seem to suit the medium better but apart from that I'm just trying to dig out what I love about it and be faithful to that."
Loyalty to the source material means that Nicholls doesn't see his screenwriting as an expression of himself. Not in the way that a book is. "It's very hard to write a novel and not reveal a great deal about yourself. Even if it's not autobiographical, it's always personal. Writing scripts is much more editorial. It's also collaborative and you have to have a little bit of distance. You know that you're not running the show."
Once his words are being spun into action by a director, Nicholls tries to stay away. For Madding, he contributed to rehearsals and read-throughs but then kept his distance. He has some regrets. "I miss the company of actors. I really love actors... and in quite a childish, star-struck way. If I'm trying to talk to Ralph Fiennes or Carey Mulligan or Helena Bonham-Carter, there's a voice in my head going, 'It's THEM'."
He doesn't want to direct himself - yet. While he admires those who do, he doesn't fancy the idea of having to be a "kind of general as well as a creative individual". "I think it requires this terrific self-confidence or at least a display of self-confidence to co-ordinate that number of people and get things right."
Nicholls keeps an eye on the footage and might make a suggestion here and there, but he's learned to trust others. Which is not to say film-making isn't "much more fiery than publishing. It's much more combative and there is a lot more debate than with books which tends to be quite a kind of polite process - from my experience anyway."
As a novelist, Nicholls enjoys mixing light with dark, the comedy and tragedy "rubbing up" against each other. He doesn't have a readership in mind but says, "I sort of know what people might want. I think they'll want something that will be funny, laugh out loud, [with] comic set pieces - and that tied in with that there might be some sadness too. I'm happy to write a novel that's just laughs or that's sombre, but I think from the last two books that would be the expectation."
He's drawn to Thomas Hardy because it's "big and emotional and moving and people identity with it. I don't think all books or films need to be like that but it's what I love to do." The two media have always been "entangled" for him. "As a novelist I'm influenced by Billy Wilder and as a screenwriter by Dickens. I think that's okay. That cross-fertilisation is healthy."
He won't, though, be doing so much adaptation in the next few years, but intends to come up with his own stories after a break. "I don't think I'll do another 19th century novel because for me it's almost too pleasurable to sit on a sofa and read Nicholas Nickleby for six months and then find my favourite bits."
What he doesn't enjoy at all is the build up to a movie release. It's "heart-stoppingly stressful. Because there's such a lot at stake. It's a lot of money. A lot of people's work. And you have to hope that you've done your part of the job as well as it can be done. Seeing it on the side of a bus is sort of thrilling and terrifying at the same time. It's not something I ever expected to happen.
"Even when a film is generally well received you have to accept that not everyone will love it. And I'm not very good at that. Same with books. My heart absolutely snaps every time I read a one-star review, so I try and dodge it. But you know they're out there and sometimes you catch one out of the corner of your eye. Heart-snapping isn't quite right, but my stomach turns." There is though, of course, the flip side of getting something out there with his name on it.
Nicholls was brought up in the Hampshire town of Eastleigh. His father was a maintenance engineer in the factory that made Mr Kipling's cakes and his mother was a dinner lady and secretary. It wasn't a particularly cultured background and his parents were dismayed when he turned his back on science and the possibility of going on to study medicine, choosing English and Drama at Bristol University instead. "It's much more dangerous to be a bad doctor than a bad actor," he says. Nicholls' father died 18 months ago, but like his mother, he was very proud of his son.
Nicholls lives with Hannah, his partner of 18 years, who was a TV drama producer and is currently a stay-at-home mother. Their son is nine, their daughter seven and far from being distracting, parenthood has proved a "big spur" for Nicholls professionally. "I work in a much more disciplined, focused way now that I've had kids. You get a work ethic. You lose so much time, you've got to get on with it, you feel a sense of responsibility I think."
He works nine to five and returns home every evening to cook the supper. His life is "very domestic and dull" he says, laughing. "It's very content. Not particularly glamorous."
He's only twice been recognised in the street, but what he's achieved has brought a "certain amount of security". He isn't extravagant with it, though. There's no flash car or house in the country. "I wouldn't know what to do with a sports car," he protests and is aware of the fragility of writing success. "It doesn't last very long, but I've been extremely lucky."