David Hayman is unforgettable as concentration camp inhabitant Pavel in The Boy in Striped Pyjamas. However, the Scottish actor tells SBS Film that his performance was only made possible by another actor's vanity.
SBS Film

18 Aug 2009 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

Had you read the book The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas before you were offered the part of Pavel?
DAVID HAYMAN: No. What happened was that they had offered the part to another actor. He was cast but he has very long hair and he refused to cut his hair. One night at tea time I got a call from the casting director who asked if I could jump in the train and get to London for the next morning. So they had a script ready for me. I read it over a coffee and went in to meet the director Mark Herman who said he would love me to play the part. And that was it; it was a film that came completely out of the blue. Then I went on to have one of the most enjoyable experiences that I had had for a number of years because I enjoyed working with Mark Herman and his very talented cast and crew. But I should add that once I knew that I was doing this film I did read the book and it was a truly special book. How clever and how simple it was to look at the Holocaust through the eyes of a young boy who had no idea what Nazis were or what was going on. I gave the book to my son Sean, who is 13, and he just devoured it.

How fid you go about creating the physical look for Pavel who is a concentration camp prisoner?
DH: I did not have time to lose any weight. I got the job one Friday and was in Budapest for filming the following Friday. I am a very physical actor – so it as just a combination of the costume and how I held myself. The week before I went out to Budapest I also watched a documentary about concentration camps. Of course I had also been to Auschwitz. I had been there 30 years ago when I was with Glasgow's Citizen's Theatre and we toured Poland with Shakespeare. At that time we were taken on a trip to the concentration camp and it was one of the most profound and moving experiences of my life – probably the most moving. From the moment you step through those gates you are in the presence of evil, there is a darkness….man's inhumanity to man. So we all wanted to pull out all the stops to make this the best film that we could possibly make. I arrived in Budapest after they had filmed the scenes before the German family move from Berlin to the camp. So I was the first injection of the real world and between scenes I would sit in the garden in my rags and I had a really disturbing effect on the crew.

How was your relationship with Asa Butterfield who plays Bruno the boy whose father is commandant of the camp?
DH: He was great, a smashing wee boy.

How aware do you think he was of what kind of story you were telling in The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas?
DH: He was a very smart eight year-old. He was pretty aware.

How did you go about creating the atmosphere of despair for your character, Pavel?
DH: It was all about melancholy…I kept remembering that they did not know who he was or who he had been and he saw them for what they were. You knew that he was an intelligent man who was filled with sadness, particularly because he was one of the prisoners who were allowed to work in the house. But I can't properly describe the process that I went through; if I could I would probably end up nuts. You just get yourself into a place where you are in the head of that wee man, Pavel and try to imagine what he could be going through.

The scene where Pavel spills wine at the table illustrates the senseless brutality of the Nazi regime.
DH: It still happens today. There was a report about how the son of an Afghan was taken away by a war lord and his wife chased after the war lord to remonstrate. So the war lord later returned with three other men, raped the wife in front of everyone. These men were imprisoned and then were pardoned! That scene at the dinner table is about Pavel trying desperately to get round the table, without spilling any wine because he knows the moment he does spill some or made a mistake he is doomed. There was a Sword of Damocles that must have hung over the head of everyone who was in the concentration camp. They knew they had to toe the line or they would be executed, straight away. But then if they do toe the line, what is their life going to be like because they are in a concentration camp! They were between the Devil and the deep blue sea because their life was over anyway. You can't have anything but the greatest sympathy for anybody who went through that horrible, horrible time.

At the end of a day's filming on The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas how easy was it to switch off?
DH: You have to. I have always been able to switch off. If you don't then that is the way that madness lies. You take off your make-up and costume and go back to the hotel and shower and then it's gone. There has to come a point where you switch off.

How often do you get mistaken for David Heyman, the producer of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas and the Harry Potter films?
DH: Very rarely now. In the days when I was directing I would pick up the phone to an executive and when I said it was David Hayman I would get straight through. The other person would go on about how Harry Potter was such a success and I would say it was the wrong David Hayman! Also I would have actors calling me to see if there were any wizard roles available. When I worked with David Heyman he said he had sometimes been mistaken for David Hayman, the actor. We had a good laugh about that.

The Boy in Striped Pyjamas
is now available on DVD.