Interview: Erik Thomson on enjoying the tone set by the female cast and crew of How to Please a Woman

A staple of the Australian cinema and televisual landscape for 30 years, Erik Thomson is an AFI and Silver Logie award winning actor known for his work in All Saints, Packed to the Rafters, and 800 Words.

On May 19th, he will be seen romancing Sally Phillips in the comedy How to Please a Woman, a precarious, often hilarious, and revealing journey into the vulnerable world of what women really want and how hard it can be to get it right.

Ahead of the film’s release, Erik spoke with Peter Gray about working with a predominant female cast and crew, how it was bonding with his male co-stars, and finding that delicate balance of raunch and reality.

Before I get to How to Please a Woman, I just want to quickly say how terrifying Coming Home in the Dark was…

Oh wow, yeah.  That was very intense.  It’s kind of an experience, that film.  I don’t think it’ll challenge Love Actually as a Christmas movie.  I’m not even sure if it’s a movie people will want to see a second time, but I urge people who are making low budget films to watch it because I think they achieved a lot (with that).  It was a gruelling process, but I’m very proud to be a part of it.  It’s very different from How to Please a Woman though (laughs).

Speaking to Renée, from what I understand there was an emphasis on female crew on set.  Having worked with both male and female directors, did you feel a different a mentality with a female overseeing things?

I don’t know.  I have done a lot of TV (shows) that have been directed by women, and a lot of shows that have been female skewed, so I feel comfortable in that environment, so I guess from that perspective I felt comfortable in this environment.  The producers were unashamedly up front about what they were trying to do.  (The set) had a really positive energy.  All the women were pretty much from Perth and all the men were from the East Coast, so they were flying all us blokes in (laughs) but we loved that we were contributing to that type of energy.  The script was pretty clear in what it was trying to achieve, so I think from that perspective it had a very solid female energy.  I’m told it holds well for men, though they might find a few uncomfortable moments, but that’s a good thing.

I think audiences see this type of film and think it’s aimed solely at women, but it does have a strong male presence.  These characters are written well, they’re relatable, and it breaks down that masculinity in terms of showing that it’s okay for men to be vulnerable and ask questions.  I think as much as people think this is a “chick flick”, it’s really not.

That’s great to hear.  I think the male and female characters meet in the middle.  They kind of work it out.  And the men, for whatever reason, their preconceptions about what sex is and what intimacy is has been sculpted by society, and I think the film is quite clever in how it breaks that down.  You got to suspend your disbelief (too), but that’s alright.  I think people are happy to buy into it and its spirit.

When you read the script were you happy your character didn’t have to necessarily do a lot of the things the other males do? I’m mainly thinking of stripping behind Cameron Daddo more than anything.

(Laughs) I was very happy about that.  But I was also thinking, when I was about 25 I did a show in New Zealand called Ladies’ Night.  It was kind of like The Full Monty, but it was a bunch of unemployed guys getting together, starting off as a comedy and ends up as a strip show.  I did my stripping at 25 and had the body people wanted to see.  So, as much as I felt like I wouldn’t have had any problems doing (that scene), it was nice to be one of the older characters.  (My character) Steve is at such a different point in his life than these younger characters, and I’m at a different point in my life than they younger actors, so I’m happy to have moved through that process.  I got the croissant and the exercise bike (laughs), and that was a fun scene that had the necessary effect.

Going off the mention of that scene, when you read that in the script, are you ever worried about how it’s going to be realised? It’s a very delicate scene and it never crosses the line.  It’s actually kind of a beautiful moment between yourself and Sally Phillips’ character.

I think you could almost say that about the whole film.  There’s a delicate balance to the whole thing.  When I was asked to be in the film I wanted to know who else was going to be in it, specifically the younger men.  When I heard that Alex England was going to be involved, I knew that the production was going for really good actors and not just comic actors.  It was my first indication that we were heading into performance truth.  We weren’t going for just a hot body with no acting skill.  Not the brassy, cheap gags.  There’ll be depth to this.  That was my first indication they’ll walk that fine line.

Renée and her direction, she knew that whenever we were heading towards the cheese or the two-dimensional she would steer away from it.  Sally Phillips, who’s a brilliant comedienne, she was asked to not go for the gag in those funny moments and just keep it centred.  She struggled with that, but in the end performed beautifully.  There was a lot of decisions I was happy with, and I knew they were keeping the story and characters really centred in reality.

Because your character and the boys are such a tight unit, was there time for you all to bond and become familiar with each other?

Because of the pandemic and filming in WA, we all had to arrive 2 weeks before we shot just in case we had COVID.  It was kind of like a built-in isolation period.  I had come from South Australia, so I knew I wasn’t bringing COVID with me because we were zero at the time, so we all had a few weeks in Perth not shooting and we got to know each other.  Getting dinners and going out, building up that camaraderie you see on screen because we all knew it was going to really matter.

And Sally Phillips feels like someone who very much sets the tone.  How was she to work with?

She’s just absolutely gorgeous.  She’s so unassuming.  Like a lot of classic actors she had those very human moments of doubting herself.  She was incredibly generous and always looking for those opportunities.  I watched a bunch of her stuff when I knew she was doing the film…Smack the Pony is quite an outrageous comedy series, and her comedy is quite tangential.  This is a tangent but it made me think of Lucille Ball and how when she wasn’t in front of the cameras she was quite serious.  Sally’s not serious, but she’s not the clown you might expect a comedienne like her to be.  I really enjoyed working with her and I’d love to do it again.

How to Please a Woman is screening in Australian theatres from May 19th, 2022.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.