There’s a endearingly, quintessentially British nervous energy about Alex Lawther on screen. The strikingly talented 23-year-old often has already shown himself to display vulnerability and nuance so well, with such internalised performances, often embodying roles going through inner conflict and emotional turmoil.
His latest venture Freak Show, directed by Trudie Styler, will see him as Billy Bloom; a young man who thrives in being fabulous, as a coming-of-age high-school drama of a young man running a campaign (built on sass and glitter) to be the new Homecoming Queen. To mark the film’s release we sat down with Lawther for a coffee at the Berlinale (where this feature received it’s premiere), to discuss his very first deviation into the world of American cinema.
“It was my first time working in an American accent,” he said. “It’s interesting being a Brit in America, because people hear your accent and they think you’ve won the Nobel Peace Price or something, there’s a sort of strange, lovely, but undeserved respect. It’s fun.”
To play an introvert with a penchant for extravagance is far from an easy role to undertake, and yet at it’s core, this is a film about identity, of a young man vying to determine his place in this crazy world. In that regard similarities could be drawn to Departure, though Lawther admits both projects did require somewhat differing approaches.
“I found with Departure the struggle was working out the mother-son relationship, and the rest of the character was built up around that. In this with Billy, I think the struggle was more him versus the rest of the world and working out when he could be entirely himself and vulnerable, and at what times hos costumes and his dresses and his fabulousness is a defence mechanism and when it’s an expression of joy. For me they came from different places, but with the same sense of internal conflict.”
Billy Bloom is one of those people who acts first and worries about the consequences later; willing to do something outrageous and not really car one iota what those around him may think. These are somewhat admirable traits, and we asked Lawther if it’s a role that has rubbed off on him at all.
“I think inevitably with everything you do you’re sort of carrying that character around for a bit with you and parts of them rub off on you, and if there was anything with Billy, it was his sense of fuck you-ness to the rest of the world which I find really admirable in people, and not a very British trait I find,” he said. “We do tend to be so accommodating, often out of politeness and to the point where everything is spoken in sub-text, like Departure, where no one really says anything to one another. So what I admired about Billy was that everything he felt and bought, he wore. And that felt so far from me, but of course when you spend time with a person who is so free in that sense, I wonder if it rubbed off or if I was just sort of envious of him.”
“I really enjoy playing characters that are far from me, reading someone on paper and thinking, ‘who are you?’ about people that you don’t even recognise, or there’s just a glimmer or someone else in there, but that sort of unknown territory can be really exciting. Also really scary, especially when you take a job and wonder how you’ll do it or why they picked you.”
Given the character’s quite astonishing wardrobe, this did inevitably mean that Lawther would spend much of his time spent in make-up, constantly undertaking costume changes to match his character’s inclination for variety.
“Shooting on a low budget in just 22 days and half my time was spent getting in and out of corsets and wings. But that was such a joy. It was just like playing dress-up and in many ways reminiscent of when I was four or five years old and I had a dress up box and would dress up as a king, that sort of mad rush, and why not? Putting on clothes first and thinking later. I like that sort of childlike freedom I suppose.”
“The mermaid queen outfit was wonderful, but sadly was so flimsy by the end of shooting it was totally destroyed and will never be worn again. I also loved the Uma Thurman one. That was so fun, it was our first day of shooting and there was no better way to break the ice than to have a little dance. That wasn’t actually written into the script until that day and Trudie said we were missing something, we needed to see more of their relationship growing, and told us to watch the video on YouTube and then told us to go and do it! It was really good in this film, because Billy was constantly searching for an identity of his own you could throw something in and just see where it landed, sort of like he would if he was making a film.”
Much of the character’s unwavering sense of fabulousness derives from his mother, played by the legend that is Bette Midler – and Lawther admits his time spent with her, while all too brief, was a memorable experience.
“It was so surreal, and she is the life of the party,” he laughed. “She’s tiny, but in my mind before I met her she was like seven feet tall, then you meet her and she’s a lovely, tiny lady. But a tour de force of energy. She took a break from filming for a while to concentrate on activism based stuff, but it was wonderful to watch how she could come in and she knew how the scene was going to be, she knew her angles. That sort of technical knowledge is outstanding. So on one hand she has this incredible technical mind that is working at a hundred miles an hour, but on the other she’s cracking jokes with everyone and making everyone fall over laughing. A filthy sense of humour. We spent two days together and it was surreal and brilliant.”
The film isn’t all just glitter and mermaid outfits however, for there is a socio-political undercurrent that derives from the campaign, between Billy and Lynette (Abigail Breslin) effectively pitting free-thinking against narrow-mindedness, which feels all pertinent today. The film did however precede Trump’s Presidential victory, though Lawther admits it now gives the film an added element of truth.
“Trump, at the time we were shooting, was a sort of sinister twinkle in people’s eyes, and I think we joked and there’s references in there were initially a lot more light-hearted than actually how sinister things have become.”
On that note, perhaps this may be the wrong time to ask whether the actor has given much though about “breaking” America – and while this marks a fine debut across the Pond, he still feels his sensibilities as an actor are better suited to European filmmakers – and we’re inclined to agree.
“I’ve never really sat down and thought about breaking into America, which sounds sort of illegal doesn’t it? Trump would not like that. I’m more interested in European film. American stories are ones I have grown up with but I’m not sure if my aspirations are that I have to get to America. I just like to be making stories wherever I can really. Even though France and England speak different languages, the culture there is more comparable than it can feel being an Englishman in America.”
What can’t be denied now is that Lawther is a leading man, and a true force in the British film industry. With roles in Black Mirror, Goodbye Christopher Robin and Ghost Stories, he’s somewhat difficult avoid nowadays, and there are certainly no complaints on that front. But does it feel like a profession to him now? Has it surpassed that feeling of all being a dream, something he would do ‘when he grows up’? Turns out, he’s still just as excited and thrilled to be in the industry as he always has been.
“I’m constantly surprised and delighted that I am doing this full time, and to get to do it is such a lucky thing. It’s funny because my 12 year old self would not really believe that I would’ve been here, shooting a film where like Sting was hanging out. It’s funny how life can change and surprise you like that. But I’m delighted.”
Upon walking in to the hotel where we met Lawther for a coffee, walked our a rather fabulous force of her own right, as French superstar Catherine Deneauve was leaving, pursued (hounded, even) by a hoard of paparazzi and fans, it got us thinking – is this a side to the industry the young Brit is ready for? It seems that with talent comes an unwitting celebrity status, and he told us if he was prepared for, or looking forward to fame, if it were to ever truly find him.
“I wouldn’t say it worries me, but it does sometimes confuse me,” he smiled “Because you’re doing it for one reason, because you love it and then you’re being told by many other people to do it for a very different reason. You receive a script and maybe you like it but your agent thinks it’s not right and things can get muddied in a sense that, I remember speaking to an actor that I really admired and he told me his favourite time acting was when he was at school because it was so clear the reasons why he was doing it, for the joy of just playing.”
“Nobody is intrusive in my life in that sense at all, and after Black Mirror people would recognise me on the tube and it would be a bit awkward, but they were always very kind. It was me being awkward not them. But yeah, it can sometimes be a distraction and I think it can sometimes get things misunderstood and my job I feel is sometimes to reveal as little of myself as possible through myself and to show someone else, and it seems that the celebrity side of it is in total contradiction of what I’m trying to do. You’re shooting yourself in the foot as an actor if you’re revealing too much of yourself because our job is to hide really and show someone else.”
Freak Show is released on June 22nd. Read our review of the film here.