For Joe Alwyn, it was the chance to join a new BBC cop show that proved grounds to add the somewhat rebellious precursor of ‘drama school dropout’ to his CV. But the universe had different intentions for the now 25-year-old London actor, which is how he ended up making his screen debut in American camouflage, not British hi-vis.
Released this fall, the latest picture from Oscar-winning director Ang Lee sees Alwyn cast alongside Kristen Stewart and Steve Martin as the protagonist in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, the film adaption of Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel of the same name. A story that marries the intense reality and hysterical post-event nature of the Iraq War – all in a single day during the Super Bowl Halftime show – Billy Lynn’s is a political narrative, concerned with the contrast between those who experience war firsthand and the reception of their actions back at home.
With such contentious US subject matter at the project’s core, it feels fitting that in the week we meet, in a London garden south of the Thames, Hillary Clinton has just officially accepted the presidential candidacy for the Democrats; her adversary Donald Trump having claimed the Republican’s vote a week earlier.
Zoe Whitfield: So what was your entry to acting, is it something you’ve always wanted to do?
Joe Alwyn: I think for a long time, yeah. My dad makes documentaries for a living and I’d always grown up with him showing me films and documentaries, and my mum had always taken me to the theatre, so I’ve seen a lot of it and wanted to be involved in it in some capacity. In terms of acting, it was always quite a private thing that I knew I wanted to do but didn’t necessarily speak about for a while. I got more and more into it throughout school but I was never in all the school plays, I studied it but it was kind of a secret thing that I thought I could do and that I wanted to do, but didn’t quite know how. So I went to university first.
Zoe: To Bristol, right?
Joe: Yeah Bristol, I did English and drama and as many extra-curricular plays and theatre as I could, we took shows up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and to London, I soaked up as much as I possibly could, and then at the end of that I applied to drama school, I think maybe four schools, and got into Central [the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama], and did the three year course there.
Zoe: And I read there was a stint with the National Youth Theatre?
Joe: Yeah, I forgot about that, I think I must have been maybe eighteen when I went there, you audition and then if you get in you do their two-week course. I never actually did any further shows with them, but yeah, I was technically a member.
Zoe: So I was going to ask what you were doing before the film came about but you’ve basically told me already…
Joe: Well yeah, I was at drama school for those three years and then in my third year of training you begin to open up the shows to the public and you invite agencies and casting directors, and so I did my showcase in my first term of third year, and wrote hundreds and hundreds of letters to people – as we all did, to try and get them along, and hope that five of them will turn up – and a casting director came and saw me in showcase, a guy called Gary Davy, and he invited me into his office and introduced me to another casting director called Julie Harkin. At the time she was casting this BBC police drama called Cuffs, but I was still at school at the time and hadn’t signed with an agent, nobody knew what was going to happen and everyone was panicking. But I went for this audition and got this role, which was great because it’s amazing to get any work that early on, especially a big lead part in a BBC series. I was over the moon about it, and I was ready to leave school early and drop out of the play to go and do it, so I left school and that same day, I chose and signed with an agent. That week, kind of on a high from the news about Cuffs, she sent me these sides for this thing, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and I had no idea…
Zoe: So you didn’t know the book beforehand?
Joe: I didn’t know the book beforehand, I didn’t really know what sides were beforehand, I’d never done a tape beforehand essentially. It was all new to me, everything, but she sent me these sides and I taped one of the scenes with my dad in my room, and I taped the other scenes with my mates from school in their lunchbreak, which I had just left.
Zoe: How was that, going back to school so soon?
Joe: It was a little weird, but people were cool about it and no one’s really a dick. So I did the tape but, I knew it was an Ang Lee film and it was a big deal, but it was also on the other side of the planet. But I taped for it, and we got a call that night from the casting director in New York, saying that she loved it and she wanted me to tape loads more, so she sent me a whole new batch of scenes, and before I could tape them we got a call again, later that night saying Ang wants you to fly to New York in three days to come and meet him.
Joe: Yeah, so they put me on a plane a few days later – I’d never been to America before, but I’d always, always wanted to go to New York, so this was huge – it was like a big crazy adventure. I was also floating on a weird high from this BBC thing so, I didn’t quite compute what was going on, but I went over to New York and met with Ang, and read with them for a couple of hours, but it was kind of beyond anything I could comprehend, I was due to go home the next day and I’d literally turned up with this tiny little rucksack in New York, no clothes, and they kept me on to meet various other people and the producers. I knew there were other boys – there were four who’d seen Ang a couple of weeks before – and I didn’t quite know what the deal was with them, but it got to the point where I knew that Ang wanted me and the studio, understandably, were like, “We don’t know who he is, he hasn’t finished drama school, he’s from London and he’s not American, he’s skinny, he’s not a soldier, he’s got long blond hair.” So they flew me to Atlanta to do this big screen test on set, because it was all filmed using this new technology [Billy Lynn was shot at an ultrahigh frame rate for the first time in film history], and they were going to test this technology anyway – they had all the crew – so they were like, “We might as well just chuck Joe in and see how he fairs.” Then they put me through costume tests and hair and make-up tests and were trying to figure out how I’d look with CGI, without any hair, and I didn’t know what was going on, and also during this week it was my birthday, so it was just the weirdest, craziest week. Then about ten days later, from flying out originally I got home, and the next night I got a call saying I’d got it.
Zoe: Possibly the wrong thing to take from that, but how long was your hair? [When we meet, Alywn is sporting a fairly tidy crop]
Joe: It was probably, err, it was longer [laughs].
Zoe: So this is your first feature film, and you speak with an American accent throughout. Was that hard to maintain?
Joe: It was tricky, just because after being cast it happened so incredibly quickly, shooting started about three or four weeks later and we had two weeks of boot camp in-between then and starting. But yeah, it was tough, and because it was a regional accent and Billy’s from Texas… but I had a great dialect coach who was there from the beginning, and I didn’t have much choice other than to just jump in and do it.
Zoe: And the experience as a whole?
Joe: It was amazing. Billy’s in every single scene, so it was relentless and intense, but it was also an exciting adventure.
Zoe: As you said it all happened super quick, did you get a chance to read the book at all?
Joe: Yeah I read it on the flight to the first audition, and I loved it, I found it was great having it there as a source material anyway. I know not everyone did, or not everyone chose to read it. But I thought it was great.
Zoe: And was it daunting at all, working with some of your co-stars on account of their celebrity?
Joe: Yeah, maybe because I’d been there, I mean, I met the bunch of boys who were there throughout the film together, the first time at boot camp. So because it was broken in in that kind of situation, there was never any kind of weirdness then with other people coming in, it was all really, really chilled and everyone was incredibly human – there was no, you know…
Zoe: Airs and graces.
Joe: No not at all, and I think, because I’d been there every day, I was so embedded in it all and in the film by that point.
Zoe: As you’d hope. Obviously the book – and the film – are at their core, quite political beasts, was that something you were conscious of going into the project?
Joe: Yes and no. It’s a political commentary and I think it takes place within a political framework, but at the heart of it is a coming-of-age story for this nineteen-year-old kid, it’s a very personal, intimate story about a boy finding his place in life and figuring out what he wants and where he belongs, as much as it is about bigger things. And it is about bigger things, but with all this in mind I didn’t really need to think about Joe’s point of view on all of that. It’s definitely there though and it’s an anti-war pro-soldier film. And it’s interesting because it’s about the perception of the war at home, the perception and the way the public and America deal with these people when they come back, and it contrasts the way that the nation and the way that the people see and try and use these boys and their story with the reality of what has actually happened, and the reality of what they’ve been through or done.
“…it was relentless and intense, but it was also an exciting adventure.”
Zoe: Was there much on-set discussion of the respective politics, given that the cast was predominantly American?
Joe: I think it was always there, it’s there in the film and it was discussed, but it wasn’t the only thing.
Zoe: And what was your take on the war in Iraq, were you a kid who bunked off school to protest?
Joe: I went to the protest but I don’t know if I ever bunked off school for it.
Zoe: I did, but our teachers were super cool with it.
Joe: Yeah, I wasn’t for the war.
Zoe: So finally, how daunting is it to think your image will be everywhere come Billy Lynn’s release?
Joe: I don’t really know what I feel. It’s exciting, and it’s strange because there will or might be some kind of change, but it’s all hypothetical until it happens. Yeah, we’ll see.