He was the Thuggish Constable in Sleepy Hollow, a London crime boss in Gangster No. 1, an astoundingly incompetent drug smuggler in Layer Cake and even popped up in The Football Factory. But with Bill Sykes, South London actor Jamie Foreman has finally met his match. In Roman Polanski's Oliver Twist, British cinema's most convincing tough guy plays Dickens' infamous villain with a dead-eyed intensity that makes even Ben Kingsley's Fagin quake in his boots. But don't go describing Bill as one-dimensional now...
We all know Bill Sykes from reading Dickens' book at school. How did you want to make your stamp on such a famous character?
I've always loved Bill Sykes and he's always been such a folk hero in the circles where I come from. My mates have got dogs called Bullseye, you know? So it's a wonderful opportunity to bring your take on things. Looking at Bill, you can only draw on yourself and your own experiences so that's what I did. I was given a lot more scope with the script I had than anyone else who've played him before. [Scriptwriter] Ronnie Harwood really fleshed him out and captured a lot of what's in the original book and his dark sense of humour. He's not just one-dimensional. Reed's depiction was in a musical that was serving that purpose and Robert Newton was in an era of film that was still trapped in the past. This is a very modern and naturalistic take. I think that when you're surrounded by the sets and the look and the feel of everything around you, you don't have to push it so much. You can just blend in and be him.
Polanski also shows more of the relationship between Bill and Nancy...
Yeah, well you have to ask, why is this woman with him? He has to have something. It's also so ****ing boring to watch a one-dimensional monster up on the screen. I'm not interested in that. You see Sykes vulnerable, sick in bed - he's not so vulnerable you want to give him a teddy bear and stroke his forehead but still...
Is it true you went on a two-day bender when you heard you got the part?
Yeah, because he kept me waiting for a month!
Are you worried about being typecast as the thug, though?
I think the reason why people cast me is that I approach it in a different way. I try to give the audience a character that they don't quite understand their reaction to. One of the line producers said to me, "I was feeling sorry for him in the end." It's because he's seeing the actual man.
How is Polanski different to other directors you've worked with?
He's the most precise, the most particular... but it's all for you. He had an outburst one day - (laughs) his morning outburst! - when the crew started to move things about between takes. And he went ballistic: "No one ******* sees you! They see these two men, so give them respect." Ben and I just looked at each other and started to get all choked. When have you had that? He keeps the focus of everything that's up there at the end of the day. When you're getting that support and love behind you... It sounds very clichéd, but you do feel it. I've worked on enough things to know the difference.
What do you think he has brought to such a familiar story?
He said something very interesting on the weekend: it's the tiny little detail that turns someone's life. With Tess, it's the meeting the rector on the road at the beginning of the story. With Oliver, there's a lovely little scene where the magistrates are signing the inventure. As he's writing, he goes to put his pen in the inkwell and the inkwell's not in the right place. So he turns and that's when he first sees Oliver crying and he says, "What's the matter, boy?" And that's what changes Oliver's life - that little moment. So they are the kind of things that Roman brings to it: the tiny little details that you're not aware of on your first time round but it's all so thought out, so precise and clever. I've never worked with anyone that good.
How did the kids relate to you? Did you stay in character?
Well they're such good actors. Barney [Clarke] and I had some very precarious things to do and we did all our stunts ourselves. When I'm on that parapet, that's where I am - and I've got a little boy to look after. You build a kind of trust with them, so when you turn it around and go to work, they feel comfortable to switch with me.
They say never work with children or animals. What was your trick with your canine co-star Bullseye? Was he enormously well-trained?
(laughs) He was enormously unwell trained! He wasn't Lassie, that's for sure. I just had a pocket full of salami!
Oliver Twist is released in UK cinemas on Friday 7th October 2005.