Director reveals the bond between Howard Marks and the actor who will play him.
One is a working-class Welshman who became a notorious kingpin of the drug-smuggling trade with proclaimed links to the Mafia, the secret service and the IRA. The other is a Bafta award-winning actor with his own rock ‘n’ roll reputation. And he is also Welsh.
When the former hashish baron Howard Marks met the actor Rhys Ifans, the men bonded, purportedly over shared anti-establishment attitudes. They got on so well that they made a pact: Ifans would play Marks in a film biopic of his colourful life, called Mr Nice.
Yesterday, the film’s producer, Luc Roeg, whose father Nicholas Roeg helped shoot the 1962 David Lean epic Lawrence of Arabia, billed his vision as the “Lawrence of Arabia of stoner movies”.
Mr Nice co-stars Chloë Sevigny as Marks’s wife, Judy, and David Thewlis, and stays true to the bestselling memoir of the same name. The tale begins in Bridgend, Wales, and charts Marks’s entry to Oxford University, a spell as a teacher, his life at the top end of international cannabis smuggling and his imprisonment in a federal prison in Arizona. Speaking at the Cannes Film Festival, Roeg said it had been one of Ifans’ most testing roles to date, because of his friendship with Marks.
“Rhys grew up close to the place where Howard was born,” said Roeg. “As he was growing up, Marks was an infamous figure. Since then, their lives have crossed through music. Super Furry Animals [in which Ifans was a band member] did a benefit gig when Marks was released from prison.
“It was a very demanding role for Rhys and he wanted to have the first shot at playing him.”
Roeg added: “Marks was a beguiling character. He was highly educated and rose from a working-class background to get to Oxford at a time when the university didn’t have any quota system. He applied his charm and intellect to what he did. Rhys has a lot of these qualities, he is very charming and he is as anti-establishment as Howard.
“It is a high-energy, epic film, a Lawrence of Arabia of stoner movies. Marks went to places like Afghanistan, near the Khyber Pass, when it was incredibly dangerous. The film spans three decades.”
The British director Bernard Rose filmed scenes close to Marks’s family home, as well as in Alicante in Spain. The production team collaborated with Marks and his wife and the couple spent a considerable amount of time on the set. “We talked about going to Howard Marks’s family home to film but there are still relatives living there and we thought it would be rather intrusive,” said Roeg.
During his prolific smuggling career, Marks claimed never to have used violence and to have refused to deal in class A drugs.
The film is due to be completed early next year.
By Arifa Akbar, Arts Correspondent, in Cannes