In Toby MacDonald’s debut feature Old Boys, Alex Lawther (The Imitation Game, Ghost Stories, Goodbye Christopher Robin) stars as an awkward pupil at an all-boys boarding school who helps the handsome but dim school-hero pursue the teenage daughter of their French teacher in this charming new re-imagining of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac.
Earlier this week, HeyUGuys were lucky enough to speak to both Lawther and MacDonald during what seemed like a gruelling day of interviews and Q&As about their experiences of working on such an unusual project, and the challenges they met along the way.
For those still unfamiliar with Lawther’s name or body of work, it’s safe to say that if you’ve watched any TV or have been to the cinema regularly in the last couple of years, there is a strong chance that you might have come across the shy and softly spoken actor one way or another. At 23, Lawther not only looks young enough to still pass for a teenager, but he has also amassed a huge following thanks to a trajectory which saw him stars in some of the most popular British productions over the last couple of years. However, for most people the actor will perhaps forever be remembered for his stunning depiction of a blackmailed teenager in Shut Up and Dance, one of the most memorable episodes of cult TV show Black Mirror.
Asked about his part in Shut Up and Dance and how it differs from working on a more lighthearted movie like Old Boys, Lawther declares “we were part of the season where some of the episodes were shooting in South Africa and California, we were shooting in Watford in a car and it was raining [laughs]. But actually it was lovely because what I loved about Black Mirror before I even worked on it was how British it was in its lo-fi nature, which in a different way was a pleasure with Old Boy and the DIY nature and the letters that were made and where we were shooting”
Pressed about whether he had heard of the original source material associated with the plot, Lawther admits “I don’t think I knew the story of Cyrano de Bergerac, and then strangely at the time of auditioning I went to go see an all female production at the Southward Playhouse with Katherine Hunter, then I thought ahhh I see where the threads connect”.
One of the bravest thing for director Toby MacDonald and his writers was the choice to set the action in a somewhat heightened reality during the mid to late 80s, and therefore being able to do away with modern gadgets such as mobile phones and social media, which in a way opened up the story to so much more. Asked about this particular narrative device, MacDonald says “I suppose we really wanted the letters to be a big part of the creative exchange, obviously it doesn’t work with mobile phones and it changes the whole story. So that was why we steered clear of all of that”. MacDonald also adds “I think we set it at that time because it was the last glory era of those schools before they had to let girls in eventually in the 90s and then fell on hard times later. The look of them had stayed the same since the 60s, so we felt like it was very archetypal and quintessentially British so it allowed us to give it a kinda scuffed worn down quality”
One of the film’s narrative threads centres around the fictional game of Streamers, a game which is a kind of amalgamation of several violent and deeply competitive private school sports similar to Rugby, but which takes place in a river stream. Asked about how difficult it was to shoot this particular scenes in the water, MacDonald admits “it was a nightmare, I mean Alex was tough as nails doing it and set the example for everybody. And while some members of the cast were perhaps less likely to put their bodies on the line, Alex really did, it was really difficult”.
Asked about the camaraderie between him and other cast members and whether it was much easier to work with people nearer his age, Lawther says “actually I think the answer is no, I really love actors because they’re often very silly, and playful and naughty and that’s something, for better or worse, you’ll find in actors no matter what age they are. What’s nice is working with a big group and it feels more like a theatre troupe”.
For a young actor like Lawther, it seems like he couldn’t be better placed to pick and choose what project to work on next, how does he feel about that and how much stuff does he turn down because it isn’t the right thing for him right now? “I was recently listening to a Monocle 24 interview with Isabelle Huppert where she says that it’s not as though she’s sitting on top of a mountain of scripts decoding which one to pick, I think as part of your job as an actor you’re going out and looking at good stories, so there’s only a few stories that you want to be part of. So no, I wish I was sitting on a mountain of script as I’m sure Isabelle Huppert really is [laughs]”
Alex Lawther will soon be appearing in Régis Roinsard’s French Language production The Translators, alongside Olga Kurylenko, Lambert Wilson and Sidse Babett Knudsen which will be his first non-English language film.
Old Boys is cinemas from Friday February 22nd