Your eyes don’t deceive you – Joe Alwyn really is everywhere this year. Perhaps you missed his film debut in 2016’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee’s ambitious foray into high-frame rate photography that grossed under $2 million stateside. Well, casting agents certainly didn’t. Alwyn appears in four films this year – Operation Finale, Boy Erased, Mary Queen of Scots and The Favourite, each of which showcases a different side of a versatile performer.
From the moment I first encountered Alwyn at the press day for The Favourite, I could understand why he’s an heir apparent to claim the mantle of the rising young male star from the London drama school world. He can command a room like a true English gentleman – for example, he’s the rare interview subject who made a point to shake every writer’s hand at the roundtable discussion before sitting down to field questions. He radiates a genuine sincerity, too … which is perhaps why it’s so fun to watch Emma Stone and Nicholas Hoult’s characters play him for such a fool in The Favourite.
Alwyn’s character Masham, who the actor describes as an “airhead,” plays a key role for Stone’s Abigail as she plots her course out of the maids’ quarters and into the queen’s chambers. But he’s far from a wallflower or a forgettable supporting character, just like Alwyn’s other three roles this year. In our conversation, we discussed what it was like working with director Yorgos Lanthimos, how he and Rachel Weisz came to have a wild ahistorical dance number and his approach to bringing thorny characters to life.
Your first film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk used those 120fps cameras that picked up so much detail and got so close to your face. Did that experience prove useful moving forward for acting to the camera?
Yeah, the whole experience was unbelievable and useful. I don’t know how much I was directly informed by those cameras. I suppose in a way because that was shot in a very unconventional way, but it was my first experience of being on a set, I didn’t know any different. So I didn’t have to unlearn any technique to adapt to these strange, big cameras. It’s actually been going on from there and filming on sets that are more normal the way they shoot the films, that I’ve readjusted. Other people came onto Billy Lynn readjusted to Ang’s style.
Other cast members like Emma Stone and Nicholas Hoult have mentioned having some unconventional audition experiences with Yorgos Lanthimos. Did you have that as well?
I actually didn’t, no. I’m the one that got away.
Any theories as to why that is?
I did go meet the casting director about it and read a scene that was about three lines long. I thought, I don’t know what they’re going to get out of this, because it was also a physical scene. You’re sitting around a table, and you say three lines … I didn’t know what they wanted. So that was my audition. But then it went completely silent, and then Yorgos said he wanted to Skype and talk to me. So I chatted with him for about an hour or so on Skype, we spoke about the film maybe a little … well, to be honest, I don’t really remember. That was my audition. It sounds a lot less painful than Emma or Nick’s for sure.
What was Yorgos’ style like?
It took a beat to realize that Yorgos wasn’t going to work in a normal way. When we had a rehearsal period for the two weeks beforehand, especially with it being a period film, my expectation was that we would be attacking it in a conventional way. To a degree, looking at the characters in the background and the social etiquette of the times, those things you might think you’d work your way in through. But Yorgos didn’t want anything really to do with that, at least in terms of his discussions with us. And there was no talk of character or intentions or motives, things that as an actor you hold onto thinking that’s going to be your guidance. And so, giving up that idea, jumping into his other alternate process was probably the biggest readjustment. But it was also so good to do.
Was it like going back to drama school or stripping down everything you learned in drama school?
A bit of both. You do a lot of rolling around on the floor in drama school.
You mentioned reading each other’s parts – was that helpful in terms of playing off of and with Emma and the other actors?
I think it was helpful in making people feel very comfortable with each other. We weren’t doing it so we had a better understanding of our characters or other characters or a psychological insight that we previously didn’t have. It was just about breaking down boundaries between us and doing a lot of weird physical exercises so we felt comfortable literally rolling around on the floor and being humiliated with each other so that way, when we shot, we had no concerns about jumping in. My humiliation from the audition process was moved to the rehearsal period.
Were they physical exercises related to scenes in the film?
No, no, no! They were about us tying our bodies together in knots and rolling around on the floor. And humming and singing and screaming and god knows what.
How does Yorgos direct you?
He doesn’t say a huge amount, he doesn’t talk about your character or anything like that. He’ll position you, he’ll build this beautiful image around you – which you’re kind of aware of but don’t fully grasp until you see it on screen – and he’ll just say things like, ‘Do it faster. Quieter. Try standing here. That’s dull.’ That’s literally it. There isn’t much more to go onto apart from that. At the beginning, you felt like you have no sense of direction because I’m used to being steered in terms of your characters. If you do something great, he’s never going to be like, ‘Great!’ You don’t get a huge amount back.
Does that give you more or less confidence?
Eventually, more because you give yourself into it. He’ll let you know if you’re doing something he doesn’t want you to do. If you move on, and he won’t move on until he’s happy, you’re just happy.
So, your dance scene…
There’s a whole lot more that you can’t see because it cuts to that amazing shot of Olivia. Holding a straight face in that when you’re nose-to-nose was hard.
Was it always intended to be as modern and ahistorical as it is in the film?
I guess so, at least from the time we started rehearsing. It was never a formal dance that we started rehearsing. It was always within a rigid setting of that grand hall, and the music was always going to be period. But Yorgos – I don’t know how he told us – at some point said we’re not going to be dancing in a normal way. We worked with this Argentinian choreographer called Constanza who helped us put together these strange moves, and we just learned it like that.
How was it in the script? Or was it?
It was in the script, but I think it just said “they dance.” It was a shock finding out how we were going to dance. I mean, it might have expanded upon it a little, but it didn’t say what it was going to be.
The film flips gender roles in a lot of ways, where it’s the women who are unapologetically seeking power and the men become their pawns along the way. Did you envision Masham in this more traditionally feminine role, or does that just not even enter into your head?
It wasn’t really something that I thought about at the time, but seeing the film and discussing it, that’s certainly the way that it’s played out. The roles definitely are reversed to a degree, and it’s refreshing to see a film that’s led by three strong, complicated women – and the men be the ones who are sidelined and used in a less conventional way than we’re used to. But it was a lot of fun to play into that and the absurdity of that world, and running around in wigs and high heels, being the butt of the jokes and people who get pushed over.
You’re very busy this year with a lot of parts in different movies. I was trying to think if there was anything that ties them together, and the only thing I could come up with is two-facedness to them. Whether it’s being the son of a Nazi in Operation Finale who can masquerade in polite society, a predator in Boy Erased who presents himself as this virtuous Christian or even in Mary Queen of Scots where your character can switch between worlds. Is that something that occurred to you?
Yeah, I don’t know if it was something I consciously sought out. I think it’s something that’s a little more explicit with the first two characters rather than Dudley in Mary Queen of Scots, you kind of know what you’re getting and where his allegiances lie. He’s kind of the one character who has true romantic love and loyalty and doesn’t have that political agenda like the other male characters do. With Operation Finale and Boy Erased, those kinds of characters are interesting. What they do is bad, where they end up is wrong, but there’s more to it than that. There’s a conflict within them and questions as to why they are the way that they are that go beyond just the black and white labeling of “right” and “wrong.” I find that interesting.
Do you make a judgement on those kinds of characters? Do you have empathy for someone like Henry in Boy Erased who can assault a friend?
Maybe the empathy comes because you try and understand why they act the way they act. I have no empathy for what he [Henry] did – doing something like that is horrific, inexcusable, violent and horrible. But if you are able to draw back and look at why people act the way they act, then you can have empathy for the situation. He lives in a world and is probably under the umbrella of a religion and a family that does not let him be who he is. He cannot be gay. He’s full of self-loathing, hatred and confusion because the religion, place and people he grew up around. And because of that, he acts out in a way that you cannot forgive. But you can have sympathy with the world who doesn’t allow someone to be who they are.
How do you research or prepare for a character like that?
There wasn’t a huge amount to go into. I watched some documentaries, but I watched documentaries about the wider scope of conversion therapy and the idea of religion in those camps. Jesus Camp, things like that. I spoke to Joel about it, looked at the script and thought about it a lot.
What was the sequence of all the films you’ve been in this year? Were they all consecutive?
No, there were gaps. The Favourite was first in February. After that, there was a little beat. Then Mary Queen of Scots. And Operation Finale, but within Operation Finale, I flew to Atlanta did a week on Boy Erased.
I’m filming something at the moment in Richmond, Virginia. A film about Harriet Tubman, with Cynthia Erivo playing Harriet. A woman called Kasi Lemmons is directing, and Focus Features are making it. We’ve got about about 3-4 weeks left on that, and it’s being shot by John Toll, who is the brilliant cinematographer who shot Billy Lynn. It’s nice seeing his face again.
What’s the role?
I play the slave owner.
Oh, another dark role!
This interview has been condensed from a 1:1 and roundtable discussion and edited for clarity.
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