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David Thewlis: Fagin mixes parental instincts with criminality in 'Artful Dodger'

Thomas Brodie-Sangster (L) and David Thewlis can be seen in the period drama, "The Artful Dodger." Photo courtesy of Hulu
Thomas Brodie-Sangster (L) and David Thewlis can be seen in the period drama, "The Artful Dodger." Photo courtesy of Hulu

NEW YORK, Nov. 29 (UPI) -- Harry Potter icon David Thewlis and Justified/Mr. Inbetween alum Damon Herriman said they immediately became intrigued to see the wild adventures imagined for some of English literature's best-known characters in their new drama, The Artful Dodger.

Premiering Wednesday on Hulu, the Oliver Twist-inspired series takes place in the 1850s and follows the former titular boy pickpocket (played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster), who now is a skilled surgeon with money problems in the rough-and-tumble Australian colony of Port Victory after training as a doctor with the British Royal Navy.

The eight-episode show takes off when Captain Gaines (played by Herriman) arrives from England with several handcuffed convicts, one of whom turns out to be Dodger's former guardian, the low-level crime boss Fagin (played by Thewlis).

Now known as Jack Dawkins, Dodger takes pity on his former father figure and hires him to assist in his hospital, saving him from a grueling life on a chain gang.

Dawkins' motives aren't all altruistic, however. He also wants to prevent the older man from resuming his life of crime and telling the townsfolk about Dawkins' own past as a thief.

Damon Herrimen stars in "The Artful Dodger," a continuation of Charles Dickens' classic, "Oliver Twist." Photo courtesy of Hulu
Damon Herrimen stars in "The Artful Dodger," a continuation of Charles Dickens' classic, "Oliver Twist." Photo courtesy of Hulu

"I thought it was a stroke of genius. I'd never thought about it before when I'd watched or read Dickens," Thewlis told UPI in a Zoom interview Tuesday.

All eight episodes of "The Artful Dodger," starring David Thewlis and Thomas Brodie-Sangster, are now streaming. Photo courtesy of Hulu
All eight episodes of "The Artful Dodger," starring David Thewlis and Thomas Brodie-Sangster, are now streaming. Photo courtesy of Hulu

"I, obviously, knew that was the case for what happened to criminals in that period of history, but I never really connected the dots."

Moving the story from bleak, Industrial Revolution-era England to sunny Australia opened up myriad possibilities for thrills and humor.

David Thewlis attends the World Premiere of 'Legend' at Odeon Leicester Square in London in 2015. File Photo by Paul Treadway/UPI
David Thewlis attends the World Premiere of 'Legend' at Odeon Leicester Square in London in 2015. File Photo by Paul Treadway/UPI

"Transporting these famously dark, Dickensian characters, who lived in the ... sooty back streets of East End of London, to bring them out here into the bush and onto the beaches is inherently comedic," Thewlis said. "I just thought it was a fantastic idea. I was onboard straight away."

Herriman grew up in Australia, hearing stories about how England sent its worst criminals to the faraway land as punishment for their lawlessness in the 19th century.

Thomas Sangster attends the Burberry Festive Film Premiere at Burberry Regent Street in London in 2015. File Photo by Paul Treadway/UPI
Thomas Sangster attends the Burberry Festive Film Premiere at Burberry Regent Street in London in 2015. File Photo by Paul Treadway/UPI

"You learn about the convicts who came up from England, back in the day, and the idea of going, 'Hey, what if we brought out a couple of famous convicts that we already know, who are already established?' is kind of genius," Herriman said. "It works."

Thewlis noted that although Fagin comes with a "lot of baggage" from the past, he found ways to make the character his own.

"I wanted to do something a little more sympathetic with him, which was a gift to me from the writers," Thewlis said.

"The main drive of the character was all about his paternal instincts, apart from the obvious criminality that comes along with him, to build a love story with his surrogate son, Dodger, and [I wanted] to find something much softer in Fagin than heretofore.

"That's what made it interesting for me, rather than concentrating on him being the bad guy, because he's not the bad guy in this production. The bad guy is Gaines."

Herriman described Gaines as the "governor's right-hand man," meant to keep law and order in the colony.

"But he takes 'ruling with an iron fist' to a whole new level. He's very by-the-book. He's quite a cruel man, although he thinks you have to be cruel to keep the peace and keep people in their place," Herriman said.

"He's an unpleasant character. I hope we get to do this again [in a second season], so we get to find the humanity in this guy. Certainly, in the first season, he is a very unpleasant man. You wouldn't want to be coming up against him for having done wrong or even the suggestion of having done wrong. His methods are pretty awful."

Fagin lives in constant fear of Gaines because he represents "death, execution to Fagin," Thewlis said.

"Fagin is particularly terrified of death, more than most characters, I think. He's got an absolute, pathological fear of it," he said.

"He is confused by it, what it means, what happens after it. He's always speculating upon that fear. Gaines is the personification of that. Every plan he has, he is skating perilously close to putting himself in Gaines' path. The whole show is about a cat-and-mouse chase."

Right from the start, Gaines suspects there is "something fishy" about Dawkins and Fagin, Herriman said.

"He knows there is something illegal happening, something dishonest is going on and he makes it his mission to work out what that is," he said.

Thewlis said he loved the frequently grisly medical aspect of the series, which shows Dawkins and his brilliant assistant, Lady Belle Fox (Maia Mitchell), operating on people using primitive tools and experimenting with anesthesia in front of rowdy spectators.

"I adore all that," he said. "I think that's what really gives substance to the show -- this undercurrent of grittiness and the blood and gore."

Watching the completed project, Herriman said he was surprised by how often he teared up with emotion.

"It happened to me on a number of occasions," he said.

"There's a lot of humor in there, but there is a lot of pathos, as well. Thanks to the performances of especially David and Maia and Thomas -- those relationships and how they interact with each other -- there are a lot of moments where you really get moved."

Addressing the struggles associated with poverty, class division and injustice, Dickens' story and characters remain relevant in 2023.

"It's very pertinent to how people are living today and that fight for social justice. [Dickens] was one of those rare people who drew attention to that and it's certainly not disappeared," Thewlis said.